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BLUE MARINE FOUNDATION & HILL ROBINSON PARTNERSHIP

Healthy oceans are vital for the future of humanity, not only to provide a future food supply for a growing population, but because complex ocean ecosystems absorb half the planet’s carbon dioxide and produce half our oxygen. Oceans emptied of fish cannot function effectively and are less resilient to other threats such as climate change and acidification.

Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) aims to restore the ocean to health by addressing overfishing, one of the world’s biggest environmental problems. BLUE is dedicated to securing marine protected areas, developing models of sustainable fishing and restoring marine habitats. BLUE’s mission is to see at least 30 per cent of the world’s ocean under effective protection by 2030 and the other 70 per cent managed in a responsible way.

With the support of Hill Robinson Yacht Management, BLUE has made strong progress in the Maldives towards our mission of improving the health of marine ecosystems by building capacity for Maldivian marine conservationists. The BLUE team would like to send our heartfelt thanks to Hill Robinson Yacht Management for your support.

With the support of Hill Robinson Yacht Management, BLUE has managed to create a network of local conservation leaders on Laamu Atoll over the last 13 months:
January 2019: BLUE launched its community citizen science programme on Laamu Atoll called ‘Laamaseelu Farudhun’ (‘exemplary citizens’ in the local language, Divehi).

February 2019: BLUE trained 21 people from Laamu Atoll as seagrass guardians.

May 2019: Two of Laamu Atoll’s seagrass guardians completed their first independent survey of the seagrass around Fonadhoo island, surveying and mapping 66,500 square meters of seagrass.

September 2019: BLUE trained 30 students from a local school as coral reef champions.

November 2019: Eight of Laamu Atoll’s seagrass guardians completed their second independent survey of the seagrass around the island of Kunahandhoo.

Tropical landscapes are characterised by three key habitats: coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves which work in parallel to support one another. However, while mangroves and coral reefs have garnered a lot of attention and subsequent conservation efforts, seagrasses have long been ignored and remain undervalued and underappreciated.

Seagrass is vital to the low-lying island nation of the Maldives: it prevents beach erosion, fights climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, provides food for sea turtles, supports fisheries and houses juvenile coral reef fish. However, unfortunately, seagrasses have a particularly bad reputation which stems from the luxury tourism industry who have historically removed seagrasses from around resort islands because they believe they look ‘ugly’. Because of this, many Maldivians believe that seagrasses are ‘weeds’ and do not fully understand how important they are for coral reef health.

In 2019, BLUE ran a social media #protectmaldivesseagrass campaign which successfully convinced more than a quarter of all the resorts in the Maldives to agree to protect the seagrasses around their islands, protecting an area of 830,000m2. Following on from this, BLUE decided to kickstart its citizen science programme by working with the people of Laamu to protect their local seagrass beds.

In February 2019, BLUE invited two of the world’s leading seagrass experts to the Maldives (Dr. Michael Rasheed, Principal Research Scientist, TropWATER, James Cook University Australia and Professor Mike Van Keulen, Senior Lecturer in Plant Science and Micro-Biology, Murdoch University Australia) to Laamu Atoll to come and lead these sessions together with BLUE’s team and marine biologists from the Maldives Underwater Initiative at Six Senses Laamu.

We were absolutely delighted that the programme was so well attended! 21 people from the community, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), higher education schools and local governments participated in the training and participants were from seven of the eleven inhabited islands on the atoll. In the morning, the team delivered a theory session to participants in a classroom. Participants were provided with training materials and taught about the importance of seagrasses for the Maldives. Specific emphasis was placed on the role of seagrass in offering coastal protection to Maldivian islands. In the afternoon, we took the team into the water to a seagrass meadow where we were able to physically show participants different seagrass species, the visible differences between healthy and unhealthy seagrasses and practice monitoring techniques. By the end of the day, participants were confident about what they learned and felt inspired to contribute research to BLUE to help us to design a marine protected area. It was agreed that participants would return to their home islands and lead independent surveys together with people from their islands on the seagrass meadows around their islands. These would be carried out twice a year and the data collected shared with our team.

Laamu Atoll’s seagrass guardians spread their wings as local leaders

In May 2019, our seagrass guardians organised their first independent survey of the seagrass meadows around Fonadhoo Island. The survey was initiated by the team from a local NGO who attended our first training session. Two of Laamu Atoll’s seagrass guardians recruited three other people from their local island to join them and they successfully surveyed and mapped 66,500 square meters of their local seagrass meadow! The team plans to fix a permanent monitoring transect to understand the changes overtime at this location.

Later last year in November, three other seagrass guardians organised their first independent led survey on the island of Kunahandhoo. They managed to recruit five other people from the island to join them and the successfully mapped and surveyed 36,000 square meters of seagrass!

Training young coral reef champions on Laamu Atoll

Coral reefs are the foundation of every island in the Maldives. They protect the country’s low-lying islands from erosion and provide the setting for its tourism industry that employs a third of the population and supports the Maldivian economy. However, while the Maldives has a high literacy and school enrolment rate and formal education is valued highly among communities, environmental awareness is low, and many Maldivians still do not understand the science of coral reefs and how they function.

In September 2019, BLUE trained 30 students from Isdhoo and Kalaidhoo as coral reef champions and certified them as Discover Reef Check snorkellers. The Reef Check programme teaches children about the basics of coral reef ecology and Shaha, BLUE’s Laamu Project Manager, is a certified trainer. Shaha taught the students about coral reefs and explained why they are so important for the Maldives. She also taught the students how to recognise a healthy coral reef and how to identify key species that you find on coral reefs such as groupers and parrotfish.

These students are on the brink of deciding what their future careers will be. However, without fully understanding coral reefs and experiencing them, many of these young people may never have even considered pursuing marine conservation. BLUE believes it has given these students the opportunity to consider a career in marine science and made clear how important their role is in the future of Laamu Atoll’s environment.

Conclusion

BLUE has successfully provided more than 50 people on Laamu Atoll with a basic understanding of the local habitats that surround their islands and equipped them with the knowledge to help protect them. More than 10 of our trainees have already carried out independent monitoring of their local seagrass meadows – a huge achievement!

BLUE has been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception we have had from the community who are so willing and eager to participate in our citizen science programme.

Over the next six months BLUE will complete this programme with the following activities:

  • Work with our seagrass guardians to ensure that the remaining nine islands complete independent surveys of their local seagrass meadows;
  • Train 10 adult community members as advanced Reef Check Eco-Divers;
  • Provide dive training to additional people and fishermen who are passionate about marine conservation; and
  • Train more than 20 people as local mangrove

BLUE has recently secured funds to run a social media campaign on Laamu Atoll in September 2020 to secure a tangible conservation commitment from the people of Laamu Atoll. BLUE aims to use its seagrass guardians, coral reef champions and mangrove custodians as leading figures in this campaign to advocate for long-lasting environmental protection on Laamu Atoll.

Please visit https://www.bluemarinefoundation.com/