Jan. 2 (UPI) -- New research suggests sea grasses can protect beaches at a discount.
Beaches are beautiful. They're also a valuable commodity for many places, including the Caribbean, where island economies rely on tourist dollars. It makes sense to spend money to ensure the beaches don't go anywhere.
Erosion ensures no grain of sand is safe, but new research suggests sea grasses offer cost-effective beach protection services.
"A foreshore with both healthy seagrass beds as well as calcifying algae, is a resilient and sustainable option in coastal defense", Rebecca James, a doctoral candidate at the University of Groningen and the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research in the Netherlands, said in a news release. "Because of erosion, the economic value of Caribbean beaches literally drains into the sea."
James and her colleagues took inventory of the rates of erosion affecting beaches across the Caribbean, as well the efforts being made to protect and restore beaches.
As the scientists detailed in their new study, published in the journal BioScience, plenty of damage has already been done -- and the costs of protection and restoration are immense.
"Until now, expensive coastal engineering efforts, such as repeated beach nourishments and concrete walls to protect the coast, have been made to combat erosion," said Rodolfo Silva, professor of coastal engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Rising sea-level and increasing storms will only increase the loss of these important beaches."
To measure the influence of sea grass, scientists used an adjustable field flume to monitor water movement near sea grass beds.
"We showed that seagrass beds were extremely effective at holding sediment in place," James said. "Especially in combination with calcifying algae that create their own sand, a foreshore with healthy seagrass appeared a sustainable way of combating erosion."
Their measurements at local scales matched their analysis at regional scale, which showed beaches near sea grass beds across Yucatan coastlines are less affected by erosion.
Conservationists hope the research inspires governments to do more to protect sea grass beds and related habitats.
"To date, seagrass beds are too often regarded as a nuisance, rather than a valuable asset for preserving touristically valuable coastlines," said Bas Roels of World Wildlife Fund Netherlands. "This study could change this perspective completely."