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Can you picture sitting on a beach in Bermuda? Your feet are in the sand, a cool drink in hand, and a breeze seems to dance past your ears. On the wall of the beachside bar, a crooked calendar hangs jauntily from a rusted tack and declares the year to be 1997…
It sure doesn’t feel relevant right now on vacation. No one even felt bothered to change the page from last month. “Ah…” you figure, it’s “island time.” You can sit back and breathe deep and ‘watch the world go by.’
The skies are blue, the weather warm, and the water crystal clear. Smiling people, visitors, and locals alike splash carefree in the waves. Green carpets lie in swaths. It’s funny; why don’t people walk on them? They look like lawns back home, just underwater. That sounds extra nice! Yet, people seem to find themselves staying in their lanes and enjoying the seagrass meadows with their eyes rather than their feet.
You step into the bath water near the edge of one lawn, intrigued. The first day had still felt like a bit of the big city’s rush had lingered on you even as you struggled to settle into the different rhythm of not “needing” to be somewhere else.
From here, you can see the individual blades: like broad strips of grass. You notice that under the sparkle of low light hitting the water, each one glimmers emerald, semi-transparent, as it dances in the gentle waves that lap your ankles. It’s funny… you think, “I don’t ever have time to notice this kinda stuff except on vacation.” Moments like this and the chance to meet some cool or cute (ideally both) people abroad are what keep you saving up and traveling whenever you can.
Each leathery emerald strip seems to sway in unison. Each with its own twist. It really does remind you of some of the dancers you saw the other night. Some have been nibbled; others seemed more fully intact; some have things growing on them, some clean.
What is growing on them? Who makes those bite marks? Some look shredded, and some are just clean-clipped like by a lawn mower. You don’t know what. Maybe you’ll ask that nerdy-looking guy with the glasses and the half-tucked riotously loud shirt. He seemed to either be in his own world, taking some notes at the bar later, or babbling away at anyone who seemed vaguely into it about reefs and mangroves and seagrass and stuff you didn’t really know what he meant.
As your mind drifts to wondering what that dude’s deal is: “Is he on vacation? Is he working? He put away quite a few, but he also seemed to be writing furiously when he wasn’t yammering”… something slithers across your heel…you snap back to attention.
The slimy texture of a single blade grazing across the skin does not remind you of the grass back home. It sends a chill down the spine and an urge to step back almost reflexively. It’s weird. A bit unsettling. A bit funny too. Almost like an unspoken voice whispered, “Look but don’t touch,” in a richly accented voice like the bartender had. Must have been the Rum swizzle talking, though. Right? How many did I have?
Well, whatever it was, you spot something amongst the frond, and you’re glad you stepped back, not forward. The nerd (I dunno he seemed fun if a bit disheveled) had said something about how these ocean lawns were more like forests.
Maybe you misheard him and drifted away when he loudly proclaimed something like, ‘It’s really a miraculous plant! It learned to survive on land! Make flowers! Get flying things to help its party. Then it went back to the sea!”…I dunno; that doesn’t make much sense. Plants can’t learn. Meh, probably evolution talk.
Honestly, you’re on vacation; an earful is too much… Although it’s funny, something about what he said made you think of the people splashing nearby, leaving the sea, learning to flower, partying, then coming back to the sea.
A group sway in the dance shows a little more of the black spines emerging from the grass. You could have stepped on that. Maybe it is like a forest? That alien-looking thing was hidden almost like a canopy was over it.
Now that you see, it reminds you of those long spiny urchins you were warned to look out for. They said there used to be tons of them. Now there aren’t as many, but you should still keep an eye out. Something about a disease and how there’s less coral now, too. Didn’t make a lot of sense. How are those ideas related? Anyway, weird; it’s almost like it’s hiding in there. Look, it even has a few grasses stuck to it!
You lean forward and on the top of its…body? At the base is a weird sphere with different color spots. What is that, an eye? What’s there to see if so? Why is it hiding? Those spines look mean, and if they break off when they are in you, so they say. Probably exaggerated, right?
Your thoughts drift to your neighbor talking about the right to bear arms and how we all ought a protect ourselves. I mean, it made some sense, but you found you could usually talk, bluff, bluster, or just backpedal out of danger in your experience. Couldn’t picture him pulling off many of those strategies successfully, though.
Oh well… Different folks, different strokes…Your mind drifts back to a small school of fish darting in and out of the blades. Look like babies… Minnows really. Well, you heard somewhere that minnows aren’t really in the ocean. But you heard fishermen say “minnows” plenty. Who knows the sea better than fishermen?
Woah! There’s a big snail down there that almost has the colors of the Bermuda flag. You kinda want to pick it up. But then, something about that shape and those colors, you think better not. You think of an orange traffic cone telling you not to carry on. Funny, I wonder if that’s toxic? Kinda seems like it might be. Don’t know why. It’s also pretty fun looking. Hmm, maybe a good idea not to walk in the grass. You know, I think I’m going to go ask that science guy back in the bar a few questions…
Alas, we describe here a blast from the past that lingers now in memories and photos. Seagrass meadows in Bermuda and globally appear to be in rapid decline. Want to come and explore with us what might be driving the disappearance, why seagrass seems so important, and how our friends at the Bermuda Seagrass Project are working with seagrass and the ecosystem to see if it can come back to its former glimmering glory?
