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Eelgrass Research Could Help Guide OR Coastal Management

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Monday, July 12, 2021   

PORTLAND, Ore. -- A new study finds restoration of eelgrass, an important marine plant, depends mostly on where, rather than how. The findings could help guide Oregon as it updates its decades-old estuary management plans.

The report, commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, analyzed 51 eelgrass restoration projects on the West Coast, including four in Oregon. It showed the location of projects is the biggest factor in their success.

Patty Snow, Oregon coastal management program manager for the Department of Land Conservation and Development, explained the need to update the state's approach.

"When we first were putting our estuary plans together 40 years ago, we knew the habitat value of eelgrass but didn't realize these other important benefits that eelgrass provides," Snow noted.

Eelgrass is found near shore and is considered a foundation species for ecosystems. Other species, from sea otters to halibut, use it as habitat. It also plays an important role in combatting climate change.

However, researchers have found about 30% of the world's eelgrass has disappeared since the 1870s.

Melissa Ward, post-doctoral researcher at San Diego State University and the report's co-author, studies eelgrass's ability to combat climate change. She said it stores carbon and removes carbon dioxide from seawater, which is increasing in the ocean as more greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere.

"It's becoming more and more important to keep eelgrass in the water, because it can elevate the pH and make the water less acidic," Ward pointed out. "The refuge that seagrasses provide may become more critical as we move forward. But at the same time, they're also threatened by climate change."

Ward added restoration is crucial work, but conservation is as well.

"While we do need to restore to try to get close to historic levels of eelgrass coverage, we also need to make sure that we don't lose what we already have," Ward concluded.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.


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