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Gulf Coast Sea Grass

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Published on Oct 6, 2011

Florida's Big Bend is home to the second-largest contiguous seagrass habitat in North America, making it a vital resource not only for the state, but also for the nation and the world. These seagrass beds support Florida's multibillion-dollar recreational and commercial fishing industries by providing habitat for everything from bay scallops to grouper.

Seagrasses also represent an important food resource for endangered green sea turtles and manatees, and they generate oxygen, dampen wave energy, stabilize sediments to reduce shoreline erosion, sequester carbon and enhance water clarity. In sum, seagrasses are essential to the integrity, health and value of the state's estuarine and nearshore coastal ecosystems.

Unfortunately, seagrasses are also among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Around the globe, seagrass beds have disappeared at the alarming rate of about 100 square kilometers per year since the 1980s.

University of Florida ecologist Tom Frazer has led seagrass research on the Big Bend and Florida's Gulf Coast for the last 15 years. A vital base for this work is Project COAST (Coastal Assessment Team), with its network of fixed sampling stations and monitoring of water quality factors, especially nutrients and planktonic algae.

From 2010 through 2012, Project COAST will be augmented with a study more specifically characterizing the species composition of seagrass communities and assessing their ecological performance.

"Seagrasses are relatively light-hungry organisms," Frazer says. "When excess nutrients cause excessive algal growth, less light reaches the seagrass, and it suffers and declines."

Because of his long-term research on seagrasses, Frazer was well-positioned to expand ongoing studies — with additional funding from Florida Sea Grant's Rapid Response Program — and begin documenting changes following the spill. All of this work is important, Frazer says, because once damaged, seagrass beds don't recover readily.

"If you lose seagrasses, they can take decades to recover," he said. "If we can predict or garner an early warning of a decline in (seagrass) performance before there's a collapse, we'll be in a better position to do something about it."

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