Northeast Eelgrass Decline a Continuing Concern
February 7, 2012
The following is from a Conservation Law Foundation blog by Robin Just concerning the continuing decline of eelgrass in the Northeast:
When we talk about fish, it’s good to remember that they not only come from somewhere, but that that somewhere makes the fish. Habitat is essential; without it even many migratory fish won’t have a place to call home.
Many North Atlantic fish spend an important part of their life cycles in coastal eelgrass habitat, and eelgrass is declining. Eelgrass is a native submerged aquatic plant found in shallow waters from Nova Scotia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In the northern areas this hearty plant spends part of each year under sea ice. It is not a true grass, but a flowering plant that evolved from terrestrial flora. With thin, streamlined leaves, and an extensive root system, it is uniquely adapted to thrive in ocean tides and swell. What it isn’t adapted to deal with is nutrient pollution, dredging, and other anthropogenic stressors that have our productive eelgrass meadow areas on the decline.
Why does this matter to fish? Eelgrass is one of the most valuable habitats in the northeast. For example, in the early 1930s a “wasting disease” decimated 90% of the Atlantic eelgrass communities. This decline took a heavy toll on, among other things, bay scallops. Bay scallops are a commercially important shellfish that range from Cape Cod to Florida, and are very dependent on seagrass meadows. Not only do they attach to living eelgrass leaves after their larval stage, they consume decaying leaves for a significant portion of their diet. Bay scallops declined dramatically throughout their range, coincident with the wasting disease, and populations didn’t begin to recover until the mid-1940s. Some populations, such as those in the Chesapeake Bay, have never come back. Lobsters, clams, and other invertebrates also declined.