Nelson seagrass restoration project helping fight climate change

A seagrass restoration project in Nelson is helping fight climate change by developing a blueprint for how to save the special plant.

Seagrass meadows absorb a huge amount of carbon dioxide but are declining at an alarming rate around the world.

Fossicking around in Nelson's estuaries, Anna Berthelsen from the Cawthron Institute is searching for seagrass flowers.

"They're very cryptic so if you don't know what you're looking for they're very difficult to see," she said.

It's part of a three-year project to reverse the rapid decline of our seagrass meadows.

Anna Berthelson and Emma Jackson search for seagrass flowers in Nelson's Waimea Estuary.
Anna Berthelson and Emma Jackson search for seagrass flowers in Nelson's Waimea Estuary. Photo credit: Newshub

"Like plants on land, we get the seeds then grow up the seedlings, and also put seeds back into wild and germinate and grow," said Berthelsen.

Seagrass meadows are an important fish habitat; they improve water quality and absorb 10 percent of carbon in our oceans. However, globally they're shrinking by about 7 percent a year.

"Sediments and nutrients coming off the land can block the light in the water column and means the seagrass isn't able to synthesise and grow," she said.

A seagrass meadow.
A seagrass meadow. Photo credit: Cawthron Institute

For example, in Nelson's Haven Estuary, 50 percent of the seagrass has disappeared since 1840. Visiting New Zealand to see the project for herself is Australian seagrass expert Emma Jackson.

"I can see them in the future overtaking where we're at and really leading the way, so it's fantastic to see all the work that's been doing," she said.

A crab on seagrass.
A crab on seagrass. Photo credit: Cawthron Institute

She's part of a project trying to save seagrass meadows near Great Barrier Reef.

"When they are lost you get release of things like carbon, all that carbon they've captured gets released into the ocean. We also get declines in fish stocks because they're using them as nursery grounds," said Jackson.

She said the New Zealand project could evolve to include seagrass nurseries.

"There's potential to trigger them to flower so you can get more flowers and really put them in the best conditions so they can produce as many flowers as possible," she said.

And if that goes well, there's a chance our precious seagrass meadows can begin to recover so they can continue to play their vital role in our oceans.