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Ribbons for riches: thank eelgrass for our food and safety

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I felt as if he was looking right at me, his shark tail waving back and forth, propelling him. He headed straight for me until – bonk! He swam upward. My camera lens wasn’t the food that this dogfish had been hoping for.

Of course I wasn’t where he was; I was watching the scene in a monitor on board the boat, holding the camera a couple of feet above the ocean floor. The monitor was showing me a real life movie: the brilliance of life underwater.

I have a dream job: I’m being paid to look at what’s in the ocean while slowly circumnavigating British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, my horizon fringed by mountain peaks.

I shout aloud to my colleague when I find our treasure.

“Eelgrass!”

From coast to coast

On the west coast of Canada, where I live and work now, eelgrass is slowly becoming a household name for anyone who cares about the ocean. These ribbon-like blades lie flat like a long shag carpet when the tide is running and wave like eels when it is slack. Eelgrass is a flowering plant that grows in the ocean on the east and west coasts of Canada, including in Newfoundland and parts of southern Labrador. We find it in shallow, sheltered areas with freshwater input. Eelgrass needs soft sea bottoms to grow in, like sand and silt. When it’s healthy, it can grow in extensive beds that trap sediments and keep the water clear. It holds the sea floor together and helps to baffle waves that would otherwise hit the shoreline.

 This patchy eelgrass location in Newman Sound, Newfoundland was devoid of juvenile fish until around 2004, when eelgrass expanded naturally into the site. It is now a significant producer of young cod. Aerial photo by Robert Gregory.
This patchy eelgrass location in Newman Sound, Newfoundland was devoid of juvenile fish until around 2004, when eelgrass expanded naturally into the site. It is now a significant producer of young cod. Aerial photo by Robert Gregory.

And it does what many people might care most about: it houses crabs and other commercial shellfish and fish species at some point during their life cycle. Eelgrass beds in Newfoundland and Labrador shelter juvenile cod, protecting them from predators. Researchers have found that juvenile cod living in eelgrass beds were 17,000 times more likely to survive than those living outside them.

Although I live in British Columbia now, while I lived in Newfoundland I studied where eelgrass grows around the province. Through land- and water-based surveys, and by tapping into local knowledge, researchers and community members have identified eelgrass locations around the island. Because we haven’t yet done detailed surveys around the whole island, what we have identified so far is likely an underestimate of where and how extensive it is.

An important – and fragile – resource

Like many important ecosystems, eelgrass is fragile and easily destroyed. Anchoring and dredging activities uproot the plants faster than they can grow back. Like other plants, eelgrass needs sunlight, so docks and wharves can shade it and prevent its growth. To prevent this, boats can be tied to moorings that are installed deeper than the depths at which eelgrass grows, and designed properly so that they minimize bottom disturbance and don’t have chains or ropes that drag on the sea floor. Docks should also be built away from eelgrass locations and can be designed to let light penetrate through.

Eelgrass mitigates the effects of climate change, as it sequesters carbon. Eelgrass is one of our sources of “blue carbon” – it takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, metabolizes it during photosynthesis, and releases oxygen. In fact, it does so even more efficiently than terrestrial plants do. This process also keeps our ocean water clean and helps fish, crabs and other animals stay healthy. The more eelgrass we have, the cleaner our air and water, particularly as our concerns about climate change are growing.

Newfoundland and Labrador is characterized by its coastal communities. Eelgrass beds are one of the many coastal ecosystems that protect our shorelines. The effects of climate change that we are already observing are sea level rise and increased frequency and intensity of storms. Storms and sea level rise can erode shorelines, particularly when natural defenses such as vegetation have been cleared for houses, roads and other developments.

Lingcod in eelgrass bed. Photo by Jamie Smith, Coastal Photography Studio
Lingcod in eelgrass bed. Photo by Jamie Smith, Coastal Photography Studio

Although a common approach to protecting shorelines is to harden them with riprap or sea walls, these hardened structures only serve to amplify waves and lead to scouring of adjacent shorelines. Soft shores such as beaches, wetlands and vegetated areas absorb water and wave energy and allow them to dissipate. Nature knows best. There are a number of stewardship resources and guidelines that describe how to take care of shorelines sustainably, including what to do around eelgrass beds.

“Once a few folks become more acquainted with this emerald jewel of a plant,” says Nikki Wright, Executive Director of SeaChange Marine Conservation Society (also on Facebook), “they might want to learn more about it by finding out where eelgrass grows near their coastal community and mapping it.”

Wright is also Co-Chair of the Seagrass Conservation Working Group, which maps and restores eelgrass habitats, and has fun doing it.

“We could have a sister group on the east coast,” Wright suggests enthusiastically.

So next time you’re in your boat or kayak in a sandy, shallow area, look over the edge and see if you are over a bed of green. Next time you enjoy a plate of fish and chips, remember the grassy oasis that enabled that fish to survive long enough to make it to your plate. Talk to your municipal planners and encourage them to keep your shorelines soft and green, and protect the ecosystems such as eelgrass that protect you.

Anuradha Rao is a consulting biologist, writer and explorer based in Vancouver. She completed her Master of Science degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland and lived in the province for more than five years. Anu collaborates with organizations and individuals on marine and coastal research, conservation, restoration and stewardship projects. For more information about the Seagrass Conservation Working Group, please contact Nikki Wright at seachange@shaw.ca

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