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:
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.
“We’ve done some cutting-edge science here and learned valuable things we didn’t know,” said Jon Kachmar, The Nature Conservancy’s Southeastern Massachusetts Program director. “Now, it’s time to work through how to best apply what we’ve learned to conserve and restore eelgrass in the region.”
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The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Media Relations Manager
The Nature Conservancy
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Nature Conservancy