A new app puts seagrass mapping in the hands of ocean lovers

Seagrass is an underwater flowering plant that provides habitats for marine species and absorbs great amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, a process vital to slowing global warming. 

Seagrass grows in salty, shallow waters in many parts of the world, but mapping has been spotty, which has presented challenges for thorough research and data collecting efforts. But now, there’s an app for that

Project Seagrass, an environmental charity, has launched an online platform that crowdsources imagery and location information in a centralized database. Users can upload photos of seagrass beds onto the app, called Seagrass Spotter, and tag locations from anywhere in the world. This information will help countries that have a lot of seagrass, but not a lot of data, to improve efforts to protect the rapidly receding underwater plants. 

Seagrasses are losing about 7% of their known area each year, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature making them one of the most rapidly declining ecosystems on Earth. Human activities like coastal development, coral farming and sand mining are responsible for the loss, which poses threats to the thousands of species that make their home in seagrasses, including many types of fish, sharks, turtles, marine mammals, and marine invertebrates such as octopus, squid, cuttlefish, sponges, shrimp, and crabs.

Some seagrass meadows also store significant amounts of “blue carbon,” the carbon dioxide absorbed and stored by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. Recent reports suggest that coastal seagrasses can store more carbon than forests.

As technology continues to improve lives, we believe it can do the same for the environment. Seagrasses have historically been overlooked in marine conservation efforts, with scientific and environmental communities focusing more heavily on coral reefs. But SeagrassSpotter is poised to change to that. 

“If people don’t know where seagrass is and why it’s of value, then they won’t take action to preserve it,” Richard Unsworth, a marine biologist at Swansea University in the U.K. and co-founder of Project Seagrass.

Project Seagrass intends for its new online crowdsourcing database to help give scientists across the world the best information available to preserve seagrass meadows. But the group also hopes to get anyone who cares about the ocean involved — from divers, to fishermen, to kayakers and surfers. Accessible via the website, or from the app, available for Android and iOS, the platform allows users to take a picture of any seagrass beds they encounter, and upload them to the platform with a geolocation.

“The more people that get involved,” Unsworth said, “the more likely we are to develop a better understanding of the world’s seagrass.”