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Right-strangled triangle: saving Indonesian seagrass

Right-strangled triangle: saving Indonesian seagrass
08 Jun
The world’s most biodiverse seagrass region – Indonesia’s Coral Triangle – faces ruin from rampant human activities

The seagrass meadows found in the Indonesian part of the Coral Triangle – stretching across 17,500 islands from Sumatra to New Guinea, Borneo to Timor – are believed to be the most biodiverse in the entire oceans. They provide vital food and shelter for marine wildlife, and are an important store of carbon, which, if released, would further accelerate the process of climate change.

But new research has revealed that up to 90 per cent of seagrass meadows in Indonesia have been severely degraded over the past five years. ‘The ecological value of seagrass meadows is irrefutable, yet the loss of these systems in Indonesia is accelerating,’ says Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, a research fellow at Cardiff University and director of the marine environmental charity, Project Seagrass. ‘Seagrass meadows in Indonesia are mostly ignored in the conservation arena. As a result, they’re often not monitored, poorly researched and largely unmanaged, leading to a “tragedy of the seagrass commons”.’

Thanks to human activities such as coastal developments, land reclamation, seaweed cultivation, overfishing, garbage dumping, and sediment run-off, these meadows find themselves endangered right across the archipelago. ‘Our research is for the first time recording how an area of the world so critically important for its biodiversity is rapidly losing a key marine resource,’ outlines Dr Richard Unsworth, a marine ecologist at Swansea University. ‘This loss of seagrass is a terrible problem as the habitats in Indonesia have a major significance for daily food supply and general livelihoods. Without seagrass as a fishery habitat many people in Indonesia would not be able to feed their families on a daily basis.’ Unsworth believes that these trends are likely having similar effects in regional neighbours such as the Philippines, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

With the acceleration of these detrimental activities, the loss of vast areas of valuable seagrasses is certainly a potential outcome, along with the uniquely high biodiversity that these meadows contain, with only the few species capable of withstanding the dramatic loss of their habitats able to survive. Unsworth points out that examples such as Tampa Bay, Florida, show that improving water quality can help meadows recover, but emphasises that this process can take decades.

A more optimistic example comes from Wakatobi, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where Unsworth and Cullen-Unsworth have supported a local NGO’s project to preserve river banks, thereby reducing runoff into threatened seagrass meadows. ‘So far this has been a huge success, and the project has spread to other areas,’ says Unsworth.

This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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