January 12, 2022

Seagrasses are around 72 species of underwater flowering plants that are found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite covering only 0.2% of the ocean floor, seagrasses support up to 25% of the world’s top fisheries and store more than 10% of the ocean’s carbon. As a result, many nations are now actively managing seagrasses to boost fisheries, enhance biodiversity, and meet their carbon obligations to climate mitigation policy.

The UN Environmental Programme has called seagrasses the “forgotten ecosystem.” Most of the 163 countries where seagrasses grow have little or no data on their existence or whereabouts. To properly conserve this important ecosystem, we need a baseline understanding of seagrasses and the communities they support, both wild and human.

Smithsonian MarineGEO is leading the way in coordinating global seagrass research. MarineGEO researchers have helped document how management to improve water quality led to recovery of seagrasses, documented one of the most successful seagrass restorations on the planet, estimated the value of seagrass ecosystems as nurseries for fish and shellfish, and convened the globally-distributed Zostera Experimental Network (ZEN) to conduct experiments showing how diverse marine animals sustain healthy seagrass meadows.

In 2019, we launched a global seagrass survey, which has so far engaged partners in 48 sites in 18 countries in surveying seagrass beds and the animal communities that they support. We aim to find out: how do seagrass food webs vary around the world? How does energy move through the food chain, and how do this flux depend on environment and animal communities? Analyses are under way.  

MarineGEO also recently assumed leadership of SeagrassNet, the longest-running and largest monitoring program for seagrasses worldwide Started by Prof. Emeritus Fred Short  at the University of New Hampshire in 2000, the SeagrassNet community has collected over 100,000 observations of seagrasses in over 30 countries. This valuable database provides a time machine to establish baselines and understand how these systems are shifting under anthropogenic impacts and global change.

Since 2020, Smithsonian MarineGEO has partnered with the UN Environment Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Center and the World Seagrass Association to lead an initiative ‘Coordinated Global Research Assessment of Seagrass Systems’ (C-GRASS). This international collaborative seeks to foster a global community of practice, establish shared practices for seagrass monitoring, and synthesize the status of trends of seagrasses globally.

MarineGEO network partners are tracking change in seagrass abundance and condition around the world, and sharing data through MarineGEO’s centralized database. Our protocols are freely available on Figshare and we are always looking for interested collaborators. Please reach out if you would like to participate!