March in Florida, among other things, is time for creating awareness about the importance of seagrass meadows of the state.
It’s Seagrass Awareness Month in Florida, a time to bring attention to the importance of the state’s documented 2.2 million acres of seagrass meadows, which provide habitat and sustenance for a wide variety of marine life.
Seagrass awareness and conservation are instrumental to protecting manatees because seagrass beds are an essential habitat of the endangered marine mammal, says Save the Manatee Club’s Director of Science and Conservation, Dr. Katie Tripp.
“Not only do seagrasses provide a critically important food source for manatees, but manatees also rest and travel in the shallow water environment of the seagrass beds; an environment that is also home to many other aquatic species,” explains Tripp. “In addition, these seagrass beds serve as a nursery for commercially important species of game fish, and many waterway users are attracted to this habitat, from fishermen to kayakers, because of the diversity of life that can be found here including sea turtles, dolphins, redfish, sea trout, snapper, pink shrimp and blue crabs. The plants also stabilize sediments, and improve water quality by filtering pollutants from the water column.”
Ongoing threats to seagrasses are posed by boat propellers that cause “scarring.” It is believed that every seagrass bed in Florida contains at least some scarring, which happens when boaters try to motor through water too shallow for the draft of their boats and the propeller slashes through the seagrass, sometimes reaching all the way to the substrate and causing extensive damage. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s website, run-off is another serious problem as it can affect water quality and reduce the amount of light reaching the plants. Docks and boats can also shade seagrass beds, causing them to die from lack of light.
State agencies and organizations continue to explore seagrass management and restoration options. “We are so excited about some new technologies such as electronic navigation charts for marine and inland lakes and rivers and the automatic identification of the location of seagrass beds,” says Tripp. “Any tool that boaters can use to be more aware of the environment in which they are boating, including knowledge of nearby seagrass beds, helps them to be safer, more resource-conscious users of the waterways. Seagrass scarring can take years to heal, so it’s important that we all strive to avoid damage to this vital resource.” For more information on these new technologies, Tripp suggests visiting www.navionics.com.
“Boaters should wear polarized sunglasses to help spot manatees and seagrasses in the water,” adds Tripp. “In shallow seagrass beds, boats should pole and troll to avoid damaging seagrasses with their engine. If boaters become stuck in a shallow area with seagrasses, they should never use the engine to try to get free. Instead, they should turn off the engine, shift passenger weight distribution in the boat, and try to move the boat using a long pole or oar. If necessary, one or more passengers can exit the boat and push it to deeper water. Staying in marked channels with deeper water can help boaters avoid damaging seagrasses.”
Patrick Rose, Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director of Save the Manatee Club, who is also an avid boater and fisherman, says, “It’s important that we all continue to work together to ensure the future health and preservation of Florida’s vital seagrass habitat during Seagrass Awareness Month and beyond.”
For more information on seagrasses, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website at http://myfwc.com/research/habitat/seagrasses/publications/simm-report-1/.
To listen to Jimmy Buffett’s seagrass public service announcement, go to www.savethemanatee.org/video_audio_psas.htm.
Watch manatees and other Florida wildlife at Blue Spring State Park on the Club’s live webcams at www.savethemanatee.org/livecams.