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Article about CRP Project #2005

From the Sun Herald

Devastated seagrass habitat has an ally

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS - Feb 2, 2021 - When Hurricane Camille wrecked havoc on South Mississippi in 1969, the losses weren't just counted above ground. Beneath those angry waves, the plant life in the Mississippi Sound was likewise ravaged.

Underwater seagrasses that have historically provided habitat for blue crabs, young fish and shrimp, all valuable commodities to the area seafood industry, were reduced by almost half by Camille's fury. Such aquatic habitat shrunk immediately from about 20,000 acres to just under 12,000 acres, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

And thanks to runoff pollution from the shore, high rainfall events and water traffic and coastal development, the losses have continued.

Today, only one of four historic seagrass species remains off the Mississippi Coast. It is estimated that since 1968 seagrass habitat around Horn Island has been reduced by a whopping 90 percent.

Robin McCall would like to change that.

"If we can bring it in - bring it out there, plant it, let it get its toehold - it should re-establish itself," said McCall, a doctoral candidate at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, as he checks the dozens of bubbling tanks in an outbuilding just paces from the Sound.

His project, a pilot study to explore the possibility of re-establishing Thalassia testudinum (turtle grass) on a quarter-acre plot just off of Horn Island, began last fall with a $49,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The national park service, responsible for Horn Island as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, took to the idea, as well. "They got so excited about the project, they turned around and offered me another $30,000," McCall said.

In a research annex of the Gulf Coast Research Lab, part of the University of Southern Mississippi system, McCall has 27 tanks filled with young shoots. Their tanks bubble with air hoses as the plants "sun" under artificial lights to help spark growth.

This weekend, he hopes to add 30 more tanks of turtle grass sprouts, after a trip to Perdido Key, near Pensacola, Fla.

I'm open to "anybody that wants to help with that," he offers, knowing the success of his project hinges on volunteers. Some of this needed muscle has been extended from fellow students. But more is needed, especially before planting time in March.

Cynthia Moncreiff, assistant professor in the department of coastal sciences at the lab that originally turned McCall onto the project, said that such volunteerism has a double benefit.

One: It gets the job done. Two: It raises public awareness.

"They may stop and look at what's on the bottom before they toss their anchor," Moncreiff said.

Anchors pose the primarily human-inspired threat to seagrasses, she said. Some of McCall's young plants will be planted among existing beds of the only surviving seagrass species on the Sound; that is "shoal" grass, or Halodule wrightii. Others will be planted on their own in barren, aquatic stretches. Several different depths will be tried.

But the other eliminated seagrasses historically found in the Sound - manatee and star grass - will have to wait for another study.

"Just about everywhere in the world there's been a loss of seagrasses," McCall said. With a trip to the dry erase board, this student who also serves as an oceanographer in the Navy Reserves, demonstrates how even a propeller cut can severely stunt seagrass growth. He said it takes up to seven years for a grass bed to recover from a foot-long cut from a propeller or anchor scar.

"Nature will do a lot of things, but sometimes it needs a little help," McCall said.

Want to help? Robin McCall is looking for interested volunteers to help him collect, raise and replant seagrass as part of a pilot study aiming to reverse ongoing loss of the aquatic habitat. If you are interested, call him at 872-4272.

Copyright 2004, Sun Herald. All Rights Reserved.

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