M’sian receives US$150,000 grant to save our seagrass

Nature’s powerhouse: Ooi collecting data at the seagrass field at Pulau Setindan, Johor. — Photo courtesy of Nina Ho

PETALING JAYA: A Malaysian ecologist from Universiti Malaya (UM) has been selected as one of only six scientists in the world to be named the 2022 recipient of the Pew fellowship in marine conservation.

Jillian Ooi Lean Sim, a senior lecturer at UM, joins five other fellows from India, Indonesia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States as part of this year’s cohort for the fellowship.

Ooi will receive US$150,000 (RM630,900) from the Pew Charitable Trusts to not only study the growth and best methods to restore seagrass meadows but also to raise awareness on its importance.

One of the few seagrass ecologists in Malaysia, she said she chose seagrass as her subject matter because it was underappreciated and not many were fighting for this vital part of the marine ecosystems.

“I felt that seagrasses are sort of a powerhouse with many ecosystem functions but it is really underappreciated compared to coral reefs and mangroves,” she said when contacted.

Ooi, who researched seagrass for her PhD, said it was important for marine life because it was a nursing ground for juvenile fish and crustaceans, and feeding ground for dugongs and turtles.

“Considering how much Malaysians love seafood, we should be very concerned about seagrass destruction,” she said.

Ooi warned that the seagrass meadows in the country were declining rapidly.

From being along the entire Malaysian coast, now it was mostly found along the shores of Johor, Sabah and Sarawak, she said.

This was due to land reclamation, coastal development and water pollution, she added.

She started researching seagrass in 2005 and pointed out that seagrass differs from seaweed.

“It looks just like our grass fields on land with leaves, flowers, fruits and roots,” she said, adding that seaweed does not have fruits or flowers.

Ooi also has plans to raise awareness on conservation by creating a performing arts piece with visual and musical elements featuring the gamelan.

When she’s not “staring at seagrass”, Ooi plays the gamelan and is an artistic director for the Rhythm in Bronze, an all-women gamelan ensemble.

Pew’s president and chief executive officer Susan K. Urahn said Ooi together with the other newest Pew marine fellows join a growing community of individuals, who are pursuing innovative and actionable science.

“Marine research plays an essential role in expanding our understanding of the ocean and moving conservation forward,” she said in a recent statement.

The 2022 cohort’s projects will join a global community of nearly 200 experts engaged in vital ocean conservation work on all continents.

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