Combining research and community action to secure a future for seagrass.

Marine scientist Dr Richard Lilley started his research career studying sustainable supply chain management in small-scale capture fisheries. Here, seafood supply chains – on which local food security depends – are reliant on healthy natural coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests.

Becoming fascinated by the critical importance of seagrass meadows in particular, as both havens for biodiversity and nursery grounds for many commercially important fish species, Richard turned his attention to upscaling community-led seagrass restoration in Scotland – with remarkable dedication and success.

Historic losses

There are over 60 species of seagrass, the only marine flowering plants. Seagrasses are a crucial global carbon sink and help maintain shoreline stability and cycle ocean nutrients, but are particularly sensitive to deteriorating water quality, coastal development and climate change. In fact, a 2021 study suggested that as much as 92% of the UK’s seagrass meadow has been destroyed, with almost 40% wiped out since the 1980s, leaving only scattered beds in coastal waters. These missing meadows represent some 11.5 Mt of lost carbon storage and would have supported around 400 million fish. Globally, seagrass losses are estimated at around 7% every year.

In 2013 Richard co-founded Project Seagrass, a charity dedicated to reversing seagrass losses by turning research into effective conservation action and communication, through partnerships with local communities and other stakeholders. Richard says they hope to see, “A proliferation of innovative and evidence-based seagrass meadow restoration projects across Scotland and the wider UK,” through a two-fold programme of activities: “supporting communities to restore seagrass meadows themselves, and continuing to develop scientific ‘best practice’ on seagrass restoration for deployment in the Scottish context.”

A white man in the sea, just his head and one hand visible above the surface, the hand holding a seagrass plant, the head smiling. A snorkel and goggles are visible around his neck.
Dr Richard Lilley. Image courtesy Lewis M Jefferies/Project Seagrass

Collaboration for conservation

Working with NatureScot and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), a world-leader in conservation-genetic approaches to translocation and reintroduction, Richard has pioneered the use of genetic data to support successful seagrass restoration programmes. “The long-term success of any conservation project involving reintroduction or translocation depends upon selecting the most suitable sources from which to breed individuals for restoration,” he explains. “The introduced organisms must be optimally suited to the conditions of the reintroduction site, but also genetically diverse, to give the best chance of adapting to future environmental changes such as the warming climate or emerging diseases.”

Through extensive genetic analysis of over 50 seagrass beds around the British Isles and Channel Islands, the team explored the species’ genetic composition and diversity, and the degree to which different populations are genetically connected, for instance through ocean currents. This data allows them to identify the best sources of seed for restoration at any given site. It also sheds light on biological processes, such as mechanisms of reproduction, in these still somewhat mysterious plant communities.

In another facet of the programme, Project Seagrass is working with RBGE, the University of Edinburgh and St Abbs Marine Station to develop successful low-cost seed storage and germination methods. Their shared vision, Richard says, “Is to enable coastal communities to engage with seagrass restoration despite limited resources.” He is keen to emphasize the collaborative nature of this work. “We’ve got to work together if we’re going to solve our planetary crises!” he says, “Our partnership approach, where community groups, NGOs, national agencies and research institutions work in coalition, embodies the philosophy of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It’s a privilege to be part of it.”

A white man in a wetsuit, wearing a snorkel and goggles, swimming underwater over a seagrass meadow
Richard Lilley snorkelling over a seagrass bed. Image courtesy Lewis M Jefferies/Project Seagrass

Turning anger into action

Richard is clearly hugely driven both to learn and to act, and traces this back to several ‘trigger points’ in his life. “One of my earliest memories is getting covered in oil whilst surfing in Devon during the Easter break – I must have been around 14 – and I went back into school that summer really inspired to do the ecology and environment elements of my biology course.”

He obtained a BSc (Hons) in Natural Sciences from Durham University, before training as a biology teacher. After a few years teaching, he worked as PADI Divemaster in Thailand, another trigger point: “I was taking folk out to dive on coral reefs that were visibly degraded by illegal fishing and coral bleaching … it made me want to come back into research and learn more for myself.”

Richard was first introduced to seagrass ecosystems during a short course in Tropical Marine Ecology at Stockholm University in the summer of 2011. There followed an MRes in Aquatic Ecology and Conservation at Swansea University, during which Richard met his Project Seagrass co-founders Benjamin Jones and Richard Unsworth. “The rest, they say, is history!” he laughs. With an MSc in Social Science Research Methods and an interdisciplinary PhD in Place-Based Sustainable Supply Chain Management at Cardiff University also under his belt, Richard relocated to Edinburgh in 2016 to develop seagrass restoration projects across Scotland.

Seascape scale

Looking forward, Richard has ambitions to ramp up the scale of seagrass restoration further. He also looks to integrate wider ‘seascape-scale thinking’ into the marine restoration movement. “Much as I love seagrass meadows,” he says, “all coastal habitats are important, and they are most productive when they are found together in intact, functional seascapes … thriving, biodiverse and resilient coastal seascapes will be of benefit to us all.”

With COP15 on the horizon, Richard is hoping for more recognition of the importance of biodiversity in its own right. “The climate emergency is now (quite rightly) given more and more attention,” he explains, “but the biodiversity emergency is not seen in that same light nor being treated with the same level of urgency. This needs to change: the biodiversity and climate crises are two sides of the same coin.”

Recognition, Richard thinks, is key to encouraging innovation in conservation science. “The under-funding of biodiversity science compared to climate science makes it more challenging to work in this space.” Despite this, he clearly revels in his work. “I can’t think of a better way to spend my days than working to restore nature,” he concludes.

Dr Richard Lilley is co-founder and CEO of the registered charity, Project Seagrass. The project discussed here is supported by RESAS, NatureScot, the William Grant Foundation, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Government of Jersey and carried out by partners RBGE, Project Seagrass, NatureScot, Seawilding, St Abbs Marine Station, Edinburgh University, SRUC and local volunteers. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading

Cullen-Unsworth, L.C., et al. 2018. Seagrass gardens under the sea: what are seagrass meadows and why are they important? Frontiers for Young Minds

Unsworth, R.K.F, et al. 2019. Sowing the seeds of seagrass recovery using hessian bags. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Gamble, C., et al. (eds.). 2021. Seagrass Restoration Handbook: UK and Ireland. London: ZSL.

Unsworth, R.K.F, et al. 2022. The planetary role of seagrass conservation. Science 377(6606): 609—613.