P | P | P – feat. Project Seagrass

We caught up with Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, CEO of Project Seagrass as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Project Seagrass is an environmental charity working to save the worlds seagrass. Not only does Project Seagrass collaborate with communities to share knowledge on the importance of seagrass, but they also work to restore and protect seagrass meadows, benefitting both people and planet.  

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Leanne, nice to meet you! Please can you introduce yourself, what Project Seagrass do, the stage you are at currently, and what makes your business offering unique?

Leanne: I am one of four directors at Project Seagrass. I am also a Senior Research Fellow at Swansea University working on a specific project that is linked to the seagrass restoration work that we do. This work allows me to put my science-research hat back on, as the bulk of my time was working as Director of Project Seagrass. As of October (2022), my role transitioned, and I took over the role of CEO. Our other directors have moved into more specific roles such as Chief Development Officer, Chief Science Officer, and Chief Conservation Officer; this is to reflect our new strategy, which is currently being developed, but will focus on addressing global seagrass conservation challenges.

Project Seagrass is a marine conservation NGO. We are a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO), and our focus is on seagrass meadows across the globe. The reason that we came together and created an organisation is that, although there has been massively increased awareness regarding marine conservation issues and marine habitat decline globally, seagrass had been missed off of that until very recently. Where we came from, and I think what makes us a bit different, is that we came from the realisation of myself and Richard (Unsworth, Founding Director) when we were doing our PhDs many years ago. Rich was working on seagrass systems, and habitat connectivity in the tropics, in Indonesia. He was looking the importance of connected habitats for biodiversity support. I was looking at people’s dependence on marine resources more broadly, including identifying which habitats and resources people were using. I went into it assuming that people were dependant on the obvious resources, such as coral reefs and mangroves for building materials and fisheries. It turned out and became majorly apparent that people were highly dependant on seagrass meadows for livelihoods (income) and subsistence (food). Seagrass was used as a habitat of preference to secure a high value, commercial, catch, but it was also a massive back-up habitat for people who couldn’t access any other resource. Seagrass meadows not only provided a very rich fishery (finfish and invertebrate), but it also provided this accessible resource for anyone. It is an absolutely critical habitat.

I work on seagrass now in many different parts of the world, and it is always the same case. I have worked to expand the seagrass database, and wherever you have seagrass beds in the tropics, you have people who are highly dependant upon them. It can also be the case in the developed world and across temperate regions. Seagrass is an amazing resource that up until recently, was ignored and was not considered in marine planning or protection measures. So I guess that was the ‘seed’ then Richard had some students (Richard Lilley and Benjamin Jones) who also became fascinated by seagrass systems, and it was Ben who mentioned that we needed an organisation to spread the word on seagrass outside of academia, bringing seagrass to the forefront of peoples minds. This is where Project Seagrass was born as an organisation in 2013, and we became a charity in 2016.

In terms of seagrass, do you mind discussing the global distribution of seagrass further, in addition to the tropical seagrasses with turtles and manatees that everyone thinks of.

Leanne: Sure! Seagrass is a really incredible habitat because it has near global reach and is super widespread. It grows on every continent bar Antarctica, though its’ global distribution is patchy. You have different seagrass species; there are around 72 species of seagrass across the globe. In the UK, there are 2 species, commonly known as Eelgrass (Zostera marina), and Dwarf Eel Grass (Zostera noltei). The ecosystem services that the seagrass provides across its’ range are similar, including critical habitat for marine species, so it is an important foraging ground and nursery for many animals. It both indirectly and directly supports biodiversity beyond the keystone species and is also a really important carbon sink wherever it grows. The amount of carbon sequestered differs massively between regions, but seagrass could be a really important tool in the fight against climate change. Species supported range from turtles, manatees, dugongs, seahorses, herring, cod, and plaice. 20% of the world’s largest landed fisheries rely on seagrass meadows as a nursery ground, so it’s significant for those things too. It also produces oxygen, and cycles nitrogen so helps keep waters clean and it knits together the coastal area with its’ root system, laying down sediment and supporting coastal protection. It really is an incredible, all round habitat!

Wow, I had no idea we had so much to thank seagrass for! Do you find when you speak to stakeholders, they listen much, or do they always want to maximise the resource I.e. – continue to overfish within the region?

