Conference on Seagrass Ecosystems in India

12 Jul, 2016

Seagrass occurs in most of the coastal waters around the globe. These highly productive ecosystems have many ecological and economic functions, such as stabilizers of the coast, sediment traps, carbon sink, indicators of water quality, provider of food, provider of livelihoods, medicine, shelter to many associated fauna, nursery for economically important and other charismatic marine species, etc. However, seagrass ecosystems remain little understood and their role little appreciated! The high rate of degradation of these ecosystems around the world including India (a country with seagrass rich areas dotting its long coastline) underline the absence of these ecosystems from policy space, a direct consequence of lack of awareness on, and thereby interest for, these ecosystems.

Participants at the conference "Management and Conservation of Seagrass Ecosystems in India"

The Conference on the “Management and Conservation of Seagrass Ecosystems in India,” jointly organised by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is therefore, a step towards – better (sharing of) knowledge of these ecosystems and valuation of their ecosystem services to come up with recommendations towards better management and conservation measures/ policies for these critical ecosystems.

The Conference the first to exclusively discuss this critical ecosystem in India brought together fifty one experts-48 national and 3 international.

Mr. Edgar Endrukaitis, Director, Indo-German Biodiversity Programme addressing the participants during his opening remarks

Inaugurating the Conference, Mr. Shri Ajay Narayan Jha, Secretary of MoEFCC, said that the moment has come where a systematic and well publicised inventory is needed of the services provided by seagrass beds along the Indian coast. This needs to be complemented by an analysis of their economic value, as well as cost and benefits of targeted conservation measures, he added. The Secretary also commended on the research program undertaken by GIZ and IUCN under the guidance of MoEFCC which highlighted the annual returns from seagrass ecosystems to small-scale fisheries in Palk Bay to the tune of ? 500 million.

Mr. Edgar Endrukaitis, Director, Indo-German Biodiversity Programme in his opening remarks said "seagrass, often termed as the ecosystem engineers are vital to local economies that are dependent on sea food. These, heroes under water have been neglected and face a threat, and with the expertise and inputs from our national and international scientists we hope that tangible and more concrete outcomes could be integrated into policy and decision making."

The inaugural session was followed by a Keynote Address by Dr Frederick T Short, Chair, IUCN Seagrass Specialist Group. Dr Short informed the participants on-the distribution of seagrass around the globe; its functions and values; its importance as a critical food source for coastal communities especially for those in the tropics; the seagrass biodiversity; assessment of the Worlds’ Seagrasses for Threat of Extinction. He also shared the efforts by SeagrassNet an organization which monitors seagrass cover globally. He expressed concern over the lack of data from the Indian Ocean Region. Dr Short highlighted the importance of awareness, outreach and training programmes for effective management and conservation of these ecosystems. He concluded, in response to a query from the audience, by stressing on the futility of replanting seagrasses as a rehabilitation measure without addressing the real factors of decline of these ecosystems such as sediment and/ nutrient loading, climate change, direct physical damage etc.

In pictures (from left) Dr Michael Vakily, Team Leader, CMPA project; Dr. Aaron Lobo, GIZ Technical Advisor, CMPA project

The Conference spread over two days was organized under three Themes.

Theme I- Seagrass Ecosystems in India: Current Knowledge, issues and concerns. This theme had 5 presentations which delved into the Status of Seagrass Ecosystems in India; showcased a Comprehensive Geospatial Assessment of Seagrass Status in India; discussed the Distribution and Diversity of Seagrass Habitats of India and the Need for Effective Sustainable Management; identified key threats to seagrass beds (which is majorly anthropogenic in nature) with a special case study on Minicoy, Lakshadweep Islands, India; and dealt with the Conservation of Seagrass Beds with Special Reference to Associated Species and their Status.

Theme II- Seagrass Ecosystem Services through four presentations gave an Overview of Seagrass Ecosystems and its Ecological Services in India; highlighted the importance of Seagrass Ecosystems in Climate Mitigation; touched upon Valuing Seagrass Services through a case study from Palk Bay, Tamil Nadu; and explained Assessment of Seagrass Ecosystem Health through Environmental Indicators.

Theme III- Management and Conservation of Seagrass Ecosystems had six presentations, including 2 presentations by international experts. The presentations delved into the Management of Seagrass Ecosystems through Effective Conservation, Monitoring and Policy Practices; showcased how a hydrological intervention in Chilika Lagoon influenced the seagrass ecosystems within the Lagoon positively impacting the Lagoon’s Ecosystem in Toto; a case study on seagrass rehabilitation from Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu was also shared during this session on Theme III. Dr Richard F K Unsworth from the Seagrass Ecosystem Research Group, Swansea University highlighted the link between seagrass ecosystems and global food security. This was explained with a case study from Indonesia. Dr Miguel Fortes, Marine Science Institute, the Philippines, delved on the importance of linking science to policy and practice in the conservation of seagrass ecosystems, especially in Southeast Asian Region.

A special session to conceptualise a National Status Report on Seagrass Ecosystems (NSRS) was held on Day I under Session 3 titled “Roadmap for a National Status Report on Seagrass Ecosystems and their associated species in India”. This session deliberated on the structure and possible contents for NSRS. An effort to reach a consensus on collaborating institutions/ authors, roles and responsibilities was also made during the session.

The Day 2 of the Conference saw the participants segregated into three working groups on the basis of the three Conference themes. Each working group came up with a set of recommendations which were then presented to Shri Rajani Ranjan Rashmi, Additional Secretary, MoEFCC.

Recommendations from the three Working Groups are as given below.

Group I: Standardize uniform density-level mapping protocol for seagrasses; Ensure periodicity of mapping similar to coral reefs and mangroves; Ensure implementation of Integrated solid and wastewater disposal programmes in key seagrass areas, also linking major national initiatives like “Swach Barath” to address the water clarity and nutrient enrichment problem; Bring seagrasses under Corporate Social Responsibility. Enforce compensation restoration / rehabilitation for environmental clearance; Initiate a major National Co-ordinated/ Networking Project on “Project Seagrasses - India” covering the associated major flora and fauna, etc.

Working groups during the discussion on recommendations

Group II: Initiate long-term research for prioritised ecosystem services of seagrass ecosystems; Establish cross-sectoral platform for management of seagrass ecosystems; Communicate and Link policy and science;

Group III: Prepare a National Action Plan for seagrass conservation and restoration; Conduct periodic spatial mapping of seagrasses; Identify areas with specific conservation challenges which will -- define location-specific, habitat level restoration goals, enhance thrust on mainstreaming community-based conservation measures, build capacity, outreach and communication, institutional arrangements for implementation, strategies for managing threats and seagrass associates (flora and fauna); Mandate long-term periodical monitoring of all seagrass meadows as per national framework; Devise evidence-based habitat restoration strategies involving community, etc.

The Additional Secretary congratulating the organisers for the Conference said that gathering of scientific knowledge on seagrass ecosystems is the first level of intervention. Relevant institutions should be equipped for accurate mapping for effective monitoring of these ecosystems. The government is clear that the livelihoods dependent on these ecosystems cannot be stopped and the main issue is how to control threats from outside, for example pollution. The Additional Secretary concluded by saying that the Ministry will study the Conference recommendations to devise future course of actions for better management and conservation of these important and vital coastal ecosystems.

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