Protecting Florida's seagrass

 
Seagrasses in Florida's waterways provide incredible ecological benefits to coastal ecosystems.

 

Gazing out at its usually calm waters, one would never know that Pensacola Bay is missing 90% of its seagrass—the Bay’s single most important aquatic habitat. That’s why it’s vitally important that we protect the remaining seagrass. A recent Federal decision to rebuff plans to dredge some of the remaining seagrass for a deeper boat channel for a residential subdivision shows that with citizen pressure, sound science, and proper enforcement of the law—the regulatory system can work.

Santa Rosa Sound is a shallow waterway that runs along the south side of the Bay along the north shore of Santa Rosa Island. Because of the shallow water and proximity to Pensacola pass and its flushing action, the Sound has better water quality that supports most of the area’s remaining seagrass. Throughout the rest of the Bay system decades of industrial, wastewater, and stormwater pollution along with dredging have decimated the grasses.

The importance of seagrass cannot be overstated. It’s considered the “benchmark barometer” of waterway health for most Florida estuaries. Seen as dark patches on the bottom, seagrass stabilizes sediments, helps clear the water, absorbs CO2 that can acidify waters, and provides an oasis of shelter for nearly every commercially and recreationally-important species of finfish and shrimp.

It’s easy to see firsthand, as traveling along by snorkel or kayak over sand bottom there is usually little marine life to be seen. Upon entering a seagrass bed it’s like being in an aquarium, as tiny shrimp, crabs, finfish, and more shelter, swim, and forage among the seagrass. It’s been estimated that one acre of seagrass provides habitat for up to 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates--an astounding intensity of life.

Reviewing the aerial photos of the area proposed for dredging shows dozens of prop scars as boats attempt to traverse the shallow area with their motors too low in the water and speeds too high. These areas show as bare sand amidst lush seagrass, and they are famously slow to recover from the damage.

Clean Water Network of Florida along with Pensacola-area groups and citizens have for years lobbied regulators to deny the permit—citing the need to avoid impacts altogether and the fact that the transplanting of seagrass (as this project proposes) has very low rates of success. We can be thankful that the permitting process under the Clean Water Act demands that applicants first show why any impacts to wetlands and seagrass cannot be avoided—so called “avoidance and minimization.”

In this case, technically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t deny the permit, but they asked the applicant to provide additional documentation as to the need for the project and how they can avoid any seagrass impacts at all. This is a formal step that agencies use to allow applicants ample opportunity to satisfy the concerns of regulators without having to deny the permit until all possibilities have been fully considered.

With the failure to show the full need for the project, and serious doubts about the viability of transplanting seagrass, I remain optimistic that these two acres of seagrass in Santa Rosa Sound will stay protected from dredging. But I also know that will require continued vigilance, and so I will monitor and inform the regulatory agencies and support other area groups and citizens as we work to protect and restore vital seagrasses and the health of all our waters. With the once-mighty seagrass beds around Pensacola-area nearly eliminated by years of pollution, every remaining patch of grass deserves full protection.

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