Leanne: It is a difficult one, because the context changes dependant on where you are working. For example, in the tropics of Indonesia, there is a problem with overfishing and that is linked to seagrass health as we need the fish to graze algae and keep the seagrass healthy. However, if you have too many grazers it also has a negative impact on the seagrass health.

It is a difficult one, because obviously, people need that resource and I think there are large arguments at play. What we can do is alter the way that people fish and that is in all contexts. You are able to fish and maintain a healthy meadow in a sustainable way. This includes potting and mooring in a more considerate way both here and overseas. Seagrasses grow in calm, sheltered bays which naturally provide a safe haven and a place for people to moor; these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and you can set up an advanced mooring system or even just more considerate mooring methods in a meadow without impacting it or within minimal impact.

There are smaller things to do too. Advanced mooring systems are large and expensive, and we are currently doing numerous trials to demonstrate the effectiveness of different mooring types. For example, even swapping a swinging chain mooring in favour of a rope mooring can significantly reduce the impact on a seagrass meadow. You can see from Google Earth that swinging chain moorings, where the tide drops, the chain drops to the seabed and damages it, scouring a circle around the mooring point. The advanced mooring systems and alternative anchor mechanisms are fantastic as the seagrass can grow right up to the mooring.

Changing the mooring from a chain to a rope is such a subtle change and isn’t going to cause a conflict. It is good that there are smaller steps to protect seagrass meadows, rather than a blanket ban on fishing, for example. Speaking of people, could you share some challenges you have faced, you may currently be facing, or you are anticipating around scaling and growing your team?

Leanne: The main challenge for us is that we have grown really rapidly as a charity, and we have gone from small-scale projects to large projects. We have had to grow our team really quickly which has been quite challenging. Whilst we have been growing, there is a huge workload on the team we have already got.

It has been a rapid learning curve for us because we (the Directors) are four marine scientists and Project Seagrass came out of our passion for the environment and until recently, we were also covering everything related to admin and finance for a small team that was growing. We’ve had to learn and adapt fast to make the most of the opportunities currently available to us. It seems the world is starting to acknowledge the importance of our seagrass meadows.

In an ideal world, what it has taught us is that we really need those people who know what they’re doing in different areas. We (the Directors) know the science and the conservation and working with stakeholders, but we need other people who can help us pull together. I think one of the great things about our team is that everyone’s got an interest, a genuine passion for what we do, and we all support each other, which is amazing. We are able to do this as we aren’t a huge organisation, but everyone can get involved in some of the fieldwork that we do and appreciate why we are doing what we do. I think this is really important for our wider team so that everyone knows how important their job is to facilitate what we are doing on the ground.

Yes, definitely. You could have someone slogging through emails and getting really frustrated but if they have the opportunity to participate in the conservation activities, it must be really grounding and also great for maintaining that passion and drive.

Leanne: Yeah, and it is healthy for everyone to step away from their desks. Especially given the past couple of years with COVID and all of us being separate, I think we are all only realising now how good it is to be together in the field again.

Yes, I definitely enjoy being in the office with my colleagues rather than being at home, particularly for the collaboration and motivational aspects. In terms of small scale to large scale projects, do you mind discussing some of the projects you are working on, who you are working with, and any related opportunities or barriers you have met along the way?

Leanne: Sure. We have a lot of projects going on at the moment. In the UK we have some major restoration projects. We are working in partnership with WWF-UK, Swansea University, Wildlife Trusts and Special Areas of Conservation, amongst many others on these projects, which has been great for us as they are great for us to learn from, and I think that has been highly helpful for us and our development. WWF-UK have a great team to work alongside with and learn from as we grow.

We do all the on-ground stuff as we are the seagrass expertise on these projects. We have restoration projects in and around The Solent, Isle of Wight specifically, looking at improving methods of restoration. With our first restoration project (partnership between Project Seagrass, Swansea University, WWF UK), we were working on the UK’s first demonstration meadow to look at meadow scale restoration (beyond trials). Seagrass has been planted over a 2Ha area in Dale, west Wales. A lot of lessons have come out of this and how we are doing things. At this smaller scale, we need to scale up massively. What we are doing on the small-scale projects is like allotment gardening, and what we really need is agricultural scale farming. This is difficult as it takes a lot of time and is expensive. There are numerous lessons that we have learnt from Dale, and now going forward in The Solent, we can look at planting methods, seed processing and improvements to this.

