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Global Seagrass Decline Affects Shallow-water Ecosystems

ec plant. The fresh water influx decreased the salinity so much that the seagrass could no longer survive.

Short and his SeagrassNet colleagues have not ruled out global climate change as a factor in the decline of seagrass beds. Yet so far, he’s found the impacts on seagrass to be far more localized. “Human pollution of the water has been the biggest issue,” he says.

Short likens seagrass beds to a forest on the ocean floor. Among the most productive plant communities on the planet, seagrass beds serve as protective nurseries for juvenile fish and shellfish, a habitat for many marine species, and a feeding ground for predatory fish, waterfowl and large sea creatures like manatees and sea turtles. The root and rhizome system of these flowering plants stabilizes sediments, protecting the coastline from currents and weather-related erosion. Seagrass is an effective filter of nutrients and particulates, and it is the basis of a detrital food chain that feeds fish and shellfish.

When seagrass beds disappear, Short says, the impact is major. A disease outbreak in the 1930s wiped out 90 percent of eelgrass in the North Atlantic. The scallop fishery in the mid-Atlantic disappeared, says Short, and “it’s never really come back.” In Thailand, where SeagrassNet researchers have begun investigating the impact of the 2004 tsunami on seagrass, the beds provide local fishers with significant shellfish. “If the seagrass beds disappear, so do the people’s protein sources,” says Short.

His work in Thailand highlights the reason for the worldwide monitoring program: Prior to SeagrassNet, little was known about seagrass in many locations around the world. With no baseline, assessing the impact of a disturbance like the tsunami is nearly impossible.

Short is looking forward, adding new sites to SeagrassNet around the world and, in New England, researching effective ways of restoring eelgrass to areas where water quality has im
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