Keeping our eyes on seagrass

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Paul Dolan
Published: Updated:
Seagrass in Charlotte Harbor. CREDIT: WINK News

The amount of seagrass around Florida has suddenly and severely plummeted. In 2021, the seagrass shortage contributed to a record number of manatee deaths.

The question is, why is it dying off? Moreover, how can we help the seagrass recovery efforts?

It’s an eye-opening monitoring program to document the health and status of seagrass in upper Charlotte Harbor and Lemon Bay. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences sea grant agent, Kate Rose, calls these blades the unsung heroes of the ocean.

“You know, 70% of our fishery species here in Florida are dependent on seagrass meadows, at some point in their lifetime,” said Rose.

For food, habitat and water clarity, between 2018 and 2021, Charlotte Harbor and Lemon Bay lost an average of 23% of seagrass coverage.

“Which is drastic, and, you know, that’s an average, so you break it out, the east wall lost about 50% of its coverage,” said Rose.

“There’s not much that can survive in that kind of an ecosystem. It’s not a vibrant ecosystem,” said David Schutz, CEO of Heal our Harbor.

Heal our Harbor is a non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring Charlotte Harbor. The team is just one of many citizen scientist groups keeping an eye on seagrass.

Schutz has personally seen the waters in his backyard go from pristine to impaired.

“We’ve had some pretty intense weather events that have disturbed the seagrass, and of course, we have lots of pollution, so that there’s always algae in the harbor,” said Schutz. “That blocks the sun, it’s like putting a tarp over your lawn. You’re not, you know, you’re not surprised that the grass underneath dies.”

Although, it’s not all gone. The middle west wall of the harbor has luscious, healthy and long seagrass.

The group measures then create a straight line in the water, called a transect, then place down PVC squares at controlled lengths to document what’s inside.

“We’re looking at coverage of seagrass coverage of algae species that are there,” said Rose.

Finally, the team uses a net to get a gauge of what fish and creatures are present. The goal is for the data to help inform better decision-making. In turn, Charlotte Harbor can hopefully become pristine again.

The Sea Grant Program hopes to expand the Eyes on Seagrass program to lower Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and Matlacha.

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