Reviving an Ecosystem: Creating Capacity for Seagrass Restoration

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is recognized as 1 of 28 estuaries of national significance in the United States. Since 2010, the IRL has been experiencing seagrass degradation in both loss of areal extent and species richness. Significant seagrass declines, rapid population growth, aging and inadequate infrastructure, and anthropogenic activities in the IRL have resulted in alarming occurrences of intense harmful algal blooms (HABs) and widespread mass manatee mortality, which jeopardize one of the planet's most lucrative ecosystems.

Due to the decline of the IRL seagrasses, the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program (IRLNEP) is addressing the conservation and remediation of seagrasses within the IRL system. The allocated funding for seagrass nurseries within the IRL watershed serves as a catalyst for future development and collaborative plans with partners of the IRL Management Conference, aiming to restore and expand seagrass habitats in the region.

Lagoon-Wide Collaboration

The IRL is 156 miles long and covers approximately 40% of the east-central coast of Florida, spanning through two climate zones. The IRL is highly complex, dynamic, highly vulnerable, and susceptible to change. With almost a decade of intense, large, long-duration HABs, a regime shift in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) has occurred. The lagoon was previously dominated by seagrass species such as shoal grass (Halodule wrightii), manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme), and widgeon grass (Ruppia maritime) but is now dominated by micro-algal species like Aureoumbra lagunisis, Pyrodinium bahamense, and pseudo-nitzchia spp.


Carter Henne, President of Sea & Shoreline, LLC, carrying a seagrass mat of plugs into the southern Indian River Lagoon. (Image credit: IRLNEP)

The IRLNEP is authorized as a core water program of the Clean Water Act (Section 320). The Indian River Lagoon Council (IRL Council), which sponsors the IRLNEP, has already funded seven seagrass restoration pilot projects within the IRL watershed between fiscal years 2018-2023. The IRL Council/IRLNEP has recently allocated $2.5 million through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) for fiscal years 2022-2026. This significant financial support will serve as seed funding, enabling the construction and expansion of seagrass nurseries to enhance the restoration capacity within the IRL. Prior to commencing operations, valuable lessons were gained through pilot studies and partner communications to promote the development of a sustainable IRL habitat restoration community of practice within the IRL. The partner network is a diverse range of federal, state, county, and municipal governments; academic institutions; and both public and private sector stakeholders.

Through the development of a community of practice, some vital lessons were identified to ensure success of seagrass restoration projects. First, water quality is crucial—even though difficult to predict due to spatial and temporal variability. Second, before selecting a seagrass planting site, several characteristics and dynamics must be considered, including site history in supporting seagrass beds, sediment type, sediment stability, bathymetry and water depth, water flow, wave action, and proximity of land-based impacts such as shoreline erosion and stormwater impacts. Further considerations included: herbivory (manatees, pinfish, sea turtles, sea urchins, horseshoe crabs, etc.); potential biofouling if excluder devices are used; bioturbation by organisms such as stingrays; and stochastic events such as tropical storms.


Caroline Wattles, volunteer at Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, Florida, planting seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon. (Image credit: FOS)

The efficacy of planting methodologies and approaches; identification of important research questions and needs; standardized vocabulary such as defining seagrass planting units, plugs, pots, etc.; standardized monitoring methodologies including the frequencies and duration of monitoring; and an accelerated permitting process to have multiple projects ready for implementation were all identified as areas of needed improvement and expansion.

Supporting Critical Infrastructure

The IRLNEP identified the need for a minimum of four regional restoration centers that could be established to anchor a lagoon-wide network of public and private restoration partners. The IRLNEP released a competitive request for qualifications (RFQ) for the purposes of identifying potential partners and establishing seagrass nurseries to build supply chain capacity in the system. The IRLNEP identified five partners for seagrass nurseries: Marine Discovery Center (MDC), in New Smyrna Beach, Florida; East Coast Zoological Society of Florida (Brevard Zoo) located at Two Sites: Brevard Zoo in Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute located close to Coconut Point, Florida, and the future Aquarium Project located in Port Canaveral Florida; Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) in Fort Pierce, Florida; Florida Oceanographic Society (FOS) is in Stuart, Florida; Sea & Shoreline in Melbourne Beach Florida and Fort Pierce Florida.

The IRLNEP's role includes providing planning guidance with the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan – Looking Ahead to 2030 (CCMP) and supporting concurrence documents. The IRLNEP will also provide funding for projects through competitive requests for proposals (RFP) or RFQ. The IRLNEP will also track and map all seagrass restoration projects throughout the IRL while providing opportunities for project peer review through the IRLNEP Management Conference. Finally, The IRLNEP will communicate progress through its annual report, website, social media, quarterly management conference meetings, and IRL Council Board of Directors meetings.

Seagrasses play a vital role in providing essential ecosystem services within an estuary. With effective stakeholder communication, unified restoration efforts, and scientific intervention, there is a promising outlook for the recovery of seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon. While establishing seagrass nurseries will not decline of seagrass problem in the Indian River Lagoon, the hope for this project is that it has the potential to expedite the seagrass recovery process.

This feature appeared in Environment, Coastal & Offshore (ECO) Magazine's 2023 Summer edition Bio-Resilient Coasts, to read more access the magazine here.

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