MARCH 3, 2020

Sea Grass is Key to Florida's Inshore Fish Habitat

An effort by the Angler Action Foundation and the state of Florida to restore essential fish habitat in southwest Florida will pay dividends for the health of its coast and the Everglades.

Every coastal angler worth his or her salt is familiar with the importance of sea grass beds. Sea grass meadows are great places to target species like speckled sea trout from spring through fall. Up to 70% of the species desired by anglers, including tarpon, grouper, redfish, and many more, spend some part of their life cycle in this habitat.

It is estimated that healthy sea grass beds contribute more than $20 billion a year to the Florida economy by providing habitat for commercial and sport fisheries, reducing erosion and impacts of storm events, while also sequestering carbon at a rate of 1,200 lbs/year. By any measure, healthy sea grass meadows play an critical ecological and economic role in Florida and around the world. No surprise then, that the significant loss of sea grass beds in coastal Florida has been a serious concern for many.

The Caloosahatchee Estuary on Florida’s southwest coast has suffered from poor water quality. In addition, increased salinity levels followed by rapid fluctuations in salinity over sustained periods resulted in the loss of up to 1,200 acres of sea grass beds. Major losses occurred some 15 years ago from which the sea grass has been unable to recover on its own.

An ambitious project began in 2018 under the direction of the Angler Action Foundation. AAF’s mission is to improve angler access, fisheries science, and marine habitat through collaborative research, education, and conservation programs. Funding for the first phase of the work was provided by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the leadership of State Senator Kathleen Passidomo and State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen were key to seeing the project receive the necessary support.

Restoration specialists at Sea and Shoreline based in Ruskin, Florida, have led the effort and a third-party ecological assessment of the project is being managed by Johnson Engineering in Fort Meyers and Florida Gulf Coast University.

In late 2018, approximately 20 acres of tape grass and widgeon grass were planted in areas that had been decimated by excessive freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. Widgeon grass was selected for its ability to pioneer new habitat and tolerate a wide range of salinity. Tape grass, also known as eelgrass or wild celery, is more tolerant of freshwater than other grasses. Planting these two species will provide some insurance that sea grass beds will establish themselves and remain intact under widely varying salinity levels.

Sea grass plantings were protected by wire-mesh exclosures to protect them form turtles and manatees, thus allowing the plants to take root. Initial surveys indicate very high survival rate, with up to 95% of the plantings thriving and producing seeds and rhizomes that will disperse and hopefully establish themselves in adjacent areas, resulting in a self-sustaining sea grass meadow.

Future plans are to expand the footprint of the planted areas and continue to monitor the project’s progress. It is hoped the same methods can be used in other parts of Florida such as the Indian River Lagoon, which has also suffered devastating losses of sea grass habitat.

All in all, the Caloosahatchee planting project promises to reverse one of the more serious threats to Florida’s coastal health and is a key part of restoring the Everglades. Anglers should be encouraged that returning sea grass meadows will ensure that sea trout, tarpon, and redfish populations remain strong for future generations of sportsmen and women.

Photo courtesy of Sea and Shoreline