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  Times Wires 17 Dec 06
Man of sod takes on grasses of sea


When Hillsborough County leaders threatened to shut down Jim Anderson's favorite fishing spot, he fought back.

There were no fists or fighting words, merely a rigged pontoon boat and organic sea grass food.

It was 1995 when county commissioners threatened to close parts of Cockroach Bay because much of the area's sea grass beds had been destroyed by boat propellers.

Anderson disagreed with county officials' logic. "You don't close a road when it has a lot of potholes," he said. "You fix it".

So Anderson, a sod farmer by trade, began devising ways to fix the prop scars. In a barn on his Ruskin property, Anderson and some friends rigged an "injection vessel." The boat inserted a nutritional mix in the prop scars to encourage sea grass growth.

His efforts resulted in a significant visual improvement in Cockroach Bay's sea grass population. But the improvement wasn't enough for the county. Officials still closed some of Cockroach Bay, though Anderson's fishing spot remained opened.

Legacy of damage

Dredging for land development in the 1950s and 1960s took out much of the bay's sea grass. Polluted runoff and careless boaters killed even more.

By the early 1990s, Cockroach Bay had lost 80 percent of its sea grass, more than anywhere else in Florida.

A vital source of food and habitat for marine life, sea grass purifies the water and helps stabilize the bay's shifting bottom. Once damaged, it takes years or decades to grow back.

Damage to sea grass beds is a global crisis, said a report published this month in BioScience, the scientific journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Along with Florida, Japan, Australia and the Mediterranean Sea are suffering significant sea grass losses. But this is no news to the man who has spent 11 years addressing and trying to fix the problem.

In the late 1990s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked Anderson to use his original injection vessel to regrow prop-scarred sea grass in the Florida Keys.

Once there, he jumped over the side of the boat to survey the area. Anderson sunk up to his knees in what was essentially an underwater ditch.

His replanting efforts failed because as Anderson puts it, "Nothing grows in a ditch." Back to the drawing board. Back to the barn.

Trying again

Sea grass doesn't grow laterally, so Anderson had to figure out a way to fill in the void caused by a prop scar. Just laying sand didn't work because the current washed it all away. Anderson built a biodegradable sleeve to fill the trenches. He filled it with sand and a nutritional liquid formula that he's not sharing with anyone.

"Everyone's trying to figure out how I'm doing this," the 56-year-old said. He sneaked his new invention back to the Keys. "We tried to look like we were fishing because it was kind of illegal," said Anderson.

They laid down 30 feet of tubes into a prop scar. Three months later, sea grass reappeared. When Anderson saw the little green sprigs poking out of the sea bottom, he decided it was time to call a patent attorney.

"I knew I had solved the prop scar problem," he said.

Anderson has since developed multiple planting technologies, including a device that transplants sea grass from one area to another and a boat that inserts shoots in the ground.

His efforts have taken him all over the country. He has worked on propeller scars in Key West. He's been called to address the declining crab population in Chesapeake Bay, a result of lost sea grass. He worked with the state Department of Transportation to replant sea grass that was moved in the Tampa airport interchanges project.

Catch-22: No data, no money

While acclaim for his techniques have followed, the opportunity to put them to work hasn't.

He said he recently received data from NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission supporting his methods. Until now, Anderson's biggest problem landing work has been a lack of scientific data supporting his methods.

"The people who control the money don't want to fund something that's untested," said David Crewz, a research scientist at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg who is familiar with Anderson's work.

When Anderson approached the government for sea grass replanting work, he was asked to produce scientific data. "He shows them some projects that worked, but they don't see rigorous experiments. There's no controls. They say there's no real research," said Crewz.

Anderson's quandary: He couldn't get work without scientific proof that his method worked. But he couldn't do the research to produce the proof without money.

Cheaper alternatives a barrier

Anderson continues to watch dredging projects in Florida, looking for opportunities to replant affected sea grass. But, in most cases, dredged sea grass is replaced with mangroves and marshes because it's less expensive than Anderson's method.

"If you take out an oak tree you hit with a car, you have to put an oak tree back, not a pine tree," said Anderson. "They should be doing sea grass for sea grass."

But Anderson, who sold his sod business to focus on sea grass, is confident the research now backing his work will help the projects roll in.

Last week, he presented his work at the Restore American Estuaries conference in New Orleans. He's taking his sediment tubes to Miami later this month to fill in a 200-foot scar.

"We have the tools to restore sea grass," Anderson said. "The money will come."

You CAN make a difference for Singapore seagrasses
Join TeamSeagrass, a volunteer effort in Singapore to monitor our very own seagrasses.

Related articles on Global marine issues and seagrasses
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