Seagrass in Malaysia: Issues and Challenges
Japar S. Bujang, Muta H. Zakaria, and Frederick T. Short
Introduction . . ....................................................................................... 2
The Signiﬁcance of Seagrass Beds and Their Resources .. ....................................... 3
The Decline of Seagrass Beds and Their Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ............................... 4
Threats and Future Challenges ..................................................................... 6
Cross-References . . ................................................................................. 8
References . . ........................................................................................ 9
Seagrasses are submerged monocotyledonous angiosperms living in marine and
estuarine habitats. They are plants differentiated into distinct segments: rhizomes,
roots, and leaves. Seagrasses vary in morphology and size, ranging from the
tropical eelgrass Enhalus acoroides with strap-like leaves that reach 1 m or more
in height to shorter ovate leaved spoongrass Halophila ovalis that grows to only a
few centimeters tall. Seagrasses produce ﬂowers and seeds, disperse seeds and
propagate vegetatively to maintain meadows. There are 16 species of seagrasses
in Malaysia comprising Enhalus acoroides,Halophila beccarii,Halophila
decipiens,Halophila ovalis,Halophila major,Halophila minor,Halophila
J.S. Bujang (*)
Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Serdang, Selangor Darul
Department of Aquaculture, Faculty of Agriculture, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Serdang, Selangor
Darul Ehsan, Malaysia
Jackson Estuarine Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, USA
#Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
C.M. Finlayson et al. (eds.), The Wetland Book,
spinulosa,Halophila sp., Halodule pinifolia,Halodule uninervis,Cymodocea
rotundata,Cymodocea serrulata,Thalassia hemprichii,Syringodium
isoetifolium,Thalassodendron ciliatum, and Ruppia maritima. Healthy
seagrasses may grow dense and form an extensive beds or meadows. Their
characteristics and interactive community within and from outside account for
the high diversity and enable survival of diverse invertebrates (shrimps, sea
cucumbers, starﬁshes, bivalves, gastropods), vertebrates (dugongs, green turtles,
ﬁshes) and macroalgae. Seagrasses provide conditions for the growth and abun-
dance of invertebrates and ﬁsh that many local coastal communities collect and
catch for their livelihood. Seagrass ecosystems are sources of food and continu-
ally facing threats by natural events and, human activities, e.g., coastal develop-
ment causing their fast degradation and possible habitat loss.
Seagrass •diversity •signiﬁcance •Malaysia •threats
Seagrasses are submerged monocotyledonous angiosperms living in marine and
estuarine habitats (den Hartog 1970). They are plants differentiated into distinct
segments: rhizomes, roots, and leaves. Seagrasses produce ﬂowers and seeds, disperse
seeds and propagate vegetatively to maintain meadows (Muta Harah et al. 2002).
Seagrasses vary in morphology and size, ranging from the tropical eelgrass Enhalus
acoroides with strap-like leaves that reach 1 m or more in height to shorter ovate
leaved spoongrass Halophila ovalis that grows to only a few centimeters tall (Fig. 1).
There are 16 species of seagrasses in Malaysia comprising Enhalus acoroides,
Halophila beccarii,Halophila decipiens,Halophila ovalis,Halophila major,
Halophila minor,Halophila spinulosa,Halophila sp., Halodule pinifolia,Halodule
uninervis,Cymodocea rotundata,Cymodocea serrulata,Thalassia hemprichii,
Syringodium isoetifolium,Thalassodendron ciliatum, and Ruppia maritima.
In Malaysia, along its 4800 km coastline, that stretches along the Malay Peninsula
and on the island of Borneo in both Sabah and Sarawak and bounds much of the
southern part of the South China Sea, are coastal environments harboring man-
groves, coral reefs, and seagrasses. The majority of seagrasses are found in sheltered
shallow intertidal associated ecosystems, with mangroves, coral reefs, semi-enclosed
lagoons, shoals, and subtidal zones. They sometimes form diverse extensive com-
munities (Japar Sidik and Muta Harah 2003, Fig. 2). Historically, seagrasses
(E. acoroides,H. ovalis) were common all around the coast of Peninsular Malaysia,
on muddy shores and areas exposed at low tide (Ridley 1924; Henderson 1954).
Since these early reports of extensive seagrass meadows, most have deteriorated due
to coastal development. Moreover, seagrass habitats in Sabah, East Malaysia were
described by Norhadi (1993) as already degraded by human activities, including
deforestation (Short et al. 2014). This would explain the present patchy and no
longer extensive distribution along the Malaysian coastline (Fig. 3).
