WSC: Plenary Speakers

Seagrasses in the Anthropocene: Predicting cumulative human impact and its effect on functional connectivity in tropical seascapes

By Dr Alana Grech

The arrival of the Anthropocene has brought with it rapid increases in the distribution and intensity of human activities in the tropics, including urban, industrial and agricultural development and commercial and subsistence fishing. The coastal waters of the tropics are also faced with a changing global climate, resulting in warming sea temperatures and increased intensity of tropical storms. How will tropical seagrasses respond to the cumulative impact of both human and natural pressures in the Anthropocene? What is their capacity to withstand the impact of multiple pressures and recover from disturbance events? Our new research focuses on one of the complex processes that contributes to tropical seagrass resilience – connectivity. Connectivity is a major driver of replenishment, recruitment and recovery of seagrass habitats after disturbance events. However, connectivity is poorly understood because of the challenges associated with tracking propagules over broad spatial scales in dynamic three-dimensional fluid environments. We combine seagrass ecology, biophysical models and network analysis to explore three fundamental questions: what is the role of ocean waves and currents in the dispersal of seagrass propagules; what is the spatial and temporal scale of functional connectivity of seagrass habitats; and what is the effect of disturbance events on seagrass connectivity? We found that seagrass habitats in the central Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are highly connected, facilitating their replenishment and recovery after disturbance events. In the neighbouring seascape of Torres Strait, dispersal is more diffuse, highlighting the need for site-specific information on hydrodynamic processes. Our research demonstrates that informing the conservation of seagrasses in the Anthropocene necessitates the development of both transdisciplinary teams of scientists and decision makers and actionable scientific results.

Dr Grech is Assistant Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Australia. Her research uses spatial analysis to assess the impact of human activities on coastal and marine ecosystems, and conservation planning to inform and facilitate natural resource management. Alana works in collaboration with ecologists, oceanographers and managers to apply her research to seagrass ecosystems in remote areas of northern Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait, and Gulf of Carpentaria. The transfer of research to management action and policy is her highest priority, and she actively generates partnerships to deliver research outputs directly to government and non-government agencies and Indigenous communities. Alana was previously a Senior Lecturer in spatial information science at Macquarie University, and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

How the interactome is opening new windows into seagrass physiology

By Professor Peter Ralph

Seagrass physiology has taken a dramatic shift in the last couple of years with the advent of omics tools to provide novel insights into the ecological function of these specialist plants. As the cost of generating a genome has dropped, we are now able to examine non-model organisms using the full suite of omics-based analysis to understand cellular processes.

For this talk, the interactome describes the intersection of the molecular/cellular processes within the plant and with its external environment. Analysis of interactome processes allows divergent measures of cell activity and function to explain processes that we have previously just speculated about. This allows the measurement of both traditional physiological endpoints that probe cell processes along with any number of the newer omics measurements (genome, transcriptome, metabolome, proteome). Even deeper insight can be gained by having parallel measurements that corroborate or anchor assumptions about the interpretation of a proxy measure, such as chlorophyll fluorescence or gene regulation. Furthermore, the interactome will shed light on phenotypic plasticity within populations of plants and help us to understand why PCR-based monitoring can show elevated variability.

Finally, a database containing dozens of seagrass transcriptome data sets will be highlighted, this is just waiting to be mined. Whilst comparisons with related plant genomes could provide new insights into taxonomic differences amongst the seagrasses.

Professor Ralph is a Professor of Marine Biology at University of Technology Sydney, and the Executive Director of the Climate Change Cluster (C3) in the Faculty of Science. Within C3, he leads two research programs: Algae Biosystems and Biotechnology, and Seagrass Health. His prolific research output has significantly advanced our understanding of photosynthetic processes in seagrass, coral, plankton, and algae growing at their environmental extremes. In addition, he has developed new sensors, diagnostics and systems to further understand the research physiological capability of marine macrophytes. He has developed a team of world-class molecular physiologists/ engineers to advance industrial applications of algal biotechnology. His extensive collaborations with the education, research and industry sectors enables the translation of science into viable commercial and conservation projects. Professor Ralph is also founder of the Deep Green Biotech Hub, and a member of the IOC-UNESCO Blue Carbon International Scientific Working Group and former leader of the CSIRO Marine and Coastal Carbon Biogeochemistry Cluster.

