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  news-press.com 24 Mar 07
Seagrass should be part of March's green celebrations
It cleans our water, supports our economy

There's more green to celebrate in March than just shamrocks. March is a time to enjoy St. Patrick's Day, shamrocks, and seagrass! March also marks Seagrass Awareness Month.

This time of year, few of us would consider plunging our heads into 60-degree water, but we might be surprised at what's hidden among the seagrass. Starfish, blue crabs, crown conchs, snails, stingrays and dozens of fish species all living in this unique, important habitat.

Seagrasses are flowering underwater plants that grow in shallow estuaries like Charlotte Harbor. Requiring sunlight and adequate water quality conditions to thrive, these beds play host to marine organisms such as shrimp, crabs, fish and manatees.

They provide a primary food source, spawning and nursing grounds, and a hiding spot for critters avoiding predators. Birds such as herons, osprey and roseate spoonbills also use seagrass beds as important feeding grounds.

Have you ever wondered what happens to "cloudy" water after a windy day? Seagrasses trap these suspended particles and allow them to settle down into the mud, increasing water clarity.

During hurricanes, seagrass blades can buffer the impacts to our shorelines, and reduce erosion by slowing currents on a daily basis. They also act as a filtration system by treating pollution from runoff and helping improve water quality.

Our economy also benefits from seagrass. Over 70 percent of recreationally and commercially important species spend part of their life in seagrass beds.

In 2006, seagrass communities in Florida supported an estimated harvest of $71.4 million for six seagrass-dependent commercial species of fish and shellfish, as well as provided an ideal spot for recreational fishing and kayaking.

Did you know that these important habitats are under pressure? Water quality in Southwest Florida is being threatened by factors including: increased development, changes in salinity due to freshwater flow alterations, and higher nutrient content from stormwater runoff.

Physical damage from boat groundings and "prop scarring" can uproot grasses and sediment, resulting in substantial habitat loss that requires up to a decade before full recovery.

Those of us who spend time on the water can play a major role in protecting seagrasses. The conscientious boater should study charts and check tides, slow down when unsure of depth and use marked channels.

If you do run aground, immediately stop and raise the engine. Do not try to power through. This can severely damage the grasses and potentially your boat! Try to pole your way to deeper water or consider waiting until the tide rises.

In Florida, seagrasses are protected by law, and boaters can face federal and state fines for the damage they cause. Many agencies are working together to ensure this valuable habitat is protected for future generations.

Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves have been conducting seagrass monitoring since 1998 to determine long-term habitat changes, South and Southwest Florida Water Management Districts conduct aerial photography to detect large-scale coverage change, while a host of partnership agencies collects water quality data for the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials are also helping to determine the extent and recovery of prop scar damage.

Join Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves in celebrating Seagrass Awareness Month by learning more about this critical habitat. Go to www.floridacoasts.org for more information or call (941) 575-5861.

Celia Stearns is environmental specialist for the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves.

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