Almost a quarter of the Gross Domestic Product of places around the Caribbean Sea is earned from tourism. Preserving the beaches in the region is an economic imperative. With increasing coastal development, the natural flow of water and sand is disrupted, natural ecosystems are damaged, and many tropical beaches simply disappear into the sea.
With such high stakes, expensive coastal engineering efforts such as repeated replenishing of sand and the construction of concrete protective walls are common strategies. Rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms only increase the threat to tropical beaches.
Researchers from The Netherlands and Mexico recently published a study in the journal BioScience on the effectiveness of seagrass in holding onto sand and sediment along shorelines.
Seagrasses are so-named because most species have long green, grass-like leaves. They are often confused with seaweeds but are actually more closely related to flowering plants seen on land. Seagrasses have roots, stems and leaves, and produce flowers and seeds. Seagrasses can form dense underwater meadows and are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Seagrasses provide shelter and food to an incredibly diverse community of animals, from tiny invertebrates to large fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals and birds.
The researchers performed measurements of the ability of seagrass along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula coastline to keep sand in place and prevent erosion. They found that the amount of erosion was strongly linked to the amount of vegetation. Quite often, seagrass beds have been regarded as a nuisance, rather than a valuable asset for preserving valuable coastlines. The study opens opportunities for developing new tropical beach protection schemes in which ecology is integrated into engineering solutions.
Photo, posted October 13, 2010, courtesy of NOAA via Flickr.