Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the Opening Ceremony of World Seagrass Conference 2018 and International Seagrass Biology Workshop 13

Jun 11, 2018 15:00

Good morning everyone. I am delighted to join you here this morning at the World Seagrass Conference 2018 and the International Seagrass Biology Workshop 13, or ISBW 13. A warm welcome to all of you, including many of you who have joined us from overseas.

Seagrass meadows are one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, and play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of our coastal habitats. They provide shelter and food for a diverse range of animals, reduce coastal erosion, clear the waters and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But now, more than ever, natural ecosystems are under siege, faced with global threats such as climate change, pollution and degradation of habitats. In fact, in the past few decades, the world has already lost close to 30% of our seagrass, and the decline is accelerating. That is why the work that you do, and the discussions you will have at this Conference, are globally important.

We can no longer work in silos and expect to achieve results. It is only when like-minded people from research and academia, government, NGOs, industry and the community come together to brainstorm and float ideas, build collaborative networks, and establish practical partnerships based on trust, can we then ensure that our strategies remain robust, and most importantly, that they get implemented. To conserve our seagrass meadows, the best way forward is one that is collaborative and firmly anchored in science and policy.  

Seagrass research and collaboration in the region

Having this year’s Conference and Workshop in Singapore will help bring greater focus on seagrass in the region. The Asia-Pacific region has the highest seagrass diversity in the world, and in Southeast Asia alone, we have 18 of the world’s 60 seagrass species. But with fast growing economies and the quickening pace of urban development in Southeast Asia, the pressures on our natural habitats are also intensifying. This is a pressing issue and we will have to do more to strengthen research and conservation efforts.

I am therefore very happy to announce the launch of the Southeast Asian Seagrass Network website which you can see on the screen behind me. I understand this is a ground-up initiative by regional researchers and it is a very good effort. This idea was first mooted two years ago, at the International Seagrass Biology Workshop 12 in Wales. This website will be a platform to facilitate communication and collaboration between regional researchers, conservationists and managers. I congratulate the team for the hard work to bring this to fruition. This will be a platform which consolidates information about different research and outreach groups in Southeast Asia, and will help global researchers link up more easily with their counterparts here in the region. This is a very important start and I hope you will continue to discuss how you can maximise this platform and better utilise it so that it realises its full potential.

Conservation of seagrass meadows in Singapore

Let me briefly share with you about Singapore’s efforts to conserve our precious seagrass meadows. In Singapore, we have 12 species of seagrass, out of the 18 found in South-East Asia. The most extensive meadows are found at Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Semakau and Cyrene Reef.

For our overseas visitors coming here for the first time, let me put this in context, so you can better understand why this is so precious to us. Singapore is both a city and a state. In the 1960s, our land area was around 580 square kilometres. Today, it is around 720 square kilometres of land. This means around a quarter of our land mass was reclaimed from the sea, around coastal areas, in some of the busiest maritime waterways in the world. With a population density of around 7,700 people per square kilometre, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world. So the tension between conservation and development will always be intense. Therefore, our conservation strategy for our City in a Garden must be markedly different from that of much larger countries. We have been able to document our local seagrass species, and continue to do so – thanks to ground-up efforts of dedicated individuals from both the private and public sectors.

One of these groups is TeamSeaGrass, a citizen science monitoring group – with the support of the National Parks Board, or NParks, has been diligently and regularly monitoring our local seagrass since 2007. In fact, I had the opportunity to join TeamSeaGrass on their seagrass monitoring trips to Chek Jawa back in 2014 and to Pulau Semakau in 2016, and see them in action. One of its founders, Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub – is a pioneering seagrass researcher in Singapore, and the co-convenor of this Conference. A big thank you to Dr Siti, the TeamSeaGrass volunteers and supporters for your contribution and your strong partnership and custodianship of our seagrass meadows.

Local seagrass research has quietly reached certain significant milestones over the past few years. This is only possible because of the close partnership between our researchers and the community, as well as NParks. We have used satellite imagery for seagrass habitat identification, carried out research on seagrass resilience to various types of disturbances and we are currently assessing the resilience of local meadows especially in an urban environment, and exploring the potential for the restoration of degraded meadows. Moving forward, we hope that greater international collaboration and research with our regional partners and friends will put all of us in a better position to conserve our seagrass.

Singapore’s context may be quite different – we are a densely populated city-state where all our urban infrastructure has to be located within our city’s boundaries. We have to balance urban development and conservation of our natural heritage. But the challenges we face are not new - we see this all over the world. Despite our land constraints, conserving our biodiversity and greenery are integral parts of our land-planning considerations. Over the years, we have also seen an increasing awareness among Singaporeans with regard to the conservation of our natural heritage.

We need to continue to find new ways to bring science to the public and make it more accessible. A whole-of-community approach is required to ensure that nature conservation and conversations about conservation remain relevant to Singaporeans. For example, we just had our 7th Festival of Biodiversity one or two weekends ago, and I had the privilege to host five of them on behalf of NParks. This is a public outreach event organised by the various nature stakeholders and NGOs in Singapore, supported by NParks, to showcase their conservation efforts. It also seeks to promote a better understanding between members of the public to help them understand that in a City in a Garden like ours, that there is biodiversity and there is life. The inter-relationship between man and animal and man and flora is very close. Therefore, our approach must be one of custodianship, one where people are more biophilic like never before.

I also understand that Dr Siti Maryam recently collaborated with students from Raffles Institution to publish a children’s book “The Super Seagrass Search” last month. This book uses storytelling to teach children about seagrass and the animals that live in these habitats. This is certainly a creative way of exposing children to conservation. Not just doing research at a scientific level, but also finding ways to make it accessible to young children. Exposing them at a very young age to issues such as conservation in Singapore makes it much less intimidating to entice them to this world.

So I encourage all of you, even as you collaborate in scientific research regionally and internationally, to also work together to engage governments, policymakers, the industry and certainly find partnerships that allow you to reach out into local communities. This is where you can play a part in monitoring, in conserving and also in ensuring that the next generation of Singaporeans and international citizens continue to understand and treasure our seagrass meadows and other natural habitats.

I wish you all a wonderful stay in Singapore and a very fruitful Conference indeed. Thank you.