This past Monday, six seagrass marker buoys were placed in the shallow waters off of the small key known as Sandy Hook in the Crystal River estuary. This area, which remains totally open access for boaters, has suffered increasing seagrass damage from boat propellers and vessel groundings. The shallow area off of Sandy Hook is challenging to navigate and marker buoys are meant to assist boaters, especially those visiting during scallop season. A survey of boaters completed by the University of Florida last summer indicated that boaters would find seagrass marker buoys helpful when navigating through shallow zones. Thus, these six buoys were placed in the popular Sandy Hook area to help boaters access the area in a way that prevents seagrass damage. The area is still open to boating, swimming, and other recreational activities, as the buoys are only informational (not regulatory).

(above) A seagrass marker buoy that reads “Caution Seagrass Area”, one of six that were placed off of Sandy Hook this week.

 

Seagrasses are incredibly important ecosystems, especially along Florida’s Nature Coast. They provide habitat for scallops and fish and trap particles, keeping waters clear and beautiful for snorkelers and swimmers. Most damage to seagrass is unintentional and occurs because boaters accidentally travel quickly into shallow areas. Once in the shallow area, the motor and propeller could contact the bottom and boaters may even run aground. Since running aground or damaging one’s motor on a shallow bottom is no fun, the intent of these buoys is to help both boaters and seagrass in this area.


(above) Propeller scars criss-cross the seagrass meadow off of Sandy Hook.

 

The marker buoys, paid for by a grant from the University of Florida’s Sea Grant program, were placed through a partnership between the UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station (www.ncbs.ifas.ufl.edu), Citrus County, and the St. Martin’s Marsh Aquatic Preserve. Baseline data on the condition of seagrass and the amount of scarring were collected just before placement of the buoys. The University of Florida and the Aquatic Preserve staff are working together to track whether placement of the buoys has a positive effect on seagrass over time. The results of this scientific evaluation of the buoys will be used to help local and state governments make decisions about future seagrass protection efforts. If the buoys prove effective, additional scarred seagrass areas may be marked with buoys in the future.

 

The seagrass marker buoys are not the only strategy that UF and partners are using to prevent seagrass damage. Last summer, UF initiated a boater education program to encourage boaters to “Be Seagrass Safe” and prevent seagrass scarring (www.beseagrasssafe.com or ncbs.ifas.ufl.edu/be-seagrass-safe/). This boater education effort, including colorful signs at public boat ramps, flyers, and social media outreach, will continue this summer. The signs and other materials, bearing the message “Scars Hurt: boating, fishing, you”, inform boaters about the negative effects of seagrass scarring and give three simple steps to prevent seagrass damage: avoid, trim, push. That is, boaters are encouraged to avoid seagrass when possible, slow down and trim up their motor if they are travelling over seagrass, and to turn off their motor and push off of seagrass if they run aground, as opposed to attempting to motor off of the grass bed.  Damaging seagrass within the boundaries of an Aquatic Preserve carries a fine of up to $1000.00, so boaters and seagrasses both benefit when seagrass damage is prevented.

 

(above) Information distributed as part of a boater education program aimed at preventing seagrass damage. (Below) Boat ramp signage placed at several Citrus County boat ramps.

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