Multi-functional Seagrass Beds are Disappearing from the Coast

You could say the best thing about seagrass is that you don’t have to mow it. 

Okay, that may be a stretch. 

But in truth, seagrass is beneficial in its role as an important coastal habitat. That’s because young ocean-going fish can grow and develop in seagrass beds before setting out on their journey of life. 

In addition to being a nursery, seagrass also helps to clean coastal waters by letting sediments filter out. The beds also helps to stabilize shorelines. 

However several recent studies show seagrass beds are rapidly disappearing; in some cases at the rate of two soccer fields' worth per hour. 

A survey by scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Florida International University found 58% of the world’s seagrass meadows are declining. In fact, based on more than 215 studies and 1,800 observations dating back to 1879, the study found that seagrass is disappearing at a rate similar to the decline of coral reefs and tropical rainforests. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a recent development. The study also found that seagrass has been disappearing at the rate of roughly 42 square miles per year since 1980. 

The study pinpointed three main reasons for the decline of seagrass: direct impacts from coastal development (such as pollution and agricultural runoff), dredging activity and the indirect impact of declining water quality. 

The situation isn’t expected to improve anytime soon. Roughly 45% of the world’s population lives within a few miles of coastline, leading to what researchers call “coastal syndrome.” That’s the combination of growing urban centers, artificially hardened shorelines and declining natural resources. All that combined is involved in pushing coastal ecosystems out of balance. 

The study did find some communities are aware of the problem and trying to stem the loss. However, as more seagrass meadows disappear, it also means the loss of the services that seagrass provides to the oceans, the fish and shellfish that live in the sea, as well as all of us who depend on the sea and its habitants.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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