Just below the surface, the marine ecologist observes beds of bright green seagrass swaying in the waist-deep water of New Hampshire’s Great Bay. Fred Short likes what he sees.
Short is a seagrass expert. He monitors 135 seagrass sites around the world from his lab in New Hampshire. He knows the importance of seagrass species. God created them to provide food and shelter for fish, shellfish, and sea turtles. The vital grasses’ roots penetrate loose sands near the shore. This helps reduce coastal erosion and filter ocean water of pollutants.
There are more than 70 species of seagrasses, but most are poorly protected. Scientists have mapped out more than 116,000 square miles of seagrass habitats. There might actually be 10 times that amount. These habitats exist along coastlines all around the world except in Antarctica.
Seagrass meadows can be harmed by coastal development, overfishing, and waste runoff. As such, they’ve declined at alarming rates since the 1990s. For example, California’s scenic Moro Bay has lost 90% of its eelgrass since 2007. “These plants are very sensitive to environmental characteristics—water quality, temperature,” says Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Robert Orth.
Developed countries like the United States recognize the importance of seagrasses, so they have begun to pay attention to their sensitivity to pollution. The nitrogen-rich runoff from sewage treatment plants spikes algae growth when it reaches the ocean. Excess algae clouds the water and blocks out sunlight, without which seagrasses struggle to grow.
In recent years, communities around the Great Bay spent about $200 million to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. After that, nitrogen release dropped by up to 70%. The local ecosystem began to come back. Studies show seagrass recovery in Boston Harbor, Tampa Bay, and Long Island Sound too.
Boston Harbor was once the filthiest harbor in America. Untreated wastewater flooded into it. When the state invested $3.8 billion in a treatment facility, an 80% decline in nitrogen levels in the harbor resulted.
The improvement was as startling as the previous losses had been. “It was astounding,” says Tay Evans after taking multiple dives in the area. The seagrass specialist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries called the previous mud floor “a moonscape.” Today, he calls it a lush underwater meadow, with “winter flounder swimming through there, lobster walking around.”
Let heaven and Earth praise Him, the seas and everything that moves in them. — Psalm 69:34