Sun, School, and Seagrass

Posted: March 4, 2013

There is little doubt that The School for Field Studies students flock to South Caicos to see the jewels in its environmental crown. The island which I as an SFS faculty member am privileged to call “home” is also the residence of some of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean. And, whilst I’m not hiding these treasures from our current students, I’m seeing first hand their new-found lust for an environmental treasure less glitzy, but perhaps even more valuable.

Last week, following a lecture on the economic valuation of ecosystems, the class and I headed straight out to our local seagrass bed in order to calculate how much it may be worth to the Turks and Caicos national economy. Whilst knee deep in fairly murky water (seagrass is often found on silt) I apologized to two of the students. “Sorry it’s only seagrass,” I said. Fortunately, they quickly corrected my entirely erroneous sentence. “It’s better than being in the classroom,” one responded, whilst the other pointed that they were excited to see a seagrass bed for the first time in their lives. I had made the mistake of treating our students like too many other people I have met in the field of conservation, those that think tropical coastal management starts and stops with coral reefs.

Seagrass beds are the nurseries where reef fish start their life, and the food source sea turtles turn to when degraded reefs cannot provide. The students are now writing an assessed report where they have to calculate the value in US$ per hectare of the bed they measured, and some have told me that in addition to calculating the values of the seagrass dependent fish and turtles to the respective national fishing and tourism industries, they are also calculating the value to the global economy of the ecosystem’s ability to reduce CO2 levels.

The fact that such ecosystems can support local economies as well as combat the problem that is climate change shows they are just as glitzy as any coral reef. It’s clear from their enthusiasm in class, in the field, and during the assignment that this semester’s SFS students recognize this fact. Seagrass beds are not buried treasure to them and I’m sure if they maintain this level of enthusiasm, they will be the ones acting to conserve the ecosystem’s value for current and future generations.