Overcoming seagrass blindness in a coral-centric world 

By Dr Jillian Ooi

Seagrass science is challenged partly by the perception that seagrass is “just grass”, leaving it in the shadow of coral reefs and mangroves in terms of funding opportunities and public affection. One way of overcoming such blindness toward seagrass is by engaging in research that capitalizes on the very things that the public values. In our case, these were the coral reefs and dugongs (Dugong dugon) that appeared more compelling than the extensive but structurally simple seagrass meadows in southeast Peninsular Malaysia. Our team juxtaposed the roles of forereef seagrass and fringing coral reef ecosystems as habitats for fish communities in the area. Fish diversity and density, proportion of juvenile to adult fish, and the number of commercially important species in both ecosystems were characterized. Commercially important species were found in both ecosystems but with different abundance patterns for food fish and aquaria fish, as well as proportions of juveniles to adults. We also used the dugong as a seagrass flagship species by studying its use of these meadows as feeding grounds. Dugong feeding trails were mapped out to see if the herds were feeding preferentially in some parts of the meadow over others, and what factors may be driving those feeding patterns. Feeding hotspot areas were identified using spatial analytical methods, which are helpful in providing a visual impression of the tight link between seagrass and these megafauna. Overcoming seagrass blindness is challenging but still possible, if we use ecosystem service-focused studies to reframe seagrass advocacy, which will be discussed.

Dr Ooi is a teaching and research academic at the Department of Geography, University of Malaya, Malaysia. She studies seagrass distribution patterns to understand how different species respond to their environment, and has a special interest in the subtidal, forereef meadows of the Johor east coast islands. Jillian has been working to improve the profile of seagrasses amongst Malaysian policy-makers by highlighting seagrass ecosystem functions. Together with members of her lab, Team Sea Habitats, she has been exploring evidence for the use of these meadows as habitats by fish and invertebrates, and as feeding grounds by dugongs. A major part of her work involves supporting community groups, NGOs, and industry partners to set up outreach and monitoring programs that produce valid data for science, while elevating seagrass appreciation. When she is not watching grass grow, Jillian plays the gamelan and has won national arts awards for composition, music direction, and performance. She considers the ocean her primary source of musical inspiration.

Inclusive management: A road trip to consider gender for better seagrass use and conservation

By Dr Maricela de la Torre Castro

The links between gender and environment have been highlighted by the development community since at least three decades, but scientific studies about the gendered aspects of coastal and marine environments are still scarce. There is a huge knowledge gap about gender, management and governance for marine social-ecological systems, seagrass ecosystems included. In this plenary presentation, the links between gender and seagrasses in tropical seascape systems will be exposed. The plenary will provide a short historical overview of governance of seagrasses leading to the inclusion of gender, and continue by exposing the gender aspects. Using case studies done during almost two decades of work, the presentation explains the aspects of gender in social-ecological coastal systems using normative, theoretical and empirical arguments. The examples given are discussed in the context of development, management and coastal governance illustrating that gender consideration, participation and mainstreaming are all key aspects to move forward and to contribute to the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda.

Considering gender in seagrass management and governance is not straightforward as a variety of approaches to gender studies exist. In the plenary, the particular method developed to conduct social-ecological gender analysis in coastal settings will be explained. Particularly the multidisciplinary approach merging gender theory, seascape mapping, identification of ecosystems good and services and finally the integration of the novel information into management and governance. The key results regarding gendered differentiation of seagrass use, perception of seagrass’ ecosystem goods and services, and importance for income and food security will be presented.

As decimation of seagrasses continues and global negative changes in coastal/marine systems are apparent; there is an urgent need to react properly to be able to promote positive changes. The talk will stress the inclusion of gender as a way to contribute to those positive changes; i.e. considering essential actors will without doubt improve seagrass governance and management.

Dr de la Torre Castro is an Associate Professor at Stockholm University (Dept. of Physical Geography); she has a background in Marine Sciences and since her masters works with Natural Resource Management. Her research trajectory started at the Department of Systems Ecology from which Stockholm Resilience center has its roots. Maricela’s research focuses on seagrasses as social-ecological systems and she has worked extensively in East Africa (mainly in Zanzibar, Tanzania). Her main interest resides in human-nature interactions and how the world can transform towards a more sustainable and just society. This is investigated through in-depth case studies of humans and seagrasses, in which ecological goods and services, patterns of resource use, management and governance regimes as well as the ecosystem base are considered. Her projects include seagrass small-scale fisheries and poverty, high-valued marine products such as sea cucumbers, social aspects of climate change and the important topic of gender in coastal settings; all to better understand institutional, management and governance processes. Maricela’s work is done together with social scientists. She is a member of various scientific boards and she is the editor of the book “People, Nature and Research in Chwaka Bay, Zanzibar, Tanzania”. Her teaching tasks include participation and/or leadership in the courses Ecosystems goods and services management, Landscape ecology, Political Ecology, Climate and Society and Geography and Natural Resources. There is little free time for music, all spare time goes to Maricela’s twins.