2 J.S. Bujang et al.
The Significance of Seagrass Beds and Their Resources
Seagrasses are primary producers and through photosynthesis release dissolved
oxygen into the water for use by marine and estuarine animals. Seagrasses are also
primary food source for large species, such as dugongs and green turtles, and
consumed by sea urchins. Algae and animals attached to seagrass leaves are an
Fig. 1 Selected seagrass species of Malaysia (Source: Japar Sidik and Muta Harah (2011))
Seagrass in Malaysia: Issues and Challenges Ahead 3
important food resource for many grazing animals, e.g., juvenile and adult ﬁshes,
and its disappearance could be detrimental to their survival.
Seagrass meadows are subject to tide and wave action that could erode and wash
away sediments if not for the plants’underground rhizomes and roots forming dense
mats that trap, hold, and stabilize the soft sediments. The seagrass meadows provide
habitat and shelter for many organisms. Bivalves and other buried organisms burrow
into the sediments to escape predation. In addition, many ﬁsh (grouper, seahorses),
shellﬁsh, and crustaceans found in seagrass meadows are a valuable economic entity
(Sasekumar et al. 1989; Arshad et al. 2001). For example, local coastal communities
around Sungai Pulai estuary harvest invertebrates and ﬁshes in and around seagrass
meadow for their livelihood (Fig. 4). While recognized as sources of food and an
important reservoir of coastal biodiversity, seagrass meadows are continually threat-
ened by human activities causing their degradation and habitat loss (Muta Harah and
Japar Sidik 2011).
The Decline of Seagrass Beds and Their Resources
Seagrasses and their resources have declined due to natural causes and human-
induced activities. Seagrasses can tolerate moderate disturbance through morpho-
logical and physiological adaptation, while heavy disturbances can result in seagrass
loss (Hemminga and Duarte 2000). Along the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia,
increased wave activity from storms during the northeast monsoon threatens
meadows (e.g., Gong Batu, Merchang, Paka shoal, Terengganu) in semi-enclosed
Fig. 2 Merambong shoal during low tide is one of several areas that support a well-developed
multi-species seagrass community (Photo credit: JS Bujang #Rights remain with the author)
4 J.S. Bujang et al.
lagoons by either exposing or burying the plants with shoals of sand, silt, or mud.
These seagrass meadows are also impacted from reduced salinity by frequent inputs
of freshwater (high rain events) or increased salinity due to drought. Seagrass
meadows can also be heavily impacted by ﬂood events such as occurred in
December 2014 in Paka shoal, Terengganu, destroying almost all seagrasses.
Extremely high and continuous rainfall for a week contributed to the ﬂood event
that transported and deposited sand that covered the seagrass meadow (Fig. 5).
Recovery may take years to occur or may not at all, as a result of a single monsoon
ﬂooding event. In Sabah, deforestation associated with palm oil plantations has
resulted in extensive decline and loss of seagrass from reduced water clarity and
sedimentation (Freeman et al. 2008), followed by limited recovery by a pioneering
seagrass species (Short et al. 2014).
The human population utilizing the coasts and adjacent waters for numerous
activities is increasing, and many of these activities are accompanied by major
coastal developments. Activities attributed to seagrass declines are sediments in
runoff from cleared lands ﬂowing into coastal areas covering meadows; and dis-
charge of untreated domestic sewage efﬂuent, runoff of fertilizer, and outﬂow of
animal waste; all rich in nutrients promoting large algal blooms that cover the
seagrasses (Japar Sidik et al. 2006, Fig. 6) decreasing the plants’photosynthesis
capability. Sand mining, dredging, bottom sediment removal, and land reclamation
destroy seagrass meadows through direct removal and burial. Sourcing for sand is
commonly undertaken in shallow coastal lagoons with seagrasses (e.g., east coast of
Peninsular Malaysia) for land ﬁll and shoreline stabilization projects. Coastal devel-
opment (land reclamation) has reduced the seagrass area of Merambong shoal
(Fig. 7), Johor from 26.3 ha to 21.1 ha. Similar land reclamation totally destroyed
a Tanjung Adang Darat seagrass shoal in 2003 (Japar Sidik et al. 2007).
