March is Seagrass Awareness Month in Florida. To help bring much-needed attention to these oftentimes overlooked but critically important underwater plants, Save the Manatee Club’s co-founder, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, recently recorded a radio public service message about the importance of this seemingly humble aquatic vegetation.
In the message, Mr. Buffett asks for the public’s help, “…good fishing depends on healthy seagrass. Those important underwater plants are declining because of pollution and accidental propeller scarring. You can help. When boating over seagrass beds, trim up your engine and pole or troll. This will help protect your favorite fishing spot and the sea life, like manatees, who live there. Thanks for pitching in.” According to Dr. Katie Tripp, Director of Science and Conservation of Save the Manatee Club, seagrasses are one of the most productive plant communities on Earth. They are flowering plants that live underwater, and because they require sunlight, they are found mostly in clear, shallow water. Florida has approximately 2.7 million acres of seagrass meadows comprised of seven different plant species.
“These plants are important because they provide habitat and/or food for nearly 70 percent of all sea life,” says Dr. Tripp. This includes endangered manatees and sea turtles, dolphins, and recreationally and commercially important fish and shellfish species, such as redfish, sea trout, snapper, pink shrimp, and blue crabs. They also stabilize sediments, and improve water quality by filtering pollutants from the water column.
Tripp explains that seagrasses are in decline worldwide. As a result, countless aquatic species that depend on seagrasses for food, shelter, and habitat are also threatened.
Around the world, many seagrass declines are caused by human activities, says Tripp. Development close to the water’s edge, the laying of impervious surfaces, and the use of pesticides and herbicides create opportunities for polluted run-off to enter near shore waters where seagrasses grow. This causes turbidity and increased nutrient levels which block out the light seagrasses need to survive. Dredge and fill projects and oil spills also take their toll on the survival of seagrass beds.
In Florida, significant efforts have been made to recover seagrass, but there is still work to be done to restore grassbeds to historic levels and prevent future loss. One ongoing threat to seagrass is posed by boat propellers that cause “scarring”. It is believed that every seagrass bed in Florida contains at least some scarring. “Scarring happens when boaters try to motor through water too shallow for the draft of their boats and the propeller slashes through the seagrass, sometimes reaching all the way to the substrate and causing extensive damage.”
It can take years for some species of seagrass to recover from prop scarring. The website of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Florida Wildlife Research Institute states that “…areas subject to repeated boat impacts may never have the opportunity to recover.”
Patrick Rose, Executive Director of Save the Manatee Club, and an avid boater and fisherman, says there are a number of actions boaters can take to conserve seagrass beds. “The most important is to stay in channels whenever possible. If you do boat over shallow seagrass beds, turn off your engine and tilt it up. Support pole and troll zones that have been established in some areas to protect seagrasses. In these areas, only a pole or trolling motor can be used for propulsion. Support No Internal Combustion Motor Zones that have been established for seagrass protection and restoration. Finally, support management practices that reduce water pollution from both point sources, such as sewage treatment discharges, and non-point sources such as runoff from paved roads and parking lots.”
Rose adds, “Be part of the solution during Seagrass Awareness Month in March and beyond. Healthy and abundant seagrass beds will keep us all fishing and enjoying our coastal waterways long into the future, so – as Jimmy says – please trim up your engine.”
Visit www.savethemanatee.org for more information on manatees, to adopt a real Florida manatee, and to sign up for the Club’s free E-newsletter. For more information on seagrasses, visit the Florida Wildlife Research Institute at http://research.myfwc.com/features/category_main.asp?id=1323.