Seagrass is a group of flowering plants that form dense underwater meadows in nearshore waters in tropical and temperate climates. In fact, seagrass is the only type of flowering plants that can grow completely submerged in seawater.
Despite its name, seagrass isn’t actually related to grass but rather to terrestrial lilies and gingers.
Just like plants that grow on land, seagrass produces its own food through photosynthesis. During this process, seagrass releases oxygen into the water and is, as a result, often referred to as the “lungs of the sea.”
However, unlike terrestrial plants, seagrasses do not have strong stems to hold themselves up. Instead, they float supported by the buoyancy of the water.
Seagrass beds are one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth and provide countless benefits to the environment (including humans), for example:
Back in 1997, there were over 2,600 acres of offshore seagrass meadows in Bermuda. However, today, Bermuda’s seagrass habitats are considered critically endangered.
Seagrass meadows are dwindling to the point where they might disappear, threatening local collapse and degradation of other marine habitats. As of 2016, scientists believed the waters surrounding Bermuda did not have a full acre of seagrass habitat. Over a period of twenty years, the extensive seagrass populations were either gone or in dramatic decline.
WildVoice interviewed Hannah Horsfield, a resident of Bermuda and the Education Programme Coordinator at Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI).
Hannah cares deeply about the restoration of the breathtaking seagrass and beaches she calls home. Therefore, he honed her passions into a career raising awareness about seagrass decline and teaching people about the ocean. Currently, BUEI visitors can explore the Seagrass Restoration Project exhibit, which was curated by Hannah herself.
“I put a whole project together on seagrass restoration because it hurts me deeply,” Hannah shares. “There are accounts of seagrass beds being all through our harbours. Every single shallow area of water was full of seagrass beds.”
In Bermuda, four types of seagrass comprise the meadows: turtle grass, shoal grass, paddle grass, and manatee grass. What used to be an extensive and diverse seagrass carpet was reduced to small dispersed patches.
Seagrass decline has been reported around the globe. At least 70% of affected seagrass meadows suffered from human activity. Seagrasses are particularly vulnerable to human activity and are considered environmental sentinels– species that can warn us of ecosystem health and the damage of our actions..
A combination of coastal development, land creation, pollutants, fertilizers, elevated seawater temperature, anoxic sediments, and disease drives the decrease in most locations worldwide.
In Bermuda, shoreline development and improper boating practices have contributed to the decline of inshore seagrass meadows. However, there is no single obvious reason why seagrass beds have decreased so dramatically.
In fact, Hannah shared with us, “Nobody could figure it out. We don’t have any massive influx of pollution anywhere. We don’t have rivers or estuaries that would be depositing large amounts of sediment.”
Over recent years, seagrass researchers developed a theory about why the seagrass beds have dwindled. Following her personal observations, Hannah has come to agree with the theory.
In response to the decrease in green turtle populations, successful conservation efforts began to protect sea turtle nesting beaches. While Bermuda does not have its own turtle nesting beaches, the rehabilitation of nesting beaches in the Caribbean and Floridian waters leads to more turtles in the sea.
As a result of the successful conservation efforts, increased numbers of juvenile green turtles come from nesting beaches to the Bermuda Platform– what scientists call the elevated area around the Bermuda island group that rises from the deep sea.
Researchers noticed that signs of physical damage from feeding in Bermuda seagrasses were higher than those observed in other locations and took a closer look. They now believe that uncontrolled green turtle grazing may have a negative impact on the local seagrass habitat. Considering that the number of green turtles is still well below historical values, it became clear that something else had changed.
Green turtles, like goats or sheep on the land, act as aquatic lawnmowers. In typical circumstances, turtles will attempt to stay in one area. They make the most of the feeding grounds, eating until the food supply runs out.
Not at all. As seagrass predators, turtles improve the health of the seagrass meadow by removing biomass, preventing its accumulation and consequent anoxia, and perhaps even stimulating more rapid regrowth as many other grazers do.
A study from 2014 discusses that while the increase in marine turtle populations can negatively impact seagrass meadows to the point of ecosystem collapse, that effect is greatly reduced when healthy shark populations are present.
Sharks are the natural predator of green turtles. While sharks in Bermuda don’t feed heavily on green turtles, they will chase them and keep them moving. As no one spot is occupied for too long, the grazing pressure is dispersed throughout the meadow, and the plants continue to grow.
A similar situation unfolded when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Parks, and suddenly the deer and elk couldn’t eat all the creekside plants without fear of being eaten themselves.
However, like we did the wolves, we overfish the sharks in the North Atlantic and most other places on the planet’s ocean. Thus, the decline in Bermuda’s shark populations left the turtles unsupervised. Without an incentive to move, there were not only more juvenile green turtles as well as adults, but they also munched on the seagrass at their leisure.
