Nep­tune grass is un­der se­vere threat from sea traf­fic and cli­mate change.

Nep­tune grass im­proves wa­ter qual­ity and pro­vides a cru­cial home for wildlife across much of the Mediter­ranean, but is un­der threat from sea traf­fic and cli­mate change. In Mal­lorca, a gov­ern­ment-led ini­tia­tive has been launched to pro­tect the en­dan­gered s

Gulf Times Community - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Schirmer Sas­tre

Pere Pala­cio guides his dinghy care­fully along­side the mo­tor yacht in Es Calo bay in the north east of Mal­lorca and peers at a dis­play unit that al­lows him to fol­low the path of the an­chor. “Is there a prob­lem?” the boat owner asks him.

“No, ev­ery­thing’s good,” Pala­cio says, com­plet­ing his ex­am­i­na­tion.

On be­half of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment in the Balearic Is­lands, Pala­cio checks that boats aren’t an­chor­ing in Nep­tune grass, also known as posi­do­nia ocean­ica, which is vi­tal to the health of the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Nep­tune grass is a sort of un­der­wa­ter for­est, Pala­cio ex­plains. “It fil­ters the wa­ter and makes sure it’s clear. It also pro­vides a pro­tec­tive home for many crea­tures.” That in­cludes sev­eral species of fish.

The in­spec­tor points to the shore, where clumps of the sea­grass have formed small hillocks. At high tide, these weaken the force of the waves and make sure the beach re­mains in­tact, he says.

While many tourists get an­noyed be­cause they think it’s a kind of al­gae, “the Nep­tune grass ac­tu­ally en­sures that the beach still ex­ists.”

Posi­do­nia ocean­ica only grows in the Mediter­ranean and is one of the most com­mon sea­grasses in the re­gion – it grows from Croa­tia to Cyprus, from Egypt to Tu­nisia, from Sar­dinia to Spain.

On the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species, Nep­tune grass is only on the low­est rung of “last con­cern” – but the list still notes that it’s de­creas­ing.

“In the past 50 years, stocks have gone down by 34 per cent,” says Maria del Mar Otero, a marine bi­ol­o­gist who works for the IUCN’s Mediter­ranean pro­gramme.

The dan­gers to sea­grass de­pend very much on the re­gion, says Otero. An­chors, sewage and fish­ing, as well as the con­struc­tion of har­bour fa­cil­i­ties, all threaten the plants.

The in­tro­duc­tion of for­eign species of al­gae in the Mediter­ranean has also been a prob­lem.

“You can’t say as a gen­eral rule that the sea­grass in one re­gion is more threat­ened than in an­other,” says Otero. More is known about the north­ern Mediter­ranean, but there are also now projects in the south­ern parts of the sea.

Cli­mate change is also in­creas­ingly af­fect­ing sea­grass mead­ows.

“The Mediter­ranean is warm­ing very fast,” says Otero. The con­se­quences are still un­pre­dictable, but they’re likely to af­fect the growth of plants and their preva­lence.

In or­der to pro­tect their growth, the Balearic re­gion is­sued a de­cree this year, plac­ing 650 square kilo­me­tres of sea­grass mead­ows un­der in­creased pro­tec­tion.

“Of course there were mea­sures in place be­fore­hand, but none that were so specif­i­cally tar­geted at the sit­u­a­tion in the Balearic Is­lands,” says Miguel Mir, gen­eral di­rec­tor

of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion at the lo­cal En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry.

Tack­ling il­le­gal an­chor­ing was al­ready a pri­or­ity be­fore the de­cree was is­sued, as the heavy an­chors rip up sea­grass in huge clumps when they de­part.

Five boats like that of Pala­cio pa­trol the seas ev­ery day in Mal­lorca. They car­ried out more than 17,000 checks on boats and yachts be­tween May and the end of Au­gust and boats were told to move on around 2,800 oc­ca­sions.

On Mal­lorca, au­thor­i­ties are not just try­ing to stop the de­struc­tion of Nep­tune grass. Sci­en­tists are also try­ing to plant it.

“In 2015 we be­gan with a pi­lot project in the bay of Santa Ponca,” says Jorge Ter­ra­dos, who works for the Imedea en­vi­ron­men­tal in­sti­tute and is re­spon­si­ble for plant­ing the grass.

“Around 50 per cent of the plants sur­vived, and we were very happy with that.”

The project was paid for by elec­tric­ity grid op­er­a­tor Red Elec­trica, which had laid ca­bles through the sea grass and wanted to make amends for some of the dam­age.

When the re­sults proved hope­ful, Red Elec­trica and Imedea agreed to a big­ger project in the bay of Pol­lenca in the north of the is­land.

A sea­grass meadow cov­er­ing an area of 50 by 50 me­tres has been planted since the be­gin­ning of the year. Divers look for plants that have been ripped up by the sea, but are still in­tact.

“We re­plant these in groups five me­tres apart,” says Ter­ra­dos.

Pa­tience is nec­es­sary. “Posi­do­nia ocean­ica breaks very eas­ily and only grows back slowly – around one to three cen­time­tres per year,” he says.

He hopes that one day the area will be com­pletely cov­ered by sea grass. “But that could take decades – even cen­turies.”

PRO­TEC­TION: Nep­tune grass, also known as posi­do­nia ocean­ica, func­tions as a sort of un­der­wa­ter for­est, pro­vid­ing a pro­tec­tive home for many crea­tures.

FRAG­ILE: Nep­tune grass can eas­ily be ripped up by the an­chors of boats.

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