By Nuri Max Steinmann.
Benjamin Jones is marine biologist from the UK with a special interest dedicated to seagrass ecosystems around the globe. Early in his academic career he became fascinated by these unique ecosystems, and their ecological role, but also what dangers they are facing. In 2013 he decided to create the NGO Project Seagrass. As the director and co-founder of Project Seagrass he is trying to support the conservation of seagrass ecosystems through education, influence, research and action around the world. Moreover, he is now conducting a PhD at Stockholm University, investigating the relationship between seagrass meadows, small-scale fisheries and poverty alleviation.
Hi Benjamin! You have worked around the world doing research on seagrass ecosystems and founded your very own NGO. Where did that special fascination for seagrass come from and what motivated you to dedicate so much effort to it?
Like many would be marine biologists, I was fascinated by coral reefs during my studies. Back in the summer of 2011, I planned a two-week holiday to Dominican Republic and had purchased a fancy underwater camera in hopes of spending every day amongst coral – This didn’t happen. Instead, I spent two weeks mesmerised by the large green mat of seagrass that pretty much went as far as I could swim, spending every waking minute snorkelling within it, much to my then girlfriend’s annoyance. At the time I had no idea what it was. Despite studying Marine Biology for two years, it had never been mentioned. But I was fascinated by the amount of fish species living within it, darting around and hiding here and there. I was hooked. I came back from that holiday and took a Tropical Marine Ecology course, which low and behold was mostly about seagrass. During that course something clicked in my head and I found my passion. I then dedicated my masters to studying seagrass within the UK and quickly realised that people didn’t care as much as I did, and I guess my initial concept of Project Seagrass stemmed from that, a passion to make the world care about seagrass.
Just a while ago, you have been involved as a ghost writer for Sir David Attenborough. What happened there?
I wouldn’t say ghost writer as such, but I helped with lots of fact checking for the Green Seas episode of Blue Planet II, which featured a little bit of seagrass. As a result, there were cases where sentences were thrown about – “I recommend it worded in this way to make it easier to understand”. Either way, it was a dream come true to be able to use my seagrass knowledge to contribute to Blue Planet II, however small my contribution was.
You have recently collected data that will be included in your PhD in Zanzibar. What are you working on and what methods do you use?
My PhD is focused on seagrass meadows, how they are linked to small-scale fisheries and poverty alleviation. In a more general sense, I’m interested in the characteristics, or traits that make seagrass meadows good fishing grounds. Is it merely the presence of seagrass that fishermen look for, or is it something more specific, multiple species of seagrass for example, or seagrass with long leaves. This is critical information for policy and management. While I think all seagrass is awesome, not all seagrass meadows are created equal so to speak. Some species are better at providing certain benefits than others, and this is what I want to look into for fisheries and people.
As for the methods I use, it depends on what aspect of seagrass I’m studying. For the fish stuff I use special underwater camera systems called BRUV’s, Baited Underwater Remote Video systems if you want to be picky. These are effectively underwater tripods, with a long arm and bait box attached to attract fish. A GoPro is then mounted on top and records all the fish that pass by the camera. I generally deploy these cameras for 30 minutes, then to analyse the footage, count and identify every fish that’s observed on the footage. To ensure that I don’t double count fish, I only count the maximum number of each individual species I have seen at one time. Sometimes you get lucky and spot a shark, or ray, sometimes an octopus even decides to steal the camera, but most of the time it’s just smaller marine life that comes to say hello. I use this data to estimate the relative abundance and diversity of certain areas of seagrass.
As many marine habitats, also seagrass ecosystems face an uncertain future due to climate change and other anthropogenic impacts. What are the major threats to seagrass and what must be done to stop them?
Seagrass meadows, like many other habitats, are threatened globally. We’re facing a downward spiral. Rather than discuss the threats, I am more interested in the challenges facing seagrass from a conservation perspective.
Firstly, a lack of awareness of what seagrasses are and a recognition of their importance is a huge issue that needs fixing. This relates to our second challenge, we simply don’t know the status of many seagrass meadows. This information on status and condition is essential to face our third challenge – understanding what’s threatening seagrass at local (rather than global) scales is required to target local management actions accordingly. Fourthly, to meet the needs of people and the planet, we need to expand our knowledge of how people interact with seagrass ecosystems, which is where challenge number five comes in, of tailoring seagrass research to generate science that supports conservation action and impact. Our last challenge for seagrass is the future -increasing our understanding of how seagrass will fare under a changing climate so that conservation action is taken that is flexible to these issues.
