A Florida Seagrass Success Story — For Now

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Last summer, Florida created its first aquatic preserve in over 30 years. The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve protects about 400,000 acres of seagrass just north of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf coast.  These are part of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed and borders other existing preserves, creating a chain of protected ocean areas. Florida has the most seagrass diversity in the country, Huffington Post reports, with 2.5 million acres composed of seven different species. Protected aquatic areas are especially important in Florida, where runoff full of nitrogen and other nutrient pollution has led to devastating algae blooms in recent years with significant negative economic and environmental impacts.

Why this Matters: Seagrass is both one of the most important and most threatened ecosystems on earth. In Florida’s Gulf, it provides food and shelter for all sorts of marine mammals, from manatees to stone crabs. It also underpins much of the regional economy: activities depending on seagrass like fishing and manatee-watching generate more than $600 million annually and support more than 10,000 jobs, according to Pew.  The underwater grasses also clean sediment from the water and is an extremely effective carbon sink. Protecting seagrass beds could be incorporated into the broader goal of protecting 30% of land and water by 2030, both protecting habitat and absorbing carbon.

Tampa’s Seagrass Success Story

Earlier in the 20th century, Tampa Bay’s seagrass was on the decline. The Bay lost nearly half of its seagrass by the late 1980s, when the area finally took action to protect them. By setting stricter standards for wastewater treatment plants, the amount of nitrogen dropped dramatically. Now, the underwater area has more than 40,000 acres of seagrass cover, more than was there in 1950.  Not all restoration efforts are such a remarkable success, but research by the University of South Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that almost every seagrass restoration site in Florida supported some level of seagrass, even if the restored beds weren’t as robust as their original beds. 

Farther south, in the southernmost part of Sarasota Bay, it’s a different story.  Increasing development and population growth led to insufficient wastewater treatment (hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater were dumped in the bay) that has destroyed the seagrass meadows there.  And it’s hard to restore these vital seagrass meadows once they are totally gone, which is demonstrated by the struggle to halt seagrass decline in areas like Sarasota Bay and Biscayne Bay.   This is why the work protecting the seagrass beds to the north is so important —  but it also requires buy-in from community residents, government, businesses that contribute to water pollution. 

UN Report Calls for Seagrass Protection 

Last fall, the United Nations published an environmental report about the value of seagrass and calling for its increased protection. About a third of global seagrass has been destroyed since the late 19th century as a result of compounding pressure from nutrient pollution, climate change, and coastal development. The good news is that protecting seagrass ecosystems can help us take on the climate crisis. The report highlights eight key benefits, all at play in Florida as well as around the world, including their role as a nursery for fisheries, a buffer against coastal erosion, and a filtration system for sediment and excess nutrients in the water.

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