It's growing time for Florida seagrasses
Summer is the height of seagrass growing season. Florida is home to 2.7 million acres of seagrasses, with about 2 million acres located from north of Tampa Bay to the Florida-Alabama state line.
Seagrass beds in bays are home to 70 percent of the state's marine recreational fisheries. Everything from juvenile gag grouper to flounder to shrimp to blue crabs spend part or all of their lives in seagrass beds. In fact, according to scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, seagrasses are 15 times more biologically productive than the same acreage of wheat or corn, and Florida's seagrasses have a biological worth of almost $34 billion. Yes, that's billion with a "B."
There are seven species of seagrass found in the state. In Anna Maria Sound, Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, there are four prevalent varities and one occasional species.
Shoal grass, Halodule Wrightii, is probably the most abundant and is usually found near inlets.
Turtle grass, Thalassia testudinum, is probably the easiest to spot with its wide, flat, bright green leaves. Turtle grass is one of the longest-lived, slowest-growing of the seagrasses and, believe it or not, has bright green flowers that grow at the base of the shoot.
Widgeon grass, Ruppia maritima, has the distinction of being able to grow in either fresh or salt water.
Manatee grass, Syringodium filiforme, has cylindrical leaves and is a popular source of food for its namesake, the manatee.
Star grass, Halophila englemannii, is relatively rare in our part of the world, but is to be found in both Gulf and Atlantic waters south of Tampa Bay and Cape Canaveral.
Seagrasses need clear water and the accompanying access to sunlight to flourish. The clearer the water, the deeper the plants can grow. With all the gunk that floats in our bays, that aspect of the plant's need means that most seagrass meadows are in fairly shallow water, usually less than 10 feet in depth.
There is one species of seagrass, Paddle grass, Halophila decipiens, that is sparsely found in the Gulf or Atlantic, but does not have that high sunlight need. Some Paddle grass has been found in water depths up to 100 feet.
Besides serving as home or food for other marine life, seagrasses also do their part to prevent underwater erosion. It's really in the plant's best interest: By keeping the sediment contained on the bottom of the bay where it belongs, it keeps the muck from floating around in the water and blocking the sunlight the plant needs to survive.
One of the biggest causes of underwater erosion in our new urban world comes from the waves created by boats. That short stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway from the north end of Longboat Key down along Sister Keys used to have a thick bed of seagrasses that stretched out to and into the channel. Since that strip of water has now become a waterborne raceway, the seagrasses have been uprooted by the boat wakes, and the once-clear water has become murky.
Another threat to seagrasses comes from boaters, and is visible in the propeller tracks left when boats run aground in the beds and leave scarring. The Sarasota Bay Program found that those prop scars take up to 10 years to "heal." The bay program began an aggressive effort years ago to mark seagrass beds in the hope that boaters would realize where the plants and shallows were located.
The marking program was sort of like the old fisher rule - don't run your boat where the birds are standing. You'll save the plants, and probably save yourself several hundred bucks for a new prop.
The FWC folks have a pretty simple tip to protect seagrass beds from boater harm. Polarized sunglasses. By cutting out the glare on the water, boaters are better able to see where the flats are and avoid them. The glasses are also good tools in spotting and avoiding manatees, which also like to forage in the seagrass beds.
And as has been said many times, there is nothing that will ruin your day on the water quicker than hitting a sea cow.
Happy Father's Day
Here's a pretty good deal for Dad on Father's Day - a five-year freshwater fishing license, and the FWC is offering a deal on the extended license.
Get the longer license and you can get about $30 worth of goodies from fish-related companies. The license costs $61.50 plus an administrative fee and is available on the FWC Web site at MyFWC.com/license, or at most bait and tackle shops.
We just got back from the two-day Florida Press Association annual convention. The Islander did quite well in the awards category, thank you, taking a first place honor in our division for our Web site. Jack Egan got a second place award for his editorial cartoon lamenting the lack of trees at the Anna Maria Elementary School, we got a second also for a graphic in the 2003 hurricane section, and Jim Hanson took a third place for an article he wrote on turtles, among other awards.
One of the most interesting seminars was by Mario Garcia, who is a newspaper redesign specialist. He was responsible for re-doing The Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald and the Venice Gondolier Sun, among more than 500 other papers throughout the world.
Garcia offered a prediction that in less than 20 years all newspapers would go tabloid - that's tabloid in size, not tabloid in sleaze. He also offered some design tips that you'll probably see in The Islander in the next few weeks that we hope will make the newspaper easier for readers to read. "Navigation" was his buzzword for getting folks through the paper, and Garcia's comments made a lot of sense to us. We hope you'll like the "new do" that's coming soon.
We also heard some sobering comments from a panel of editors who explained some of the travails of sending reporters and photographers out to less-developed countries.
Tim Rasmussen is the photo editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. He got a phone call at home on a Sunday afternoon with the news that every editor hopes he'll never get: One of his photogs was shot while covering an event in Haiti.
Seems that there was a peaceful rally that started in the countryside outside the capital and eventually worked its way onto the streets of Port au Prince. Suddenly, troops moved in and opened fire. The Sun Sentinel photographer was shot three times, and a Spanish picture shooter was hit once. They and others hid in a house for more than an hour before the troops and the mob left and they could make it to a hospital.
Rasmussen said he spent the next 36 hours on the phone, sometimes working three lines at once, to get his guy secured at the hospital and then flown out. Believe it or not, there are private airlines that specialize in getting people out of countries that they suddenly find they're not welcome in, and the shot shooter eventually made it back to Florida.
It sort of puts a new perspective on the "hazards" of covering government on Anna Maria Island.
Johnson's seagrass, Halophila johnsonii, is the rarest of all know underwater plants, growing only in Southeast Florida between Sebastian and Key Biscayne. It's also the smallest seagrass, with plants less than two inches in height, and it only lives about two weeks. Johnson's seagrass is so rare, in fact, that it was just listed as part of the federal Endangered Species Act.