On a treasure hunt for seagrasses

A guest blog by Angela Quiros

I am riding in a 12-foot wooden boat, or banca, watching its bamboo outriggers on either side cut smoothly through the warm Pacific waters off Negros island in the Philippines. I can barely hear the lap of water against the colorfully painted side-board of our banca because the inboard tractor engine is ratatating while it propels us forward. Occasionally, I use the bottom half of a 2-liter coke bottle to scoop out water.

We are not tourists on this voyage; our banca is loaded with snorkelling gear, transect tapes, quadrats, slates, mesh bags and floats, all tools of a marine biologist’s trade. We are searching for seagrasses. I relay our request to our captain, and he is surprised. He asks why we didn’t want to snorkel in the coral reefs, instead. I said the seagrasses are also beautiful.

Seagrass provide important ecosystem services to coastal communities. In the Philippines, seagrasses are an important habitat for small-scale fisheries. This video highlights the beauty and importance of this disappearing resource. Credits for seagrass video: Corianna Hume-Flannery, Chelsea Nelson, T.E. Angela L. Quiros

In the tropics, seagrasses are the ugly stepsister to coral reefs. As a child, I observed resort owners pulling up seagrass in front of their properties, thinking it made the waters muddy. On the contrary, seagrasses have extensive below-ground networks of rhizomes and roots which anchor sediment, add oxygen to the water and sediment, and actually improve water clarity. Seagrasses also protect the coast from storms, dampen the strength of waves, and provide a home for many juvenile fish and invertebrates that entertain ocean-going tourists! These fish and invertebrates are an important source of food and income for low-income coastal communities. Our captain is a fisherman, and he regularly takes his banca to the seagrass beds to set gillnets for rabbitfish, parrotfish and emperor fish that hide and feed among the seagrasses. Despite their importance, seagrasses are threatened by coastal development and overexploitation, and seagrass area is on the decline worldwide.

Our mission was to explore the Philippine islands: traveling by banca, bus, plane, automobile, golf cart, and cargo vessel to find seagrass beds to survey. Why?

The question came about when I was on a similar boat, though not as small as my field chariot. We were ratatating among islands (again) - and our captain pointed us to a marine protected area or MPA, an area of the ocean set aside for conservation. I asked why they were putting an MPA right next to an island that was being overrun with development. MPAs have no fences. They cannot control what goes on outside their boundaries; that was the crux of my question. MPAs may protect seagrasses from fishing pressures, but cannot do anything about sediment, nutrients, and water pollution that easily flow into and out of MPAs.

What if we were to find MPAs next to terrestrial protected areas, where human uses such as development, agriculture and deforestation can be managed? Will those MPAs be “healthier”? My team set out on a treasure hunt for seagrass beds inside and outside MPAs, next to islands with and without terrestrial protection all over the 7,100 islands of the Philippines.

Back on that banca, our captain finds us our treasure. We motor onto the beach and gather our gear. I tell him we will take around three hours to survey snorkel around this underwater meadow and survey for seagrass, fish and invertebrates. Our captain looks at us and shrugs - Fine by me, why you want to touch your nose to those plants for that long is your business.

Author Angela Quiros is a PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCSC

Acknowledgements for Field help: Nancio Gaston, Harriette Laroco, Leah May Llontes, Louie Vargas, Vicky Zayco (2010 field crew). Woody Aguirre, Mia Caniza, Angelica Chan, Nancio Gaston, Nissa Kriedler, Jappy Lim, Leah May Llontes, Rae Matsumoto, Ronald Zayco (2011 field crew). Jordan Hardy, Leslie Hart, Cori Hume-Flannery, Ian Jacobson, Rae Matsumoto, Lauren Smith, Nico Reichert, Gina Reyes, Dena Spatz (2012 field crew).
Local sponsors: Alaminos Mayor’s Office, Sagay Mayor’s Office, Philippine Reef & Rainforest Foundation, Inc., Lopez Sugar Corporation, Cecile Yulo Locsin, Alphaland Corporation, CAPOceans, Cordova Mayorʼs Office, Hikari South Sea Pearls, Project Seahorse, University of the Philippines Bolinao Marine Lab. Land support: Pilar Quiros, Miguel A. Y Quiros, Berning Valdez, Gerry Ledesma, Miren & Tomas Zayco. Academic support: Don Croll, Bernie Tershie, Pete Raimondi, Mike Beck, Miguel Fortes. Funding: WWF Kathryn-Fuller Foundation, PADI Foundation, UCSC Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, UCSC Graduate Division, Friends of Long Marine Lab, Re-entry Student’s Scholarship through the UCSC Women’s Club, CenTREAD, Myer’s Trust Foundation, Marilyn C. & Raymond E. Davis Scholarship.