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Seagrass recovery vital for young turtles

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Successful seagrass restoration near Trunk Island (Photograph supplied)
Successful seagrass restoration near Trunk Island (Photograph supplied)

A major five-year effort is under way to protect Bermuda’s seagrass beds – and the species that rely on them to survive.

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, said the ministry launched a restoration project last summer and installed large mesh cages over struggling seagrass areas.

Mr Roban said: “Anyone swimming or boating around our island last summer is likely to have noticed that many of our seagrass meadows have disappeared, for example at Admiralty Park and Somerset Long Bay.

“In a few places where the seagrass is short, it no longer provides refuge for juvenile fish, newly settled spiny lobsters and other small animals.

“This loss of seagrass will very likely upset the dynamics of our shallow water environment as well as negatively impact recreational and commercial fisheries.”

The mesh cages installed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were designed to limit access to the seagrass to young of several species and could be in place for longer than five years.

These included fish, lobsters and other marine life such as seahorses and queen conch.

Turtles will be able to eat the top growth of seagrass at the sides and tops of the cages.

The stalks of grass inside will be protected and provide shelter for other species.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said several factors have contributed to seagrass loss, including shoreline development, dredging and the creation of docks, along with boats anchoring, grounding and mooring, as well as the island’s northern position, which limited seagrass growth.

She added: “More recently, green turtle grazing has put unprecedented pressure on these habitats leading to their local collapse.

“The plants struggle to recover from the intensive grazing by the increasing number of juvenile green turtles arriving on the Bermuda Platform.”

Mr Roban said that the department had been given donations of mesh and rebar to construct cages.

He added others had offered to donate more material and time to build the enclosures.

Mr Roban said: “With these recent donations, DENR can expand the seagrass restoration project beyond the six areas currently caged.”

He added cages could be seen at Bailey’s Bay and Trunk Island and from the shore at Flatts Inlet near the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.

Jennifer Gray, the director of the Bermuda Turtle Project, said that she had “no major objections” to the project, but more research needed to be carried out into potential causes of seagrass loss.

Ms Gray added: “They talk about there being too many turtles in Bermuda, but you have to ask what else is going on with regards to the health of seagrass on this island.”

She asked: “Does this require the in depth research on sediments, poisons and toxins like glysophate?

“We know we are doing these things and putting our ecosystem out of balance. It is a delicate system.”

She added the conservation of sharks, which keep sea turtle numbers in check, was also needed – a view backed by the ministry.

Ms Gray said that making it illegal for boats to anchor on seagrass would also help.

The ministry spokeswoman agreed and said“: Some boaters do not pay attention to where they are going and run aground is shallow seagrass meadows, destroying small areas of seagrass as they go aground.”

She added the problem was worsened as boats were pulled free, rather than waiting on the tide to lift them.

She added propeller damage to seagrass could leave a scar that took “years to recover”.

The spokeswoman highlighted that seagrass was protected and anyone who damaged or disturbed it could face a fine of up to $15,000 or a year in jail.

Ms Gray added she was concerned about young turtles who may be put at risk by a lack of seagrass.

Ms Gray said large sea turtles could feed on algaes and jellyfish or migrate to other locations.

But she added: “There are some who are very young that have just come to the island – new recruits we call them – that will likely starve to death.

“They are just coming here from the open ocean and are conditioned to find seagrass. If they don’t, its very likely we will lose some.

“Either that or when they are hungry and weak the parasites take over them and they get sick.”

“If a very small turtle tries to migrate the chances are not good – they are probably shark food.

“It’s also important to remember that sea turtles are critically important to the health of seagrass beds by keeping them grazed and pooping all over them.”

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Published January 19, 2021 at 9:40 am (Updated January 19, 2021 at 9:40 am)

Seagrass recovery vital for young turtles

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