SEAGRASS – THE FORGOTTEN ECOSYSTEM

To create the “turquoise water and white sand beach” image that is printed on every postcard and advertisement in the Caribbean, hotels and resorts continue to remove seagrass. In addition to extracting it from the water, hotels and businesses either bury washed up vegetation or place it in plastic bags bound for the dump. This is done to create a more aesthetically pleasing swimming environment with the belief that seagrasses harbor organisms harmful to swimmers. Seagrasses, however, are an economically and ecologically crucial marine habitat. The same seagrasses that are removed for being unsightly actually protect the white sand beaches and tropical waters that draw tourists to our island.

 People should know that waters lacking sediment and nutrients are better for coral reef health. Seagrasses reduce impacts of sewage and run-off on corals by absorbing much of the nutrients before they reach the reef zone. Seagrasses also reduce wave power, thereby consolidating sediments and minimising coastal erosion. A recent study in Mauritius found that beachside hotels that removed seagrass became the victims of their own innovation. In as little as a year, beaches had entirely disappeared due to coastal erosion. The fishing industry also benefits from the existence of seagrasses. They provide shelter for juvenile grouper, snapper, conch and lobster, and are an important food source for adult fish, helping to keep fishing sustainable.

 Coral reefs are designed to benefit from occasional natural disturbances such as hurricanes. But human degradation of Roatan’s reef and associated habitats (upon which tourism success depends) is reducing its ability to recover from such events. The potential result–ecological and economic collapse, perhaps as soon as the next major hurricane.

 While authorities fail to enforce environmental laws, developers need to take on more of a moral responsibility to ensure that their activities are not damaging the natural resources that bring people to the island.

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