Western Mail Profiles: Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, Cardiff University

‘How the world benefits from protecting seagrass’

Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth is a research fellow with the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University.

I have always been interested in people and places and have a natural curiosity about the way different systems in the world around us are linked together.  I’m particularly interested in looking at the threats to our lifestyles arising from a changing global environment.  I’ve worked closely with communities around the world to integrate both science and local knowledge, using it to develop sustainable solutions to problems like how to co-operatively manage our valuable natural resources now and in the future.

I was in Australia when I saw the research fellow post advertised for the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University.  I knew then that it was exactly the kind of cross-cutting, interdisciplinary work I wanted to be doing.

Having spent three years working with Aboriginal communities in Australia, I now hope to develop new community relationships in Wales.   In this way we can share knowledge that will support the development of socially and economically appropriate conservation and management strategies for our natural environment.

I strongly believe there’s a need to move away from seeing humans as a disruption to previously well-functioning ecosystems and recognise we are part of the ecosystem adding to the diversity that is needed to sustain life.

My background is in marine science and I’ve recently focused my attention on seagrass habitats and their potential role in meeting our future food needs through the fisheries that they support.  Seagrasses are a group of around 60 species of flowering plants that live submerged in shallow marine and estuarine environments.  They are found on all of the world’s continents except Antarctica, covering around 0.1% to 0.2% of the global ocean.  In many places, including Europe, they cover large areas of the sea floor where they are often referred to as seagrass beds or seagrass meadows.

These meadows are valuable habitats that provide important ecological and economic goods and services.  They support thousands of marine animals, including food fishes, like cod and herring as well as charismatic species such as turtles and seahorses.  Seagrasses also play an important role in sediment stabilisation and provide protection from coastal erosion, making them one of the most important coastal marine ecosystems for humans.

Despite their importance, seagrass meadows are declining globally at an unprecedented rate – 7% annually.  This loss is often associated with coastal development, poor land management, and over-exploitation of fisheries.  Our ecological knowledge about seagrass is limited, and marine conservation priorities often do not recognise the value of the goods and services they provide us with.  There is a real need here for more research to be done, as protecting seagrasses will have numerous benefits, including helping to protect biodiversity, ecosystem structure, fisheries support function, food security, climate regulation through carbon sequestration and other essential ecosystem services.

To contact Leanne please email Cullen-UnsworthLC@cardiff.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 15th August 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.