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Seagrass: A Resilient and Sustainable Option in Coastal Defense

New research suggests that seagrass beds are so effective in protecting tropical beaches from erosion that they can reduce the need for regular, expensive beach nourishment.

In a recent study in the journal BioScience, biologists and engineers from The Netherlands and Mexico travelled to the coastline of the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan to understand the role of seagrass beds in coastal defense.

The authors looked at beaches of the Caribbean Sea, where almost a quarter of the Gross Domestic Product is earned in tourism, mainly around the beaches. “With the increase of coastal development, the natural flow of water and sand is disrupted, natural ecosystems are damaged, and many tropical beaches have already disappeared into the sea,” says co-author Rodolfo Silva, professor of Coastal Engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of Mexico. “Until now, expensive coastal engineering efforts, such as repeated beach nourishment and concrete walls to protect the coast, have been made to combat erosion. Rising sea-level and increasing storms will only increase the loss of these important beaches.”

“A foreshore with both healthy seagrass beds as well as calcifying algae, is a resilient and sustainable option in coastal defense,” says lead author Rebecca James, PhD-candidate at the University of Groningen and the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), The Netherlands. “Because of erosion, the economic value of Caribbean beaches literally drains into the sea.”

To find out to what extent seagrass beds are able to hold sand and sediment on the beach foreshores, James and professor Tjeerd Bouma (NIOZ and Utrecht University), conducted a simple but telling experiment. With a portable and adjustable field flume to regulate water motion in a Caribbean bay, they observed when particles on the seabed started moving. “We showed that seagrass beds were extremely effective at holding sediment in place,” says James. “Especially in combination with calcifying algae that ‘create their own sand’, a foreshore with healthy seagrass appeared a sustainable way of combating erosion.”

“By looking at beaches with and without the protection of healthy seagrass beds, we showed that the amount of erosion was strongly linked to the amount of vegetation: more seagrass meant less erosion,” explains co-author Dr. Brigitta van Tussenbroek of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico. “At beaches where seagrass beds were destroyed, the researchers saw a sudden strong increase in erosion, resulting in an immediate need of expensive beach nourishment.”

Both NGO’s and engineering industry welcome these novel insights. “To date, seagrass beds are too often regarded as a nuisance, rather than a valuable asset for preserving touristically valuable coastlines. This study could change this perspective completely,” said Bas Roels of World Wildlife Fund Netherlands.

“The study opens opportunities for developing new tropical-beach protection schemes, in which ecology is integrated in engineering solutions,” adds Mark van Koningsveld, a professor at the Delft University of Technology and working for the international marine contractor Van Oord.
According to co-author Johan Stapel of the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute (CSNI) on St. Eustatius, this will require a multilateral approach in conservation and restoration, as seagrass faces increasing pressure from various sources of pollution and invasive species. “Fortunately, NIOZ has a strong tradition in successfully restoring all kinds of coastal vegetation from seagrass to mangroves,” Bouma concludes.

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