Of lawns, cows & horses – a talk by Jillian Ooi

By Serina Rahman
Photo by Khatijah Abdullah

Khatijah Abdullah-We were surprised at the amazing turnout for the talk, including 23 students from Sek. Men. Seri Putri

Surprise turnout including 23 students from Seri Putri Secondary School

With a title like that, who would guess that we were actually about to embark on a journey through fields of watery green – exploring marine meadows of seagrass chock full of weird and wonderful critters, a world so vital to the entire marine ecosystem that losing it would be a worse fate than losing our coral reefs?

So, we were enlightened by Jillian Ooi, University Malaya lecturer and passionate seagrass scientist. To many of us, it was an alien flora – isn’t seagrass the same as seaweed? Apparently not. The former has fruit, roots and flowers – and are the favourite food of dugongs. What an honour for this humble plant of the sea. And yes, they are plants.

Seagrasses are the link between mangroves and coral reefs. Their importance to the marine world varies from being a nursery and breeding ground for juvenile marine fauna to ensuring shoreline stability and protection. Economically, all local fisheries depend on the seagrass; as without it, fish numbers rapidly decline and catch volumes fall dramatically.

Interestingly, seagrass also has mythical and cultural value. It was the fruit of a humble seagrass that so entranced a pregnant maiden that she did not realise that the tide was rising – until she was enveloped by the water and transformed into a dugong.

Seagrass meadows are also host to the ever popular seahorse and its cousins the pipefish. Its fields are thriving habitats that coastal communities depend on for snails (gonggong), sea cucumbers and other nutritious foods.

Yet, in spite of its importance and value, many of us don’t realise that Malaysia has vast seagrass beds (in both East & West Malaysia) that lie unprotected and constantly threatened by development. Not enough research has been done to even document and identify the expanse of seagrass that our country is blessed with. And sadly, before we can get round to doing that research, we may lose it all.

Globally, seagrass is declining at a rate of 2-5% every year. In Malaysia, our seagrass beds are in steep decline due to pollution, badly planned land development, changes in water hydrodynamics and trawling, just to name a few.

With a vastly underestimated area of just 3.15 square kilometres of seagrass in Peninsular Malaysia (this figure is highly conservative as too many places have yet to be adequately surveyed) – our seagrass meadows are worth at least RM20,951,910 a year (calculations are based solely on its value as raw material and for nutrient cycling). Given that so many more variables could be added in to the calculation (e.g. waste management, biological control, habitat, food production, climate regulation, genetic resources, recreation, etc.), the actual worth of our seagrass savannahs is set to blow the mind.

It was a revelation for many of us. We left in awe and with a touch of sorrow – we need to get to work NOW to protect these little-understood areas. Spread the word, join an MNS/SOS trip to the seagrass fields of Johor – help us with Seagrass Watch and tell others about it. It’s the only way we can come together to save these species – and with it, all marine life as we know it.