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The Decline of Seagrass Meadows

Zostera! Eelgrass, Zostera marina, is a flowering, marine vascular plant that remains submerged all the time. This is quite a feat for vascular flowering plants, and only a few dozen species world wide are capable of growing completely submerged in a marine environment. Eelgrass creates and extremely important habitat, its upright structures and complex root system create a 3-D living space for many different types of animals. It is (or was) the dominant habitat forming SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) throughout much of the coastal waters in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, for various reasons, eelgrass meadows have seen drastic declines, and in many locations eelgrass only exists in a mosaic of small patches. This is extremely bad news as many of the important, and formerly important, commercial and recreational fisheries of the northeast US are dependent on Zostera at some part of their life cycle as a nursery and foraging ground. Some of the species are finfish like tautog, bluefish, fluke, winter flounder, porgies, while others are shellfish such as blue mussels, hard clams, oysters, bay scallops, and blue crabs. Many of the aforementioned species support or once supported vibrant fisheries. Many of those fisheries have collapsed, also for various reasons. However, is it possible there is a link between the crash of the fisheries, the decline of Zostera and the failure for recovery on both ends?

Bay Scallop on Eelgrass

Argopecten on Zostera! Bay Scallops, Argopecten irradians , have developed a very close relationship with eelgrass, Zostera marina. As larvae, they are passively transported, and tend to settle in eelgrass meadows when the current is dampened by the 3D structure of the seagrass. This same 3D structure provides post-set juvenile scallops a spatial refuge from predation. Even as larger juveniles and adults, scallops are capable of, and have been shown to, actively select eelgrass habitats.

Other species also use eelgrass

grass shrimp A number of other species utilize eelgrass as a habitat. Included are grass shrimp, like the Palaemonetes pugio, other decapods such as blue crabs, bivalves such as hard clams, gastropods (snails), and numerous fish species, including winter flounder, tautog and cod.

Seagrass.LI

At the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Marine Environmental Learning Center works a team of eelgrass restoration experts. They have been actively working to restore eelgrass meadows to their past glory throughout the Peconic Estuary, and more recently have been working in Long Island Sound and in the South Shore estuaries. About twice a year they release a newsletter that highlights some of the work they are involved in. The current newsletter also highlights the scallop restoration project being undertaken in Suffolk County, a project which I am involved, and a project that allows me to conduct much of my bay scallop research.

 

Click here to read the current newsletter.

 

Also, if you would like to visit their website, click here.

 

I have worked with this group in the past, and all members are very knowledgable in habitat restoration. They have experienced success in many of their transplant and restoration sites, and even developed their own methods for restoration. Now that the importance of eelgrass for many species has been ackowledged by the state of New York, which recently held a meeting of national and international seagrass experts to create an “eelgrass task force” to identify areas of research that are important to understand the dynamics of eelgrass survivng on Long Island and how best to protect it, the job of both the Cornell seagrass restoration team and Dr Brad Peterson’s (of Stony Brook University) Seagrass Rangers, a team of graduate students to which I belong, has never been more important.

To see the seagrass ecology lab website, click here.

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