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Saving Seagrass Meadows: Working Together to Protect Essential Habitat

By Kristy Beard, Greater Atlantic Region, Habitat Conservation Division

All aquatic habitat is important. All types of aquatic habitat have value. So when there are competing interests, how do you decide what to protect?

At a recent site visit to discuss a shoreline stabilization project in Charles County, MD, we learned that the applicant was proposing to build a living shoreline that would extend up to 35 feet out from the shoreline into an area full of seagrass. This design would have destroyed the existing seagrass beds and habitat suitable for it to grow, but would have provided marsh habitat in place of the seagrass.

Seagrass beds can overlap with areas where shoreline construction projects are proposed, particularly projects designed to protect estuarine shorelines from erosion. Because of its importance, we work hard to make sure that proposed projects avoid and minimize impacts to seagrasses as much as possible. But even ecologically beneficial approaches to shoreline protection, such as living shorelines, can impact seagrasses.

SAV in the mid-Atlantic. Photo credit: Rich Takacs, NOAA Restoration Center

Deciding which habitats to protect can be challenging. 

Why protect seagrass meadows?

Seagrass beds make a great place for fish to find shelter and food - they eat the plants and the many small animals that live on and around them. They are among the most productive ecosystems in the world and provide important fish habitat[1], including nursery and feeding areas, for many species like blue crabs, bluefish, summer flounder, menhaden, herring, shad, spot, croaker, weakfish, red drum, striped bass, and white perch.

How does the Habitat Conservation Division protect seagrass and other important fish habitat?

Other agencies, and other parts of NOAA, are required to consult with us if their projects could affect essential fish habitats, including seagrass beds. We review projects that impact seagrass with more scrutiny because of the importance of this type of habitat and because seagrass is vulnerable to the effects of coastal development activities and water quality degradation. Even something like building a bridge over a river can affect the fish in the sea if it harms seagrass beds.   

We generally recommend that projects avoid or minimize encroachment into subtidal habitat and that the edge of the project is above or as close to the mean high water line as possible. In this case, we worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to suggest alternative design possibilities, and the applicant re-designed their project proposal so that the stone, sand, and marsh plants they were proposing to stabilize the shoreline remain above the mean low water line, where they would have little impact to the existing seagrass beds. Once a project has been designed to avoid and minimize impacts as much as possible, if there are still unavoidable impacts to essential fish habitats, mitigation to replace lost functions and values might be necessary.

Eelgrass. Credit: Clyde MacKenzie, NEFSC Sandy Hook (James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory)

So, how do you decide which habitat type is more important?

We focus on protecting habitat that has a particularly high value, like seagrass beds, and habitats that are rare or at risk. We have to find balance between what is lost and what is gained. Some projects, like living shorelines, can reduce one important habitat while creating another. We review projects like this on a case-by-case basis to determine if there are ways to protect fish habitat, including seagrass beds.

As in the site-specific recommendations described above for the project in Charles County, we work with applicants as much as possible to discuss potential issues early on in project design. The contractor for that project has used our comments to help provide preliminary designs for similar projects at other sites with seagrass and has met with us and the permitting agencies to discuss their ideas early in the planning process. These ongoing conversations between applicants and agencies should help ease the permitting process and minimize impacts to seagrass beds.

All of these considerations help us to continue protecting healthy habitats that support a healthy ecosystem.


Need technical information for planned living shoreline projects? We recently published guidance for considering the use of living shorelines that helps applicants consider issues like site conditions, including the presence of ecologically important or sensitive resources, and  policy considerations including evaluating trade-offs between coastal development and habitat conservation at the site.

[1] Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds are considered special aquatic sites by the EPA and are priority habitats for NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation Division in the Greater Atlantic Region. We have a mandate to protect essential fish habitat (EFH) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. SAV is a specific type of EFH designated as a habitat area of particular concern (HAPC) for summer flounder in the mid-Atlantic, including the Chesapeake Bay. HAPCs provide important ecological functions and/or are especially vulnerable to degradation.