Protecting the hand that feeds us: marine biodiversity is important for human wellbeing

Newly published research reveals lack of understanding of the benefits which humans could gain from managing marine habitats better.

Seagrass spider crab

The protection of marine biodiversity is commonly seen as being at odds with the needs of people, particularly in an age of austerity. This then results in poor, failing or limited conservation management, as has been recently seen with the collapse of marine conservation zone planning in Wales, and the protection of only 31 of the planned 127 marine conservation zones in England.

In the English zones, particular high profile sites (such as Studland Bay) that contain threatened habitats like seagrass, have not been included in future conservation zonesas a result of an apparent lack of understanding of the benefits that humans obtain from these localities.

Seagrass plaice

Research involving scientists at the Seagrass Ecosystem Research Group (www.seagrass.org.uk) at Swansea University and the Sustainable Places Research Institute (http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/sustainableplaces/) at Cardiff University (and in collaboration with scientists in Sweden and Australia) reveals how managing marine biodiversity needs to recognise people as part of that marine system and not external to it. The study of seven case studies of seagrass meadows from around the World demonstrates that threatened marine habitats such as seagrass meadows need to be understood as a coupled social–ecological system for their successful management and future resilience to be promoted.

The case studies from around the globe demonstrate the intricate relationship between seagrass meadows and people and highlight the multi-functional role of seagrasses in promoting human wellbeing. While each case underscores unique issues, these examples simultaneously reveal social–ecological coupling that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. Researchers studied seagrass meadows in Wales, Australia, Indonesia, Fiji, Turks and Caicos, Mozambique and Zanzibar.

Seagrass indonesian boy

Seagrass meadows in the UK and globally are being degraded and lost at a rapid rate. The research published this week in the Marine Pollution Bulletin reveals how the decline of these resources and the consequential loss of biodiversity ultimately has an impact on people, including those for whom seagrass meadows are utilised for income generation and a source of food security through fisheries support. The research illustrates how biodiversity conservation potentially promotes human wellbeing and that this is critical when we consider the need to develop increased social and ecological resilience to local and to global environmental change.

Explaining the importance of the research, collaborator Dr Richard Unsworth said: “Seagrass meadows are globally in rapid decline at rates equal to or faster than coral reefs and rainforests and to halt this decline requires novel thinking about the management. This is the first study to make a link across global scales about the social value of seagrass meadows”.

  • The research paper ‘Seagrass meadows globally as a coupled-social-ecological system: Implications for human wellbeing’ can be found on the Marine Pollution Bulletin website at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13002919

  •  Seagrass meadows are the ‘Prairies of the Sea’. They are highly productive shallow water marine and coastal habitats comprised of marine plants. These threatened habitats provide important food and shelter for animals in the sea.  In the UK seagrass meadows are comprised of Zostera marina (eelgrass).

  •  For further information about the study email Dr Unsworth at: r.k.f.unsworth@swansea.ac.uk

  •  The research team comprises an interdisciplinary group of scientists from Swansea University, Cardiff University, James Cook University and Göteborg University and has received funding through the UK Darwin initiative (DEFRA and DFID) and the Waterloo Foundation.