Sea oat planting seen crucial to beach ecosystem

They say still waters run deep – but so do the roots of a sea oat plant.

Not only do they run deep, but they also run wide. The roots of this plant, which makes its home on the upper dunes of the beach, also extend out horizontally, creating a solid, sturdy base that traps and collects beach sand – holding it in place and keeping the sand from being blown away in a storm.

Sea oats also protect the sand dunes, which serve as an important barrier against coastal water intrusion and as a natural blockade against wind, waves and storms. The dunes also provide refuge for nesting sea turtles and other wildlife, and according to Curtis Byrd, who serves as chairman of the Melbourne Beach Environmental Advisory Board, they are a vital part of the beachside ecosystem.

But issues like human foot traffic, urban run-off and invasive species can cause their numbers to dwindle – so one day each year volunteers plant new sea oats, clean up their habitat and remove exotic species that don’t belong on the beach.

“People walk on them, tear them down, or invasive plants come in, so we go and remove those plants,” Byrd said.

On Feb. 9, the Melbourne Beach Environmental Advisory Board, in partnership with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, is hosting a sea oat planting, and is inviting the community to take part.

“The sea oats actually hold the beach together,” Byrd said. “When they get bigger, the roots can go down 6 to 8 feet deep and they are holding sand, so if waves come and break against it, they can hold it in place.”

Byrd has served as chairman of the environmental advisory board since it was initially created in the 1990s, and has lived in Melbourne Beach since the 1980s. “I have a great passion for the environment and for sustainability,” Byrd said. His board works closely with the Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department, which provides discounted packs of sea oats for sale to the public each year.

Brevard County Beach Programs Assistant, Paula Berntson said that since its inception in 2004, there have been 375,954 sea oats sold at a discount to local residents, organizations and municipalities to plant on local beaches. Planting must take place prior to March 1, when sea turtle nesting season begins.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy is also donating 10 trays of sea oats to the effort. Each tray contains about 100 plants and typically costs $96 per tray when discounted.

Donna Lee Crawford is the community stewardship coordinator for the conservancy. “The Sea Turtle Conservancy, town of Melbourne Beach and the Surfrider Foundation Sebastian Inlet Chapter, along with communities and residents, all partner annually purchasing sea oats from Brevard County Natural Resources Management and Keep Brevard Beautiful to plant throughout and adjacent to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge,” Crawford said. “Sea oats are native coastal plants that naturally recruit sand at their bases and have deep, widespread root systems to help build and stabilize our dunes for the vital protection of properties and sea turtle nesting habitat.”

Anyone interested in planting sea oats is invited to join in. The group will meet at Loggerhead Park, located on State Road A1A at the end of Surf Road.

Students are also welcome and can earn service hours. Byrd advises volunteers to bring water, gloves, tools, sunscreen, bug spray, and clothes and shoes you will not mind getting dirty.

For more information, call the Melbourne Beach Environmental Advisory Board at 321-724-5860 or Curtis Byrd at 321-266-0794.

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