On the long boat ride to the Turtle Islands, you can see the seagrass meadows waving beneath the rolling waves. While not as lush as in other parts of the world, the recent discovery of seagrass in Sierra Leone has left many excited for the West African nation to be included in the World Atlas of Seagrasses.
So far 159 countries have confirmed the presence of seagrass in their surrounding coastal waters, according to a 2020 global seagrass report published by the UN Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal. West Africa has historically been one of the least studied areas for seagrasses, though some in the region are now determined to change that.
Seagrasses are an important part of marine ecosystems. They provide food and shelter for many marine animals and help in the fight against climate change. However, despite their importance, seagrass meadows are under threat from pollution, fishing, and other activities.
The role of the community towards the management and protection of seagrass is crucial. “Communities are vital in the conservation of seagrass ecosystems, and it is very important for them to know its value”, said Melissa Ndure, Senior Environment Officer at the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). “Bad fishing practices, like the persistent use of [harmful] fishing methods and bottom trawling damages the coral reef and the growing seagrasses. These communities must be encouraged to practice sustainable fishing within the seagrass meadows.”
Seagrass conservation is ultimately to the benefit of local people, as Ndure explains. “[Seagrass] will help the community fight coastal erosion, protect the coastline, [and] serve as breeding ground for fish which can promote local fish catch. It also helps promote biodiversity, maintain water quality, helps fight climate change and [provides] food for sea animals like turtles and manatees”.
Protecting seagrass in Sierra Leone
The first confirmed discovery of seagrass in the country was in the waters of the Turtle Islands, an eight-island archipelago in the Bonthe District of Southern Sierra Leone, which is mostly inhabited by fishing communities. The Turtle Islands got their name from the presence of sea turtles in the region’s waters. The islands are part of the wider Sherbro River Estuary, which is rich in marine biodiversity and was declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) by the government of Sierra Leone in 1999. It is one of four designated MPA’s in the country.
Since 2019 the government of Sierra Leone, with funds from the ResilienSea project which works to protect seagrass habitats, have been implementing seagrass conservation work in the Sherbro River Estuary. The Turtle Islands were chosen as a pilot location for the project work, as it was predicted that seagrass might be found there. As the islands fall within an MPA, they are monitored by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources as well as the Sierra Leone Armed Forces Naval Wing.
To ensure the protection of this important habitat, there must be stringent rules in place to prohibit illegal fishing methods in the region. The 2019 Fisheries and Aquaculture Regulations prohibit industrial fishing vessels from operating in MPA’s, and violators are penalized with a fine of US$1,000,000.
Local authorities are also committed to help. The Town Chief of Bumpetoke, a small town in the Turtle Islands where seagrass was first discovered, has pledged to establish additional local bylaws to aid seagrass conservation. “We are ready for the protection of the seagrass, and we will report any illegal fishing activities to the authorities,” said Chief Pa Mohamed Sie. The local government has also appointed a few youth community members to be part of the EPA team that will identify and map where the seagrass is located.
Education and outreach
The ResilienSea project and EPA have provided training to staff from government ministries, departments and agencies as well as civil society organizations working in the marine sector, to strengthen the capacity of relevant stakeholders on seagrass taxonomy, mapping, inventory and assessment. The ResilienSea project is also implemented in six other countries in West Africa including Cabo Verde, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal.
Last year officials from the EPA, Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and the Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography visited Bumpetoke as part of a seagrass research program. Their work involved engaging community representatives to teach them the value and importance of these meadows in their waters.
Abubakarr Sesay, an experienced local fisherman, was one of the individuals who benefitted from this community engagement work. For the past 30 years he has operated two fishing boats in the waters of the Turtle Islands. Sesay has been fishing in his community for a long time, but despite his considerable years of experience he never knew that the young waving grasses beneath his boats play an important role toward his usual catch. “I’m happy because I now understand the distinction between seagrass and seaweed”, said Sesay.
When visiting the Turtle Islands in May 2021, I met a team from the EPA which had already spent several days conducting comprehensive mapping of the seagrass, engaging with communities, and raising awareness on the importance of this marine flowering plant. Before heading out for seagrass mapping later in the day, the team worked on outreach with local authorities, boat owners, women and youth groups on what they need to know about seagrass, its importance and the role communities must play towards its protection and management.
“Communicating the benefits and services provided by seagrass habitats, both to local communities as well as decision-makers at a national and transnational level, plays a key role towards mainstreaming issues of seagrass, data collection and creating national and regional expertise within the pilot countries”, said Ndure.
An important discovery
Lynette E. John, an expert on marine issues, works for the Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography (IMBO) at the University of Sierra Leone, and was part of the team from the EPA that travelled to the Turtle Islands for the first comprehensive mapping process in 2020. This is the first time that John is seeing seagrass in the country. “This is an impressive discovery and it’s the first time we are seeing seagrass in our waters”, she said.
There are 72 species of seagrass globally, but the EPA team discovered only one species known as Halodule wrightii. This species is unevenly distributed in patches within the project area, but generally in good order. “The species is in healthy condition with low presence of epiphytes (organisms that grow on plants) on the seagrass in most areas and also the low presence of algae,” said John.
The Senior Geological Information Systems Officer at the EPA, Bashiru Bangura, said the seagrass meadows found in the Bumpetoke community are a set of “healthy species that could be found within a distance of 0.3km close to the shoreline”. He said if the seagrass is protected by the local community and all those concerned, “within a short period of time, there is a likelihood that this seagrass will continue to grow and extend within the Sherbro River Estuary”.
When this happens, the community would see increased economic benefits as the seagrass provides habitat to commercially important fish species. There would also be a food source for the marine ecosystem. “The turtles and manatees feed on the seagrass, and now that we have discovered it here, we must ensure we protect it for the benefit of all,” says John.
During the engagement work, Bangura urged local people to report suspicious activities that work against the survival of the seagrass in Bumpetoke, as the protection of the seagrass largely depends on them. Now that local people have expressed their commitment and willingness to protect this new-found treasure in this piloted area, the government of Sierra Leone and its partners ResilienSea must ensure they that they continue to work closely with these communities to save this flowering plant from further destruction.
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A team from Sierra Leone's Environment Protection Agency and Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography undertaking comprehensive mapping of the seagrass in Bumpetoke / Credit: Kindama.