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Carl Wernicke: Seagrass Is The Key


Last week I talked about clean water as the foundation of the Northwest Florida economy and lifestyle. And about the importance of using money from fines to be imposed on BP for the 2010 oil spill to restore the health of Pensacola Bay. But it was more of an emotional appeal than anything else.

But last Sunday in the Pensacola News Journal, a local biologist made the scientific case. It is well worth reading, and can be found here.

Bill Young, a fisheries biologist, made the crucial point: there is little that can be done to improve fishing or the health of area waters without the fundamental water quality improvements needed to restore seagrass. The grass is critically important to the seafood Northwest Florida residents consider our birthright … especially when fried, grilled, boiled or baked.

Local folks grew up enjoying mullet, blue crabs, shrimp, scallops, speckled trout, redfish, snapper, flounder and oysters from our own waters. Many fishermen, retailers, guides, charter captains and restaurants have earned a living off this local bounty. The recreation, fishing and even beauty of our local waters are a strong draw for both tourists and permanent residents, underpinning the local economy.

Credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Unfortunately, our bays and bayous are only shadows of their former selves, despite efforts to eliminate industrial and sewage plant discharges and clean up stormwater runoff. Despite some successes, the bay still suffers from an overload of nutrients and silt, which choke off the sunlight seagrass must have.

Young pointed to a crippling statistic: only 10 percent of the seagrass estimated to be growing in Pensacola Bay in 1920 is alive today, a loss of 10,000 acres. That’s crippling, he points out, when you understand that 70 to 90 percent of all fish depend on seagrass for survival, whether for feeding, hiding from predators as juveniles, or as breeding grounds. Not to mention the role seagrass plays in oxygenating the water, consuming nutrients and filtering out silt.

The good news is there is a model for restoring seagrass, even if it’s a pipedream to imagine ever returning the bay to pristine condition. Young pointed to the success with seagrass restoration in Tampa Bay. But what was learned in Tampa was that simply replanting grasses isn’t enough; you have to fix the underlying problems. They spent a lot of money doing that in Tampa Bay, and it’s working.

Young didn’t flinch from the hard facts: fully restoring Pensacola Bay, he wrote, could cost more than $2 billion. It’s a shocking figure, but it tells you how much damage we’ve done. And it assumes a full-scale replanting effort, which is expensive.

It’s impossible to guess how much money BP will eventually pay for its sins. But tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars should be on the way. And using it to restore Pensacola bay would have a lasting impact on our future. Even if there isn’t enough money to plant all the seagrass we need, restoring water quality will create conditions that help the bay heal itself.

That would take longer, but if we’re doing the right things to create a better future, I wouldn’t complain about taking a little longer to finish the job.