Preserving and Monitoring Our Seagrass Meadows

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Submitted by Justine Kibbe
for the Fishers Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy

Fishers Island’s extensive natural resources and land preserves coupled with its limited development and lack of tourism make it a special place. The marine environment surrounding the island is also distinctive – it supports some of the last remaining seagrass meadows in Long Island Sound.

Justine Kibbe, Naturalist for the Fishers Island Conservancy, teamed up with The Nature Conservancy scientists, Northeast Marine Program Director Sally McGee and Long Island Sound Program Director Chantal Collier, in August 2014 . They surveyed and selected potential new monitoring sites around the island to support and guide the development of protection and restoration strategies for the island’s valuable and irreplaceable seagrass meadows. Initial parameters to be monitored in 2015 include seasonal water temperatures and activities in and adjacent to seagrass meadows. By understanding and reducing threats to eelgrass within our local control, such as the amount of nitrogen going into our waters, we can help seagrass meadows to persist and cope with warming temperatures.

Seagrasses are a unique group of flowering marine plants that live fully submerged in shallow coastal waters around the world. They form extensive underwater meadows which provide valuable benefits to nature and people. Seagrasses provide shelter, feeding grounds, and serve as nurseries for thousands of ocean animals, including commercially and recreationally important species such as lobsters, flounder, and bay scallops. They generate oxygen, improve water quality by absorbing nutrients, and even help reduce shoreline erosion. Of the 58 known kinds of seagrass, eelgrass (Zostera marina) is the only species found in the Sound. Historically abundant throughout the bays and harbors of the Sound, today, less than 10 percent of its historic acreage remains, and 98 percent of the eelgrass in the New York waters of the Sound is found around Fishers Island.

Around the world, seagrasses are dying and disappearing at an alarming rate. The declines have been attributed to numerous sources ranging from nutrient pollution, sedimentation, dredging, anchoring, propeller scars and fishing gear, to disease, algal blooms, warming temperatures and sea level rise.

In 2009, The Nature Conservancy received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to research the causes of seagrass decline in the Southern New England and Long Island regions. The study, completed in May 2014, demonstrates that nitrogen pollution – from sewage, fertilizers and the atmosphere – and warming water temperatures, are the biggest threats to eelgrass throughout the region. A key finding was that the sources of nitrogen and relative risks from nitrogen pollution can differ from one bay to the next. Around Fishers Island, the primary source of nitrogen pollution is from septic systems and fertilizer application. However, with the exception of East Harbor, the risk to seagrass persistence from nitrogen pollution around the island is relatively low compared to other study sites in Long Island Sound; while the risk from thermal stress is relatively high. To view the full study, visit http://nature.org/seagrassresearch.

Snorkel Survey in August took place off East Beach
Photo Credit: Justine Kibbe

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