Why is NC seagrass a 'diamond in the rough?'
Underwater seagrasses are found throughout the coastal United States, where they support wildlife, improve water quality, and help buffer shorelines from waves and storms.
On the Atlantic coast, no state has more seagrass meadows than North Carolina. The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with state agencies and other North Carolina partners to protect this resource. Seagrass, marsh, and barrier islands are really parts of one big geological feature critical to the existence of our estuaries.
Leda Cunningham, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts, overseeing its work on conserving U.S. marine life, talked with Jud Kenworthy, who is currently an adjunct professor at UNC Wilmington and advises the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership and the state on seagrass monitoring and assessment.
LC: What makes North Carolina’s seagrass so special?
JK: North Carolina has the largest and healthiest seagrass ecosystem on the Atlantic seaboard. North Carolinians should realize that our marine seagrass is a diamond in the rough. And one important message is that we need to keep our marine seagrass that way. The other, equally important message is that our low-salinity underwater meadows — in rivers and closer to the mainland — are facing greater threats from watershed degradation and coastal development and need to be restored.
LC: What are the benefits of seagrass — broadly and in North Carolina?
JK: Seagrass is like salt marsh, only completely submerged. It anchors itself and takes up nutrients from the sediment, and then as it photosynthesizes, it pumps oxygen to its roots, which aerate the water and submerged soils. This makes it possible for some species, like polychaete worms, to live in this sediment. And these species feed a lot of animals, like flounder, speckled trout, and red drum, which are important to the ecosystem and to recreational and commercial fishermen.
Seagrasses are also ecosystem engineers. As they grow, they make the water clearer and calmer, which is good for them and other species. They reduce wave energy, protecting shorelines from erosion. Seagrass, marsh and barrier islands are really parts of one big geological feature critical to the existence of our estuaries.
LC: How is seagrass faring in North Carolina?
JK: Our large, high-salinity seagrass meadows are healthy, and our goal should be to conserve this good resource, although we should keep an eye on parts that may be experiencing issues, like in Bogue Sound.
We need an intervention-recovery-restoration approach for our low-salinity meadows. The state is in the midst of updating its Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, and I’ve been pleased to see a diverse group of people with a range of expertise coming to it with energy and enthusiasm. I think we can make real progress conserving and restoring this amazing resource.
Edited from a published interview. Read the full interview.