“April is the month when the eelgrass seeds are mature”
Eelgrass (Zostera marina) provides a variety of essential ecosystem services, including habitat for shellfish and finfish, food chain production, and sediment stabilization. This article explores educational and cultural approaches for sustaining eelgrass health. Coastal communities that understand and value the services eelgrasses provide, and the eelgrass themselves, are more likely to effectively steward eelgrass habitat. Education and outreach, including learning from indigenous communities that have held eelgrass as a cultural keystone species, may be important steps to developing such collective understandings.
In addition to the cultural and educational approaches described in this article, sustaining the health of eelgrasses requires a holistic approach that includes restoring lost eelgrass beds as well as related coastal habitats such as salt marshes and shellfish beds, reducing physical impacts on existing eelgrass beds, improving water quality, and implementing appropriate legal protections.
Cultural use vs. cultural keystone
An ecological keystone species is a taxon whose presence determines the structure of an ecosystem. A seastar, for example, may promote biodiversity in rocky tidal communities by controlling the population of blue mussels that might otherwise dominate that habitat.
A cultural keystone species helps determine the structure of a human community’s relationship to an ecosystem. The species must in some combination be essential to the community’s physical and cultural life, for example by being used for food, featured in ritual, be embedded in its language, or mark the seasons or time. A cultural keystone species may or may not also be an ecological keystone species. Some examples of cultural keystone species include Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) for Northwest Coast Native cultures, edible red laver seaweed (Porphyra abbottiae) for many coastal British Columbia communites, and the hard-shell clam or quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) for Native communities in the Northeast (tools, exchange, decoration, food).
Early white settlers in New England and New York used eelgrass as insulation in their homes, as mulch for their gardens, and as bedding for livestock. This is likely more a cultural use of a species, employing it to serve particular physical or economic needs. A cultural keystone species implies some measure of culturally recognized reciprocal relationship and responsibility between that species and the human community it sustains.
The Comcaac people: Eelgrass as a cultural keystone species
Eelgrass was a cultural keystone species for the Comcaac (known to the white communities as “Seri”) Native communities in Baja Mexico. The Comcaac ate the rhizomes and leaves of eelgrass plants, either fresh in season or ground into cakes in the winter. They wove baskets and dolls from the leaves. They took the plant as medicine for diarrhea and other ailments.
Although seagrasses can also reproduce vegetatively by sending out rhizomes, they are the only flowering marine plants. For eelgrass specifically flowering begins in the northern hemisphere winter, sometimes as early as February. In the Comcaac language, April is the month when the eelgrass seed is mature. Originally the Comcaac people were six bands. Today there are about a thousand members left alive, and the communities consider themselves a single people.
Steps towards re-integrating human and eelgrass communities
As described in this reader, sustaining eelgrass requires a holistic approach, including changes in the ways coastal communities manage wastewater, develop shorelines, moor boats, and dredge channels. Some of these changes will be easier for coastal communities to implement than others. A community’s sense of eelgrass as an important part of their cultural and economic well-being may facilitate the kinds of long terms changes most likely to sustain eelgrass populations in the long run. Given the characteristics of cultural keystone species described above, some possible avenues for supporting this sense might include:
Sustainable use of eelgrass and/or other species (shellfish, finfish) supported by eelgrass habitat
Education about the value of ecosystem services and the grasses themselves. On Cape Cod, for example, residential development over the last few decades has led to eutrophication of a number of local estuaries, likely as a result of increased nitrogen loadings from septic systems. Eelgrass losses have followed, and with them populations of the once prevalent bay scallop. Local bay scallop shellfishing community members, once antagonistic to the presence of eelgrass on the grounds of the difficulties it made for boaters, have become more supportive as they understand the relationship between their own drastically lowered bay scallop harvests, and the losses of the once more abundant eelgrasses.
Other educational opportunities might include kayak tours for bird watching near eelgrass beds, educating school groups about their relationships to local streams, watersheds, and thus the coast, or
Celebration of the eelgrass, perhaps in costumes at a local beach festival. If “April is the month when the eelgrass seed is mature,” elementary school students could celebrate this with pictures, paintings, or parades to the sea.
Restoration, both physical and cultural, takes time. Sustaining eelgrass requires sustaining human communities that value eelgrass, and related coastal ecosystems such as shellfish and salt marsh communities, perhaps in part by learning again to make eelgrass cakes and eelgrass tea along with more conventional re-seeding measures.
Cristancho, S. and J. Vining (2004). Culturally defined keystone species. 11: 153-164.
Garibaldi, A. N. T. (2004). "Cultural keystone species: implications for ecological conservation and restoration. Ecology and society 9(3): 18.
Nabhan, G. P. (2000). Interspecific relationships affecting endangered species recognized by D-Odham and Comcacc cutltures Ecological Applications 10:1288–1295.
Nabhan, G. P. (2003). Singing the Turtle to Sea: The Comcáac (Seri) Art and Science of Reptiles University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angelos, CA.
Platten, S. (2009). The Cultural Keystone Concept: Insights from Ecological Anthropology. Human Ecology 37(4): 491. Seri Culture and History. Retrieved 2/21/10 from http://www.native-languages.org/seri_culture.htm.
Cornell. (2010). "Eelgrass in History." Seagrass.LI