We have another new restoration project in north Wales, where we are aiming to plant seagrass over 10 hectares. This project has involved extensive habitat suitability modelling, with lots of data generated maps and potential areas, with ground truthing too so that we can identify the most suitable areas ecologically speaking. We are now working far more closely with local stakeholders, as we really don’t want to restore in an area where people don’t want it. There are huge areas in the UK that could be chosen, so we can choose areas where there won’t be clashes. So far, the project in North Wales has seen major support. People are positive and are asking ‘can we do it here?’ which is fantastic. The idea for us, and has always been, is that seagrass is a habitat that people use, rather than planting a meadow and then telling people to keep out. We’re creating sustainable use systems.

We have another habitat suitability project in Essex and through the same funding partner, we are developing a functioning seagrass nursery. We have a developing nursery site in west Wales, with the tanks and nursery being set up and seed germination experiments ongoing. We’ve also seen our first nursery seedlings sprout in recent months which has been very exciting for the whole team. At the moment, we collect all of our seeds from wild seagrass meadows, which is fine because the meadows we use have been assessed over time and have got the capacity to have seeds taken and still be healthy and productive, but it would be great if we could also grow seeds and shoots in the nursery setting to help expand the work.

We have another large restoration project in the Firth of Forth which is seagrass restoration alongside native oyster restoration, another big partnership project.

Do seagrasses and shellfish have quite a symbiotic relationship?

Leanne: We think, as with any habitat, that connectivity helps. However, the seagrass and shellfish aren’t grown together, they just grow close. If we can get numerous habitats growing productively in close proximity, you are allowing for biodiversity and supporting the different life stages of numerous species.

We’ve also been working and supporting a group called Seawilding, who are based in Loch Craignish and are the UK’s first community-led native oyster and seagrass restoration project. This has been us providing technical support to a community initiative planting seagrass.

We are also looking at different ways to map and monitor seagrass, as one of the major difficulties is that it is really poorly mapped globally. It is difficult to map, and there are natural as well as anthropogenically induced changes. It is so widespread but can also be sparse and patchy, so it can be really difficult to pinpoint where it is and exactly where it has been lost. We work off of best estimates. We are working with a company called CGI who are helping with that aerial technology to help us differentiate between seagrass and algae using a satellite image. We also work with Ocean Infinity who are helping to map seagrass using sonar technology. We have started using drones ourselves to map wider areas too combined with the ground truthing.

We have an international project at the moment, and it is probably our most significant one. It is a project where we are working with scientific organisations on the ground across six countries in the Indo-Pacific. Each of the national partners has asked for expertise from us and we are supporting them with surveys so that they can build their evidence to present it to policy markers, this is evidence of how important seagrass is and what it can do for communities. This project is led by UNEP.

One of our biggest flagship initiatives is SeagrassSpotter (https://seagrassspotter.org/), which is an app/website we have developed. It is helping to fill gaps globally where we don’t know where seagrass is. It is an app that you can take a picture where you see seagrass, and this is georeferenced and this goes into the database to help us create a global map and record the seagrass species. We have just hit 102 countries with data submitted to SeagrassSpotter!

Citizen science is a very useful tool! Investment can often be a limitation or a challenge for projects and charities; do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around seeking investment?

Leanne: Our funding comes from an increasing suite of very different organisations, and I think that is probably a good strategy to have. It is interesting because as we have grown and developed our social media presence, we are now in a position where people are coming to us with potential funding, it’s so wonderful that increasingly people know who we are. Having a variety of funding sources, is the more secure way to be.

There is still often that dissociation from the fact that we need to pay our staff and we need to be able to function as an organisation to be able to deliver the restoration work. It is much easier to get funding for projects that don’t necessarily include overheads, than it is to get funding for an organisation that includes this stuff. People want to fund seeds planted but not necessarily the enormous amount of background work that goes in to that for the best chances of success.

Networking is key and we spend a lot of time speaking about seagrass to numerous organisations. I think our passion comes across and this helps us. We are also a grassroots organisation, and we now need to decide on a growth model so we can stay who we are but can deliver bigger projects, which is what we need if seagrass is to continue and increase provision of all the benefits to humanity that it is capable of.  

A super positive thing that happened to us recently was that Coldplay have agreed to be our patron which is really exciting! This is a new relationship and now we just need to work out how best we can work with them, because they have huge reach, and they want to help us get the message out to many different audiences. We still need help to spread the word on the importance of this still too often overlooked habitat.

Thank you for your time, Leanne!

Written by