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NC Seagrass Decline Comes With Significant Economic Losses, Study Finds

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

Declining seagrass along the North Carolina coast could cost millions of dollars, according to anew study from Duke University and North Carolina State University.

The study, which was conducted through funding by theAlbemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP), conservatively estimates that with a 5% loss of seagrass over the next decade, the state could lose $8.6 million.

Seagrass, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or underwater grasses, serves numerous roles in estuarine ecosystems.

Duke professor and report co-author Sara Sutherland points out that seagrass is very valuable because it helps prevent erosion and improves water quality.

"And we want policymakers and the public to know that these ecosystems provide important benefits that humans otherwise would have to make themselves, and pay for," she said.

A state report released earlier this year showed seagrass in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary decreased by almost 6% between 2006 and 2013. It declined fastest in areas close to land and rivers that are most affected by pollution.

The grass provides habitat for aquatic creatures and helps capture and store carbon. Less seagrass means reduced nursery habitat for blue crab which would impact commercial crab fisheries. A drop in submerged aquatic vegetation also prompts economic losses for recreational fishing, including a drop in catch of spotted seatrout and red drum.

Researchers for the study analyzed how coastal erosion from seagrass decline stacks up to losses for residential property values along developed shorelines. The study found this property value drop to be "substantial" — representing more than 25% of total economic losses.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
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