|Voluntary Boat Lanes in the Laguna Madres|
Seagrass that grows in the shallows of coastal bays and estuaries is the foundation of life in the Gulf of Mexico. Underwater meadows of shoalgrass, turtlegrass, manatee grass and other seagrasses serve as a nursery for the shrimp, shellfish and the sport fish prized by anglers, including redfish, drum and sea trout.
Yet, conservationists, anglers and concerned citizens are becoming increasingly aware that seagrasses are in decline. Over the past 20 years, studies show that shoalgrass, for example, has decreased by 60 percent. At the same time, underwater areas that lack vegetation entirely have increased by nearly 300 percent. The declining quantity and quality of these seagrass habitats now represent a major threat to shrimp, fish and other species depending on them. Ducks and other birds, sea turtles and crabs need seagrass to thrive.
Now, a pilot program developed by The Nature Conservancy and partners will protect seagrass by identifying preferred access lanes for recreational boating that will help reduce damage to seagrass from propeller scars in the upper Laguna Madre. New navigational signs in the water between the JFK Causeway and Pita Island will identify deep-water lanes where boats can run while avoiding the shallow water where seagrass grows.
Outside of the boat lanes in the shallow water, boaters are asked to "lift, drift, pole and troll" to protect seagrass: Drift into the shallows, lift your propeller, pole to get from place to place or use a trolling motor to get around.
"Anglers, hunters and recreational boaters have a great stake in helping to protect seagrasses because of their love of their sport and of being out on the water in nature, so we're confident these individuals will provide a strong constituency for seagrass protection," said Rafael Calderon, director of The Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program. "While in the pursuit of fun in the water, serious damage from 'prop scarring' can be caused by shallow-draft boat propellers hitting the seagrass beds. Many seagrasses take a very long time to recover from this damage, and some never recover."
At the same time, the Conservancy is launching a "Save Our Seagrass" public-awareness campaign to alert boaters and the public about the critical need to protect seagrass and why it's important to the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. The Conservancy will put up billboards as reminders to boaters and has created a website, www.SaveOurSeagrass.org, where people can learn more.
The potential impact on fish from a decline in seagrass will have repercussions that reach far beyond those who enjoy sport fishing. In 2001, anglers along on the Gulf Coast generated $1.3 billion in economic activity, supporting more than 13,000 jobs, according to a study commissioned by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"Ultimately, seagrass supports our economy on the coast," Calderon said. "Saving seagrass now will help ensure a healthy future for our coastal habitat as we grow and prosper."
Using the newly marked boat lanes in the upper Laguna Madre is voluntary for boaters who want to help save seagrass for the fish and other creatures that depend on it. About 10 miles of lanes will be marked, protecting about 5,000 acres of seagrass beds.
Partners in the seagrass conservation project with The Nature Conservancy include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and its Seagrass Working Group. Eventually, the project could be expanded to protect seagrass in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Nature Conservancy is an international, nonprofit organization that
preserves plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity
of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.
To date, the Conservancy and its nearly 1 million members have been responsible
for the protection of more than 15 million acres in the United States and
have helped protect more than 102 million acres in Latin America, the Caribbean,
Asia and the Pacific. In the Lone Star State, The Nature Conservancy of
Texas owns 35 nature preserves and conservation projects and assists private
landowners to conserve their land through more than 70 voluntary land-preservation
agreements. The Nature Conservancy of Texas protects 250,000 acres of wild
lands and, with partners, has conserved close to a million acres for wildlife
habitat across the state. Visit The Nature Conservancy of Texas on the Web