Paradise lost, found in Southwest Florida seagrass
By Mark Alderson, Lisa Beever and Holly Greening, Guest Columnists for the Herald-Tribune
In the early 1900s, bay waters from Tampa to Charlotte Harbor teemed with sea life. Old-timers wistfully recall collecting scallops, clams and oysters by the bucketful. Snook, spotted sea trout and red drum were plentiful.
That rich natural abundance was nurtured, in part, by vast seagrass meadows, one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Seagrasses provide food and shelter for 70 percent of our local fishery species. They trap sediments, stabilize bay bottoms and store carbon. Because they need sunlight for photosynthesis, seagrasses require clear water to survive and grow.
Over the decades, intense residential and commercial development took a toll on water quality and seagrasses in Southwest Florida. Marshes were drained. Dredging removed seagrass habitat, and associated suspended sediments smothered neighboring seagrass beds.
Canals and drainage pipes accelerated the rush of stormwater from impervious roads and buildings to the bay, carrying with it nitrogen from fertilizers and pet waste. Mangrove fringe and coastal marsh, which previously filtered runoff, were replaced with seawalls. Wastewater discharges and leaky septic fields flushed bacteria and nitrogen into waterways.
Nitrogen pollution fueled algal blooms, which clouded the water. Deprived of sunlight, seagrasses died; and, as algae died and decayed, they robbed waters of life-sustaining oxygen, killing fish and other sea life.
In less than a century, once vast seagrass meadows and their abundant sea life had literally become a shadow of their former glory. Threats to public health, quality of life and the tourism-based economy, together with a new environmental understanding and ethic, motivated Southwest Florida communities to restore their bays.
In the 1990s, three national estuary programs (NEPs) were created on Florida’s Gulf Coast to protect and restore our three Estuaries of National Significance: Sarasota Bay (established 1989), Tampa Bay (established 1991) and Charlotte Harbor (established 1995). No other coastline in the nation has three NEPs providing contiguous management leadership for its protection and restoration.
Partnerships are the key to NEP success, including local, state and federal agencies, local policy, citizen and technical advisers, nonprofit organizations, business partners and thousands of volunteers.
Together, we collaborate to reduce nutrient pollution by improving municipal wastewater and stormwater practices, promoting habitat conservation and restoration, and developing educational outreach to homeowners and businesses. Forward thinking city and county leaders are instrumental to providing the financing and political will to translate best-science and planning into successful action.