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New Scientific Study Provides Valuable information for Protecting and Restoring Eelgrass—an Important but Dwindling Resource

Sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the research could help reverse the decades-long decline of critical coastal habitat.

NEW HAVEN, CT | June 21, 2012

For more than 80 years, eelgrass populations in Southern New England and New York have been in serious decline, but insight from a new, cutting-edge scientific study led by one of the world’s most renowned eelgrass researchers could help reverse the decline.

Eelgrass meadows in the coastal waters of Southern New England and New York provide critical habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish and invertebrate species – such as flounder and bay scallops. Properly conserving eelgrass, by applying sound research and management principles, will create benefits for commercial and recreational fishing interests and provide a blueprint for improving water quality.

The new study, led by Dr. Frederick Short, a research professor in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, highlights the critical need for increased management to reduce nitrogen loading into coastal waters. Nitrogen pollution and warming ocean temperatures are considered the biggest threats to eelgrass health.

The research also:

  • Highlights the need to place additional focus on preserving the region’s most resilient eelgrass populations in the region—including populations in Great South Bay in New York, Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and Great Bay in New Hampshire—that are providing the ecosystem benefits we depend on and have high potential to be used to assist restoration in bays where eelgrass meadows have been lost.
  • Provides valuable information about the distinct genetic characteristics of regional eelgrass populations and about how eelgrass spreads—information that could make restoration efforts much more effective.

The research—which is the first phase of a larger eelgrass research and restoration effort—was funded via a Federal appropriation through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Eelgrass meadows provide essential habitat for valuable fisheries and other important species, improve water quality, and reduce shoreline erosion,” said Chantal Collier, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Sound Program. “Eelgrass protection is a critical component of sustaining the ecosystem services that people rely upon for food, jobs, and recreation and are meaningful for our culture and economic future.

“We now have the research and understanding to address the threats to regional eelgrass habitat,” she said. “These findings will inform the steps we need to take to protect remaining eelgrass meadows and other estuarine habitats from further declines and ensure long-lasting restoration success.”

From 1931 to present day, regional eelgrass populations have suffered losses of up to 90 percent due to a myriad of factors, including pollution, disease, brown tides, impacts from multiple uses of the waterways and other causes not yet understood.

Nitrogen pollution is considered the most severe threat. It comes from sewage treatment plant wastewater discharges, polluted groundwater and runoff from storm water containing fertilizers and pet waste. Atmospheric nitrogen from burning fossil fuels is another significant source of nutrient pollution deposited on land and in our coastal waters.

The new research centered on laboratory analysis of plants from 10 locations around the region, from Cape Cod to Long Island. The results showed that some eelgrass populations are more resilient to multiple sources of stress than others. In particular, plants from Great South Bay in New York, Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and Great Bay in New Hampshire are better adapted to survive under increased nitrogen and ocean temperature conditions.

Restoration efforts could be significantly improved by focusing on use of these populations as donors to restoration locations elsewhere. The new research also shows that it is imperative that we conserve and protect the existing eelgrass beds that are left to maintain a seed source and improve environmental conditions that enable natural recovery.

“Collectively, we’ve done some cutting-edge science here and learned valuable things that will inform better management of the species,” said Adam Whelchel, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. “Now, it’s time to work through how to best apply what we’ve learned to conserve and restore eelgrass across the eastern seaboard and beyond.”

Click here to download the report.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

Contact information

James Miller
Media Relations Manager
The Nature Conservancy

Misty Edgecomb
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Nature Conservancy

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