Seagrass Update: What’s happening in our marine meadows?

The Fishers Island Seagrass Management (FISM) Coalition is entering its second year as a participant in MPA Watch. MPA Watch is a “network of programs that support healthy oceans through community science by collecting human use data in and around [our] protected areas”. MPA stands for “Marine Protected Area”, which are areas along the coast afforded certain protections in order to preserve underwater habitats and the organisms that live within them. Some other types of protected areas that are found on land and in the water include National Wildlife Refuges, State Parks and National Parks. California has 124 MPAs along its coastline. Here on Fishers Island, the FISM Coalition is exploring options to designate Seagrass Management Areas, or SMAs, a type of MPA designed to protect eelgrass meadows.

Eelgrass meadows were once abundant throughout Long Island Sound, but now only 10% of the meadows remain. This precipitous decline was caused by, and continues to be caused by, factors such as pollution, algal blooms, boating activity, diseases and climate change. Fishers Island is fortunate to have about a quarter of the Sound’s remaining eelgrass along its coast and it is critical that these remaining meadows are protected and conserved in the form of SMAs. SMAs will not only benefit eelgrass – when eelgrass meadows are healthy, they provide a number of ecosystem services including providing habitat for juvenile fish, scallops and lobster, oxygenating the water and providing shoreline protection from storms. Research done around the world suggests that established MPAs can lead to an increase in fish populations within the boundaries of the MPA, and of the surrounding areas as well. This spillover effect would benefit fishing activities in the adjacent waters. SMAs around Fishers Island will protect critical eelgrass habitat and have the potential to enhance local commercial and recreational fisheries, such as those for striped bass, tautog, bluefish and black sea bass.

In 2012, the New York State legislature passed the Seagrass Protection Act. This act directs the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to create SMAs in consultation with local governments and relevant stakeholders. SMAs must have an accompanying seagrass management plan to specifying allowed and regulated activities within the SMA. The management plans will also be developed with the assistance and guidance of coastal municipalities and stakeholders. A goal of the FISM Coalition is to establish co-management of the island’s seagrass ecosystems, whereby the Island community, the Town and the State share seagrass management authority and responsibility. SMAs and seagrass management plans will aim to sustain recreational and commercial activities, so long as these activities are not detrimental to seagrass health.

The FISM Coalition will be working this summer to start the SMA planning process. We will be looking for input from year-round and seasonal residents of the island – be on the lookout for meetings and webinars we will be offering where we will invite you to learn more about the process and share your knowledge and preferences. Coalition webinars, regular meetings and more are posted on fiseagrass.org and community bulletin boards around the island.

Through our partnership with MPA Watch, Coalition members and volunteers are recording human use data at different sites around the island – current sites include the 8th Hole Beach, North Hill, West Harbor and Flat Hammock. These data will be used during our SMA planning process to help identify areas in need of protection and areas that are compatible with recreational and commercial use, but may benefit from management actions that help avoid or minimize damage to seagrass. The FISM Coalition depends on volunteers to help with this monitoring. Learn more or sign up to become a Coalition volunteer at fiseagrass.org.

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