How Seychelles ocean plants could help fight climate change

View of the Seychelles coast

When the tide is low, Errol Renaud can see seagrass beds on the ocean floor from his coastal home on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles.

He is one of many locals who have delayed a hotel development that would have reclaimed the area.

“There are a lot of seagrass beds here, and there are a lot of fishermen in this area who set their fish traps there, so they depend on this area,” says Renaud.

There are already two reclamations near his home that have disrupted seagrass beds that act as a barrier to rising sea levels and extreme conditions.

“This reclamation done before, during the monsoon, means a lot more sand is coming in on one side, and we see much higher waves.

“With climate change, we are losing a lot in this area,” he says, of the region he has lived in for more than two decades, and where he sees his land increasingly saturated by rising waters.

Coastal wetlands – such as seagrass beds, mangroves, marshes and swamps – have multiple environmental benefits. Beyond defending against rising waters and bad weather caused by climate change, and promoting biodiversity, they are seen as one of the most effective solutions for combating global warming.

A study published in the Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal indicates that seagrasses sequester carbon at a rate 35 times faster than rainforests. If left undisturbed, they can hold carbon for thousands of years, much longer than land plants. They thus play the role of natural carbon sinks.

They account for 10% of total ocean carbon burial, despite covering less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, according to a report by the scientific journal Nature Geoscience.

But the total amount of seagrass is decreasing, creating the risk that this sea plant will soon disappear, according to US researchers.

View of the Seychelles coast

The Seychelles are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change

At last month’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt, activists and international bodies called for greater willingness to protect and use these nature-based solutions to combat climate change.

As a nation of 115 low islands, Seychelles is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but around these islands there is enough sea grass to fill hundreds of thousands of football pitches.

The government has pledged to protect half of its seagrass beds and mangroves by 2023, and 100% by 2030.

This year, it became one of the first countries to accurately map all of its seagrass ecosystems nationwide.

Samples of its seagrass beds and mangroves are being analyzed to calculate the amount of carbon they store over time. This carbon contained in coastal wetlands and their sediments is called “blue carbon” – as opposed to the “green carbon” contained in terrestrial plants.

A drone view of a seagrass meadow

Seychelles hopes to expand its seagrass beds, to store more carbon

A project by the independent company SeyCCAT is behind the mapping and analysis. It provides the results to the government. It has also raised public awareness of seagrasses – providing education about them primarily to schoolchildren and university students.

Countries typically use satellite imagery to map seagrass beds, but this is unreliable and may confuse them with algae, such as seaweed and kelp, which differ in that they have no roots. anchored to the seabed. The SeyCCAT project undertook fieldwork using remote sensing technology and collected sediment samples to reliably map the grasslands.

In a laboratory at the University of Seychelles, researchers break down the approximately 2,600 samples to obtain the carbon.

“We would like to understand how much carbon has been stored in seagrass beds over the past few years, to inform the government that wants to determine the carbon content of these seagrass beds around the Seychelles,” says Jerome Harlay, Environment Manager . scientist on the project.

“We would like to use these numbers to mitigate climate change. How much carbon they can remove from the atmosphere, compared to what our human activity is adding.”

Jérôme Harlay taking an underwater photo of seagrass

Jerome Harlay has taken a hands-on approach to mapping seagrass

This analysis means Seychelles could be the first country to report its blue carbon stocks to the UN as part of its report on greenhouse gas emissions. And he will be able to show how these stocks are helping the country meet its contributions to the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

After mapping the ecosystems, the government can define its policy strategy, ongoing management, and legal protections. This is the next phase of the SeyCATT project, which he will work with the government to try to achieve.

Knowing what its true stocks of blue carbon are, Seychelles will be able to trade it with other countries wishing to offset their emissions.

Carbon trading can be one of the many economic benefits of seagrass protection, according to the principal secretary of the Seychelles Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment, Denis Matatiken.

“Seychelles is heavily dependent on fishing and tourism. They are considered the mainstays of our economy,” Mr Matatiken said.

“However, the foundation of those pillars is the environment. So by protecting the environment, it means those pillars can stand. And that’s how we can grow as a small island nation.”

Errol Renaud

Errol Renaud thinks the herbaria can bring in as much money as the proposed hotel

As countries continue to commit to how they will help mitigate global warming, Preethi Sushil Nair of the United Nations Development Program in Seychelles says this project in Seychelles can also serve as a guide for other parts of the world.

“In terms of scaling up, it’s possible because we know the solutions are found in nature.

But she says having “the tools in terms of data, analysis, maps” is needed for other countries to develop their own policies and help tackle climate change.

“And as long as that commitment is there, and there’s community engagement, then the success rate is huge.”

Returning to the coastal community, Mr. Renaud sees the protection of the seagrass beds and the use of blue carbon stocks as the only advantage: “If we look at the carbon potential of the seagrass beds in our region, with around 50 hectares, we could offset the money that the hotel project would have brought to the economy.”

While Seychelles still has some way to go to truly utilize its blue carbon stocks, it offers a solution to reducing global warming that others can follow.

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