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NC Seagrass Declined By Almost 6%, Report Shows

Seagrass meadows in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary, like this one, are starting to decline because of changing landscapes.
Courtesy of Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership

North Carolina seagrass in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary decreased by almost 6% between 2006 and 2013, according to a long-anticipated report.

The new study released last month by the federally funded Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership(APNEP) shows that seagrass is declining fastest in water with low amounts of salt, or in low salinity, that’s close to land and rivers and more susceptible to pollution.

"Those areas are much more physically coupled to the landscape. They're kind of the first … habitat that is experiencing the influence of land and the rivers," said researcher and consultant Jud Kenworthy.

Kenworthy, who worked for over 30 years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that the report focuses on data collected in 2006 and 2013 because of how difficult it is to gather this information.

Researchers have been working on collecting this data since the late 1980s. It requires aerial photography and correct weather conditions. Volunteers and scuba divers also have to go into the water to verify observations.

"It's a very, very challenging endeavor to put on… to get all the stars aligned," said Kenworthy. 

The report finds that seagrass in high salinity is also declining, just not as fast as seagrass in low salinity. Seagrass in high salinity is located in waters that are more isolated and further away from the impacts of the changing landscape.

Seagrass is a critical source of oxygen and food for several sea creatures, including some endangered species like green sea turtles and manatees. The plant also acts as a filter and maintains the quality of the water.

"There's no substitute for seagrass. Once the seagrass is gone, those organisms that are dependent on it, they too are going to decline" said Kenworthy. "We have to manage the land in the watersheds that deliver water to the estuary in a way that minimizes the amount of nutrients that get into the water."

Kenworthy said he hopes to produce a second report soon that focuses more on seagrass in high salinity. 

Scientists were able to gather more data on seagrass in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary in 2019 and 2020.

The Albemarle-Pamlico estuary contains about 90% of North Carolina's seagrass. 

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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