“I myself do science not to become a Stephen Hawking but to become a Steve Jobs, to find creative solutions to our seagrass problems, to conduct research that transforms the way we conserve, monitor or engage people with seagrass.”
Being a marine biologist and conservation scientist is not always easy and the typical career path is often a long and difficult road. Besides going the typical academic career path, you also put a lot of extra effort into your conservation work. Do you think this is something you have to do nowadays as a marine biologist or scientist to make a career? How are you feeling about your future job opportunities and do you have any advice for the new generation of scientists out there?
Yes and no. I mean, academia has its merits for advancing understanding, but without integrating that understanding into policy and management, how can a scientist expect to have any real-world impact? Politicians don’t read scientific articles; most managers can’t afford to subscribe to many of the journals we publish in, but every piece of new science that is published in my field might have some new piece of information that is vital for a manager, or reshapes our understanding of carbon sequestering ecosystems for example. Should we be planting trees or seagrass? Science says the latter, but this information is not reaching the people that matter. That is where I see value in having fingers in both pies, working within science and conservation at the same time allows me to use the science I do to create awareness and impact – that’s the hope at least. I myself do science not to become a Stephen Hawking but to become a Steve Jobs, to find creative solutions to our seagrass problems, to conduct research that transforms the way we conserve, monitor or engage people with seagrass. I see huge merit in our understanding the marine environment, and I have so much respect for the people that advance of knowledge of such systems in terms of how they function, how they evolved and what makes them tick for example, but that isn’t where I see my career going in the long run.
When people ask me how I got to where I am now, and where I see my future going, I always go back to the same two things; passion and dedication. My advice is always to find a passion, and stay dedicated to that cause, no matter if the job market is poor, or you continuingly face hurdles. I am also passionate about ensuring that the path you take is a correct one. Following the academic route is not easy. A bad decision, made for the right reasons, is still a bad decision and my advice is that if you do not know what you want to do, do not jump straight into a master’s or PhD course because “that’s what everyone does, right?”
I finished my master’s in 2014, and while I was fortunate enough to be presented with numerous good opportunities, I think spending the last 4 years working in between academia and conservation with Project Seagrass was the best way to prepare me for a PhD – and also show me that I had what it takes to work within academia.
“People always give me hope, and even amongst the doom and gloom there is always optimism if you look hard enough for it.”
The current global situation is not very positive when it comes to climate change and biodiversity. Despite knowing the problems, our global leaders are still discussing whether something should be done or not. Soon it may be too late. What keeps you motivated, and do you still have hope that we humans will manage to turn the tide?
People always give me hope, and even amongst the doom and gloom there is always optimism if you look hard enough for it. While it is not their duty, the actions of your everyday joe or jane are what inspire me the most. Be the topic fisheries management or plastic pollution, there is always those that become ocean champions, and stand up to make a change in their community. I think that if there are enough people like that in the world, our leaders will eventually listen.
What would be the three things we have to change, which you think are the most important?
In my opinion it’s just one thing. We need to own it! Recognise what we as humans and individuals are doing to our oceans, our planet, and make some pretty drastic changes. Of course, we all like and share posts on social media about climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing etc, but then go back to our normal lives, drive to work, buy pointless plastic products or buy unsustainable fish or meat “because it tastes nice”. Everyone (even myself) just needs to take a step back and just take a hard look in the mirror at what they are doing, if they can do more?
It is 2050 – What is Benjamin Jones doing, what we will be the state of the worlds seagrass ecosystems and how will our planet look like?
2050, tough question. I’d hope that I’d be presenting 30 years of SeagrassSpotter.org data at the UN, how people have participated in conserving seagrass and helping the world keep track of seagrass meadows to help us tailor management actions accordingly. Because of SeagrassSpotter we were able to figure out which seagrass meadows needed urgent attention, we stopped the release of 10m tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere by preventing the loss of a large area of seagrass, and our data shows that seagrass meadows are on the up, more and more are healthy, and the planet is surviving. That’s the dream at least!
For more information check out the links and follow the work of Ben and Project Seagrass:
Copyright of all pictures belongs to Benjamin Jones and Project Seagrass.