Florida’s got a new watery preserve just offshore of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties. The newly christened Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve creates one of the world’s largest contiguous seagrass meadows, protecting 400,000 acres of seagrass habitat for marine wildlife, including nineteen endangered species. There are over forty marine sanctuaries in Florida waters – this is the first new one in thirty years, and is open for recreation, sport fishing and scalloping.
And that’s important because seagrass is in trouble worldwide, with losses reaching 80 percent in some areas, according to the National Academy of Science.
In Tampa Bay, it’s good news for seagrass, said Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which protects Florida’s largest estuary.
“We’re meeting our goals. We understand a lot more since the ‘50s, when no one paid attention to the environment and dredge-and-fill destroyed the seagrass around Boca Ciega Bay,” said Sherwood. “In 2014 we exceeded our goals – 38,000 acres of seagrass – to conserving over 40,000,” he said, referring to the restored meadows thriving in the Tampa Bay estuary.
Just why is seagrass so important?
Seagrass meadows provide wildlife habitat for hundreds of aquatic species, from minuscule invertebrates to shore birds and manatees, according to TBEP. Sometimes sharks prowl seagrass shallows, acting as guardians of these underwater meadows, frightening away timid manatees and their famous appetite for aptly-named “manatee grass.”
Bayous and estuaries from the tropics to the arctic host a variety of seagrasses, flourishing in the coastal regions worldwide, according to the Smithsonian. Though there are many species of seagrass, only about three prevail in the Gulf: turtle grass, shoal grass and manatee grass. A healthy seagrass meadow is an excellent indicator of the environment, indicating good water quality and a healthy ecosystem for inhabitants, says the TBEP.
Unlike seaweed, which is an algae, seagrass is an angiosperm, says NOAA, a true flowering plant with flowers and seeds. It nestles its longitudinal rhizomes into the seafloor, where it sways with the tides and builds soil. Seagrass actually needs sun for photosynthesis, so murky water is bad news.
These meadows form valuable carbon sinks, according to Smithsonian Magazine, sequestering significant amounts of carbon dioxide more efficiently than rainforests. Scientists say it’s critical to maintain these important ecosystems that absorb greenhouse gases. And seagrass may hold even more secrets: The New York Times reported recent findings from Indonesia show seagrass removed pathogens from the water, and corals living nearby had no disease.
Studies tracking seagrass since 1940 discovered some declined drastically peaking in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the BP/DeepWater Horizon spill renewed interest in monitoring seagrass leading to the RESTORE Act requiring regular monitoring in US waters.
The new Nature Coast preserve creates the Gulf’s largest seagrass bed, stretching from the Big Bend to Florida Bay. It’s just one of many restoration efforts around the globe to counter seagrass losses over the last century from pollution, unchecked coastal development, poor fishery practices and natural disasters.
Meanwhile, back in Tampa Bay, Sherwood said Boca Ciega Bay is doing well. And Clam Bayou? The beloved little estuary always needs some cleanup, says TBEP, though it’s improved drastically since 2007, when restoration projects began to improve the neglected area.
“Most of our clean-up is in Old Tampa Bay, which has water quality issues,” said Sherwood, adding, “Restorations are ongoing throughout the watershed.”
So what can you do for seagrass? Sherwood recommends vigilance.
“We’ve been successful in reducing nutrients in many of our coastal communities, but our work is never done,” he said. “The estuary program has lots of information, and right now we’re offering grants for neighborhoods, school groups and others with projects to help Tampa Bay.”
To find out more about grants and programs, visit the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.