Fig. 3 The major seagrass areas, associated habitats, utilization by coastal communities and other
users in Peninsular Malaysia (A), east Malaysia-Sabah (B), and Sarawak (C). Lagoon
, turtle sanctuary
, traditional capture ﬁsheries
, dugong feeding ground
(Source: Japar Sidik and Muta Harah (2011))
Seagrass in Malaysia: Issues and Challenges Ahead 5
Threats and Future Challenges
By the mid-to-late 1990s, inland areas were extensively developed, and beginning in
the early 2000s there has been a shift in the focus of development towards coastal
reclamation and constructed island systems as the primary region for economic
growth and development. Both systems have been recognized in Malaysia as an
increasingly important source of foreign exchange earnings as well as a means to
diversify the country’s economy. The tourism industry can play a vital role to boost
the economy drawing upon the scenic attraction of the aquatic environment, white
sandy beaches, and underwater marine resources such as live corals. The govern-
ment has allocated substantial funds to ﬁnance projects, basic infrastructure, public,
and other tourist facilities. In addition, development of tourist related facilities,
resorts, restaurants, and recreational centers are being undertaken by the private
sector in line with the government’s privatization policy. Many coastal zones are
Fig. 4 Fisherman with his
catch from Sungai Pulai
estuary seagrass meadow
(Photo credit: JS Bujang #
Rights remain with the author)
Fig. 5 (a) Dense Halophila beccarii bed in Paka shoal in 2004 (Photo credit: JS Bujang #Rights
remain with the author) (b) The same Paka shoal buried by shoal of sand, devoid of seagrass after
monsoon and ﬂood in December 2014 (Photo credit: MH Zakaria #Rights remain with the author)
6 J.S. Bujang et al.
now being used intensively by a variety of activities, and these developments have
not been without problems.
The Sungai Pulai estuary, Johor, is an example of issues that have arisen with the
new focus on development of the coastal zone and islands. The estuary harbors
mangrove and seagrass meadows used by local communities for their ﬁsheries and
transportation. Sungai Pulai estuary’s seagrass ecosystem provides multiple beneﬁts
to local coastal inhabitants and other users including provisioning services (food,
Fig. 6 Algal bloom, Amphiroa fragilissima at seagrass bed of Tanjung Adang Laut, Sungai Pulai
estuary, Johor (Photo credit: MH Zakaria #Rights remain with the author)
Fig. 7 Massive earthwork of land reclamation across Merambong seagrass shoal (Photo credit:
MH Zakaria #Rights remain with the author)
Seagrass in Malaysia: Issues and Challenges Ahead 7
genetic resources, biochemical, and medicines); regulatory services (erosion regu-
lation, water puriﬁcation, and waste treatment); and cultural services (educational
values) (Nakaoka et al. 2014). The most important provisioning services support the
ﬁsheries and any disturbance will directly affect the earnings and protein supply of
coastal communities depending on the ecosystem.
Port and facilities development in Sungai Pulai estuary began in 2003, and
development of a mega resort and city commenced in 2014 for the next 30 years.
The development involves sand mining, ﬁlling, and land reclamation which has had
an immediate and signiﬁcant impact to the marine environment and associated
resources of the seagrass beds. Land reclamation resulted in heavy loads of
suspended solids in the water column, depositing thick glutinous silt often many
centimeters deep over seagrasses and benthic communities (Japar Sidik et al. 2007).
The effect of habitat change and altered ecology has been realized by the ﬁshermen.
They claim reclamation and pollution are severely affecting ﬁsh yields. Some
ﬁshermen have ceased this activity and are seeking alternative jobs elsewhere to
generate income lost from ﬁshing activities. It is expected that adjacent seagrass
meadows of Merambong-Tanjung Adang shoals will face a similar fate as further
expansion is planned for the port, mega resort, and city.
With the development and anticipated population growth, regulating domestic
waste disposal and waste treatment is a big issue. Domestic waste is the largest
contributor to the water quality problem and will worsen with growth in the
population and visiting tourists (Sungai Pulai estuary has been earmarked for
“community tourism”). There will be increased discharges of human waste and
household and commercial compounds (e.g., detergents and sullage) directly into
the watercourses. Inadequacy of sewage treatment systems will further aggravate the
problem. Discharge wastes eventually reach the seagrass and coastal areas, placing
great stress (causing algal bloom) to the ecosystem and associated resources. Main-
tenance and protection of seagrass habitats will conserve the water quality and other
resource values that are, in fact, able to attract tourism.
Malaysian seagrass meadows are facing serious threats from external human
sources and coastal development activities. The optimal and sustainable use of
coastal habitats is a high priority due to their important ecological functions and
socioeconomic beneﬁts to coastal human population. However, the protection and
conservation of seagrass ecosystems is only afforded to those within protected areas,
e.g., marine parks under Fisheries Act 1985 and not for those outside their bound-
aries (Japar Sidik and Muta Harah 2003).
▶Current Status of Seagrass Habitat in Korea
▶Intertidal Flats of East and Southeast Asia
▶Seagrass Dependent Artisanal Fisheries of Southeast Asia
▶Seagrass Meadows of North-Eastern Australia
▶Seagrass Recovery in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA
8 J.S. Bujang et al.
▶Seagrasses of Southeast Brazil
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Seagrass in Malaysia: Issues and Challenges Ahead 9