With the major focus on the green turtle populations over the past decade, many enthusiasts overlooked the interdependence of species and hence, the need to provide shelter for the different elements of the ecosystem.
As a result, although green turtle populations are still well below their historical numbers, their successful conservation effort, coupled with the decline of their natural predator, has disturbed the balance of the Bermuda platform. In the end, any seagrass habitat needs turtles as much as sharks. The impact of an ecosystem imbalance is more than the impact of a single species and puts our once-abundant natural resources at risk.
“To be clear, I don’t hate turtles. Turtles are great!” Hannah explained. “But now we need to move that same level of global attention to other species, like sharks. We have focused so much on one part of the ecosystem that we’ve created a major imbalance.”
Overgrazing by more turtles seems to be only one of the factors affecting the seagrass beds of the Bermuda platform. In addition, climate change plays a major role in the local collapse of seagrasses in countless locations around the world, and Bermuda is no exception.
Hurricanes are not new to the island, but their frequency and intensity seem to be increasing with climate change. The hurricanes rip up seagrass roots and rhizomes. Not only does this undo a portion of the carbon sink, but the recovery process is much harder than from green turtle grazing. It threatens the very blue carbon that has been locked away, which might reduce the fury of those hurricanes.
Without the seagrasses, the ancient sand (that originated over a very long period of coral growth cycles, locking carbon as limestone and chewed up by the likes of parrotfish, clams, sponges, etc.) is being moved and washed off into the ocean.
Boat propellers, shoreline development, ocean dumping, land creation, and dredging also take their toll on Bermuda’s seagrass beds. Careless practices of mooring and anchoring in places that damage the seagrass put biological diversity at further risk.
Boat propellers cause physical damage to seagrass, whereas the installation of docks destroys inshore seagrass meadows. Carefully placed mooring lines in channels free of seagrass and sensitive boating is done at tidal heights that don’t put seagrass in peril can help harmonize our desires to use the sea with our desire for healthy seagrass beds.
In addition to that, turtle grass, specifically, only grows close to the shore, to only about 30 feet of depth. As sea levels keep rising, the turtle grass in the deeper parts will stop growing and will need to move closer to the shore. Unfortunately, turtle grass leaves grow more slowly than other types of seagrasses, taking much longer to recover.
The combined pressure of these threats reduces the resilience of the seagrasses. This makes them more vulnerable to natural environmental fluctuations and the bites taken out of their population from a variety of smaller threats.
Seagrass needs time to grow and take root underneath the sand. Early growth is not as resilient as older meadows, and with external forces causing premature stresses, it makes it very hard for seagrass to root and hold on.
Now that researchers have a better idea of why the seagrass meadows have disappeared, they have been able to put an action plan in place to protect the marine environment and work on restoring seagrass.
The Bermuda Seagrass Project is an initiative by the Bermuda Government and Climate Wise. It aims to restore seagrass and Bermuda’s marine ecosystem with an eye to blue carbon storage.
As part of the Bermuda Seagrass Project, the Bermuda Government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has developed galvanized metal restoration cages to help the recovery of seagrass areas.
Volunteers place these restoration cages on top of existing seagrass patches that show signs of heavy grazing. This protects Bermuda seagrass from further consumption by hungry green turtles, giving the blades time to recover. As a result, seagrasses can grow, flower, and produce seeds. These restoration cages create safe spaces where the seagrasses can produce seeds, restoring seagrass areas near and far as the currents carry the seeds farther afield.
On a recent snorkeling trip, Hannah was filled with hope when she saw the results of the seagrass restoration efforts. “I was swimming over these old beds and saw this epic healthy seagrass underneath the cage. I saw so much diversity in life, in little sponges, and so many things I haven’t seen in so long. It was really encouraging to see that this project works.”
The cage Hannah had visited, in particular, had been set up near the inland harbor. Most impressive was that after three years, the cage showed no signs of major impact. With the success of this seagrass restoration project, volunteers have been able to recover a span of 2,000 square meters over the past two years.
Diving is one of the best things to do in Bermuda! You can discover hidden underwater gems in this world-famous wreck-dive capital.
If you plan to travel to Bermuda and would like to help with Bermuda’s Seagrass Restoration Project, we recommend the following options:
If your travel plans don’t pass by Bermuda just yet, no worries! There are still many ways you can help to protect seagrasses worldwide:
Big or small, every contribution counts. Together, we can restore the seagrass meadows and protect the biodiversity that depends on them.
WildVoice would like to give a HUGE thank you to BUEI, with a special thanks to Hannah for sharing her rich knowledge of her beloved island and the Bermuda Seagrass Restoration Project. We discussed so many other facets of the marine environment, the rich history of the Bermuda platform, blue carbon, and the many hope and challenges facing their environment and natural resources. If you plan on visiting Bermuda, we highly recommend you visit BUEI.
You don’t have to go to Bermuda to help our planet. If you live in or visit Hawaii, Florida, or California, there’s plenty you can do, from seagrass restoration to beach and reef cleanup and much more. Check out our events to see how you can help.