News > Press releases > UNEP-WCMC: Underwater ...

Press releases

UNEP-WCMC: Underwater life support system dying through ignorance

Manatees, dugongs and green sea turtles are just some of the growing list of already threatened species at risk from the destruction of ocean seagrass a new report has revealed.

First ‘World Atlas of Seagrasses’ reveals vital role of marine meadows

LONDON/NAIROBI, 14 October 2003 – Manatees, dugongs and green sea turtles are just some of the growing list of already threatened species at risk from the destruction of ocean seagrass a new report has revealed.

The first-ever-global survey of the underwater meadows of seagrass that skirt the world’s coasts reveals that 15 per cent of this unique marine ecosystem has been lost in the last 10 years.

The findings give new urgency to protect and conserve these important habitats, which are threatened by runoff of nutrients and sediments from human activities on land, boating, land reclamation and other construction in the coastal zone, dredge-and-fill activities and destructive fisheries practices.

The World Atlas of Seagrasses, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) provides the first ever global estimate for seagrasses world-wide: 177,000 sq km, an area just two thirds the size of the UK. 

“We now have a global, scientific view of where seagrasses occur and what is happening to them,” said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director.  “Unfortunately, the scientists have presented us with a worrying story.  In many cases, these vitally important undersea meadows are being needlessly destroyed for short-term gain without a true understanding of their significance.”

“The World Summit on Sustainable Development adopted, in the area of biodiversity, a commitment to reverse the trend of losses by 2010,” said Toepfer. “To achieve this we need hard facts on which to base decisions. The World Atlas of Seagrasses meets that need for a vital marine ecosystem whose importance has largely been overlooked until now.”

Seagrasses are a mixed group of true flowering plants - not seaweed - that grow submerged in large meadows in both tropical and temperate seas.

They are a functional group of about 60 species of underwater marine flowering plants.  Thousands more associated marine plant and animal species utilise seagrass habitat.  They range from the strap-like blades of eelgrass in the Sea of Japan, at more than 4 metres long, to the tiny, 2-3 cm, rounded leaves of sea vine in the deep tropical waters of Brazil.

“Seagrasses are quite possibly the most widespread shallow marine ecosystems in the world. ” Yet,” says Ed Green, one of the co-editors of the Atlas, “there are few places where seagrass meadows are protected.

“The importance of seagrass has not previously been recognised,” he said.  “By pulling together the work of researchers worldwide we now know that vast numbers of fish use seagrass for a short but critical part of their lifecycle. We are also becoming aware of the role that seagrass plays in the climatic and oceanic carbon cycles and in coastal protection.  The true economic value is difficult to measure but this work suggests it is immense.”

According to the new UNEP-WCMC Atlas seagrass meadows should be considered one of the most important shallow marine ecosystems to humans, playing a vital role in fisheries, protecting coral reefs by binding sediments, cleaning coastal waters and providing coastal defence from erosion.

“Seagrass beds have been needlessly destroyed for short-term gain without real analysis of the values that the intact ecosystems bring to coastal society,” said Mark Collins, Director of UNEP-WCMC.  “Physically they protect coastlines from the erosive impact of waves and tides, chemically they play a key role in nutrient cycles for fisheries and biologically they provide habitat for fish, shellfish and priority ecotourism icons like the dugong, manatee and green turtle. And yet, despite these important attributes, they have been overlooked by conservationists and coastal development planners throughout their range. The Atlas provides important material towards a much-needed Global Marine Assessment, another key objective of the WSSD.”

‘The public can play an important role.  By insisting on protection for sea horses, turtles and dugongs they will also safeguard the ecosystem that supports them and has intrinsic benefits that are less obvious,’ concludes Collins.

Frederick T. Short, University of New Hampshire, USA and co-editor of the Atlas comments: “Seagrasses are a critical and threatened coastal habitat worldwide.  Their role in the ecology of the ocean and their importance to fisheries is increasingly recognised.  The World Atlas of Seagrasses makes available a global perspective on this imperiled ecosystem.”

“Like coral reefs, seagrasses are at a critical juncture, heavily impacted by human activities and climate change,” said Short.  “With the global view provided by the Atlas, our ability to preserve and restore seagrass ecosystems is enhanced.”

The new UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Seagrasses is literally putting seagrass beds on to the map for the first time. 58 authors were involved in writing the chapters and completely new data sets have been created, with records compiled from 520 sources and 120 countries.

Note to Editors

The new global figure for seagrass is likely to be an under-estimate as seagrasses off the western coasts of Africa and South America remain unsurveyed.

For more information about the Atlas, including maps and photographs go to or

To address seagrasses and coral reefs in local communities UNEP, through its Regional Seas Programme and with other global partners, participates in the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) with funding from the UN Foundation and the Goldman Fund. It is working with other donors to generate real action on the ground to reverse the decline of coral reefs and related habitats world-wide.  ICRAN's key goals are to transform these fragile ecosystems in various seas and oceans into show cases of good practice where conservation and boosting the incomes and livelihoods of local people go hand in hand. For more information go to:

The World Atlas of Seagrasses is available from:

Press pack, photographs and further detailed information are available from the UNEP website: or at:

For more information please contact:

Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson for Europe on Tel: 33 1 44377613, Mobile: 33 6 22725842, E-mail: Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 20 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail:  or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail:

At UNEP-WCMC in Cambridge:
Will Rogowski, Head of Marketing & Communications, Tel: +44 (0) 1223 277314, Email: or Rachel Holdsworth/Gayle Nicol, tel 01954 202789,

UNEP News Release 2003/54

Wednesday 15 Oct 2003
All (9)
2016 (9)