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Shutterstock photo Healthy seagrasses are the basis of much of Charlotte Harbor's bounty.

Throughout the month of March, coastal communities across Florida will observe Seagrass Awareness Month as a means of bringing attention to the importance of seagrass meadows to our ocean’s health. To get everyone ready for this important month, let’s learn a little bit about these important underwater plants.

Seagrasses are marine flowering plants that live in submerged environments around every continent except Antarctica. Unlike algae, seagrasses have a fully developed root and rhizome system. This root system keeps them anchored to the bottom of the seafloor and allows them to form expansive meadows in nearshore coastal waters.

Seagrasses thrive in areas with good water clarity, which allows abundant sunlight to reach the bottom. Seagrass meadows are most abundant in areas of brackish to full seawater salinities with soft sediments and moderate to low wave energy and currents.

Florida’s tourism and fishing industries rely on the important benefits provided by seagrasses. Seagrasses reduce shoreline erosion, oxygenate the water, capture carbon, trap sediments, and improve water clarity. Seagrasses also form extensive structural habitat that supports a diverse array of species, including economically valuable fishes and invertebrates. About 85 percent of the species targeted in commercial and recreational fisheries in Florida depend on seagrasses for at least part of their life cycle.

Earlier this month, during a talk with the South Gulf Cove Fishing Club, one of the members asked what the greatest threats to seagrass are. My answer mirrored that of a 2012 report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: Reduced water quality, habitat destruction and physical damage through propeller scarring and vessel groundings, and sedimentation. Seagrasses also face temperature and salinity stress, especially in areas where freshwater inputs to the coast have been extensively altered.

It’s important to note that one threat — physical damage to seagrass from careless boating practices — is 100 percent preventable. Propellers and anchors dragging the bottom create scarring, and vessels running aground and attempting to power off can form deep holes. The time for recovery from physical damage can exceed 10 years, especially when the root systems of slower-growing species such as turtle grass are damaged or when currents and wave action cause erosion and expansion of scars.

By following responsible boating practices like these from BeSeagrassSafe.com, you can help ensure that seagrasses in Florida continue to thrive.

Avoid seagrass beds and use navigation channels or deeper water while under power. Simply remaining aware of your surroundings and being mindful of where you are can go a long way toward protection.

If boating over seagrass beds in shallow water, be sure to trim your motor up and idle to a safe depth before getting on plane. Not only does this prevent seagrass damage, it will also save you costly repairs to props and engine skegs in the process.

If you run aground, do not proceed under power. Turn off and trim up your motor, and while wearing protective footwear push the boat to safe depth. There will often be times when avoidance is impossible, and trimming is not an option. In these cases, pushing your boat helps you avoid damaging both seagrass and your expensive prop and engine. A short push is a small price to pay for what you’ll save.

At home and in your community:

• Get involved with local organizations that promote nature protection.

• Don’t litter.

• If you live near water, keep a buffer of plants along your shoreline to reduce runoff pollution from entering bays. This will also help to protect your property from erosion and slow flood waters during storm events.

• Plant native plants that don’t require lots of fertilizers and pesticides.

• Maintain septic tanks.

Betty Staugler is the Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. She is active in many areas relating to boating, fishing, and watershed/coastal living. The Florida Sea Grant College Program supports research and education activities that help Florida’s shoreline communities, industries and citizens wisely use the state’s coastal and marine resources. Contact her at staugler@ufl.edu or 941-764-4346.

Betty Staugler is the Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. She is active in many areas relating to boating, fishing, and watershed/coastal living. The Florida Sea Grant College Program supports research and education activities that help Florida’s shoreline communities, industries and citizens wisely use the state’s coastal and marine resources. Contact her at staugler@ufl.edu or 941-764-4346.

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