Eelgrass becomes Crystal River 'Rock Star'

Lisa Moore, Save Crystal River, and Howard Miller, Gator Dredging Company and Save Crystal River volunteer, prepare eelgrass in a peat pot for use by coastal homeowners near Kings Bay. (PHOTO: Robby Douglas on Aug. 6, 2016)

Lisa Moore, Save Crystal River, and Howard Miller, Gator Dredging Company and Save Crystal River volunteer, prepare eelgrass in a peat pot for use by coastal homeowners near Kings Bay. (PHOTO: Robby Douglas on Aug. 6, 2016) SEE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

You have to start somewhere. And that somewhere for Kings Bay in Crystal River began with water cleanup tools like muck and lyngbya removal, and now it's on to the eelgrass.

For those who don't know what eelgrass is, the Kings Bay Restoration Project has provided a working definition.

"Eelgrass is a native aquatic plant that limits destructive algae from growing in Florida springs, acts as a filter improving water quality and provides food and shelter for fish and wildlife." Yes, eelgrass (some call it tape grass) is, physically, a marine plant with long ribbonlike leaves that grows in coastal waters and brackish inlets.

And even NOAA has recognized the importance of eelgrass to coastal ecosystem health.

"Eelgrass is a primary source of food for many plants and animals, as well as a critical nursery and shelter for shellfish (including crabs and lobster) and finfish. Eelgrass filters pollutants from the water column, is a key component of the nutrient cycle and guards against shoreline erosion by dampening wave energy and storms," NOAA writes on its web site.

"Eelgrass is one of the most diverse and productive underwater habitats found in the coastal waters of North America and Europe. The long, slender blades capture rays of sunlight to produce oxygen and bend with the ebb and flow of the tides. Eelgrass forms large meadows or small isolated beds, which range in size from many acres to just a yard across."

So important is eelgrass that its presence - or absence - affects the health of the entire coastal ecosystem. Kings Bay was at one time full of eelgrass until, over time, it just all but disappeared from that body of water. Over time, said Duke Energy Mariculture biologist Eric Latimer, pollution, fertilizer intrusion from lawn watering and increasing numbers of manatees were among the factors that caused eelgrass to fade away. And with the grass, also fading away were snails, fish and other bay life once that once lived among the eelgrass.

"Eelgrass makes habitat, in that it attracts fish, manatees and other things which live in such a habitat," Latimer said. "Pollution, fertilizer runoff, boat and huge herds of manatees -- more than 800 in a small area – have affected eelgrass. The presence of large herds of manatees affect eelgrass like cows would impact a pasture," he said.

To help bring back the eelgrass, Duke Energy Florida partnered with Save Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to sponsor an eelgrass giveaway on Saturday at Kings Bay Park in Crystal River. The theme of the event was "Be a Rock Star! Grow Eelgrass."

During the event, Duke Energy and Save Crystal River volunteers instructed Citrus County coastal residents as to how to harvest, grow and plant eelgrass. The eelgrass was grown in mats at Duke Energy’s Crystal River Mariculture Center and was transported to Kings Bay Park for the event.

So, in what way are all parties working together to increase the amount of eelgrass in coastal waters?

Residents at Saturday's event took part in the harvesting of the eelgrass either by taking the bare root plants home with supplies and instructions for planting and growing the eelgrass, or planting the eelgrass in peat pots to take home for growing. Those who took the eelgrass home were allowed to take up to 12 bare root plants (plus supplies) per person and plant up to 12 eelgrass peat pots per person (a total of 24 plants). Eelgrass, peat pots, soil and slow-release fertilizer were provided to event attendees.

Working together is key to the success of the eelgrass "repopulation" effort. And, judging by the 100 or so residents coming to take away eelgrass "plantings" on Saturday, it seemed apparent that it will take the combined efforts of residents, citizen activist groups, businesses and government to make Kings Bay what it once was -- clear and what Mother Nature's original blueprint intended.

"It will take everybody doing their part," Latimer said, "and this (the eelgrass) is Duke Energy's part."