Two Stellenbosch University (SU) students walked away with the best oral presentation and the best poster awards at the recent annual congress of the Southern African Society for Aquatic Scientists (SASAqS).
PhD student Katie Watson's presentation on the restoration of seagrass meadows at Langebaan earned her the best presentation award, while Bianca Boshoff's poster on the role of seagrass meadows in the accumulation of microplastics in the Knysna Estuary earned her the best poster award.
Both are postgraduate students in the research group of Prof. Sophie von der Heyden in the Department of Botany and Zoology at SU. And both are conducting their research as part of Project SeaStore, a multidisciplinary effort to potentially restore degraded and endangered seagrass meadows along South Africa's coastline.
Katie says her research explores the restoration potential of the seagrass species Zostera capensis, using seagrass meadows in Langebaan Lagoon as a starting point. “From previous research, we knew that while this species is fast-growing, it does not colonise easily. So we transplanted cores and anchored shoots in differing planting arrangements across several sub-sites within Langebaan Lagoon," she explains.
Preliminary results indicate that differences in the subsites had a more significant impact on the survival and persistence of the transplanted seagrass than planting arrangement or transplant material.
Her findings have important implications for our understanding of the colonisation potential of Z. capensis and will help to optimise transplantation efforts. Katie is also part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Seagrass Species Specialist Group, working to update Red List Assessments for southern African seagrass species.
“Contributing to seagrass restoration research is hugely rewarding, especially with an endangered species. Conserving seagrass meadows in South Africa is crucial to preserving the ecosystem functions seagrasses provide, and active restoration is a tool that will enable us to prevent further seagrass declines," she adds.
She is an avid underwater photographer and communicates her work on social media platforms such as Instagram (underwaterwithkatie) and Twitter (@KatieMWatson_).
For her postgraduate studies, Bianca wants to determine whether seagrass meadows serve as filters of microplastics from the surrounding environment, as well as potential reservoirs or sinks of microplastics. She has already co-authored a research article based on results from her BSc Honours project, titled “The role of seagrass meadows in the accumulation of microplastics: insights from a South African estuary" published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, and is now in the final year of her MSc studies.
“I am motivated by trying to find solutions for the severe plastic pollution problem we are facing. It is also interesting to be confronted with such a young concept, namely microplastics and their seemingly ubiquitous existence. We need to use every research opportunity to understand the implications of this problem," she concludes.