Partnership updates maps to monitor seagrass losses

Scientists say studying submerged aquatic vegetation can provide clues to the overall health of the coast. Photo: APNEP

A map of underwater grasses in the Sounds of North Carolina, an important tool for monitoring the environmental well-being of the coast, was recently updated.

The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary National Partnership, or APNEP, worked with regional partners to create the updated map using data from 2020 that shows the amount and location of seagrass beds, also known as vegetation submerged aquatic, in the high salinity areas of the Albemarle-Pamlico. estuary.

“These mapping efforts are critical to understanding the locations and health of this important habitat in our sounds,” APNEP Director Dr. Bill Crowell said in a statement.

APNEP has worked for over 30 years to identify, protect and restore resources in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system, such as submerged aquatic vegetation.

APNEP quantitative ecologist Dr Tim Ellis told Coastal Review that it’s important for the public to know about the health of submerged aquatic vegetation because it “is intertwined with many things that people care about on the coast, including clean water, productive recreational activities and commercial fishing, shoreline protection and resilience to major storms such as hurricanes.

Analysis of previous mapping efforts in 2006-08 and 2012-14 shows that submerged aquatic plant resources are in decline. The 2020 data will help researchers confirm if and where seagrass beds continue to decline, according to APNEP.

The 2020 data is compared to previous charts, Ellis explained. Although it is too early in the analysis to share even preliminary results for specific regions, in general, for many areas examined so far, seagrass beds continue to decline.

“We attribute some of this decline to poor water clarity which limits the sunlight these underwater plants need to grow, especially in more developed areas; however, two recent major storms – hurricanes Florence and Dorian – have also certainly impacted SAV,” he said.

The APNEP Submerged Aquatic Vegetation team used a combination of aerial flights and ground-truthing via boat surveys in 2020 to map the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary.

Ellis is the chief of staff for the team, which includes members with various areas of expertise in long-term monitoring and evaluation. The main partners are the State Department of Transportation and the Division of Marine Fisheries.

Monitoring, which includes mapping and assessment, or data analysis, are essential parts of APNEP’s efforts to develop and implement a protection strategy for the region, Ellis said.

“In 2021, we published a metric report on changes in the extent of high salinity SAV. We are in the process of updating this change detection analysis to include new 2020 map information. We expect to be able to provide this information to the public later this year,” Ellis said.

Ellis said mapping submerged aquatic vegetation takes a lot of time and resources, as well as weather cooperation.

“For this mapping effort, aerial imagery was first acquired in June 2019,” he said, “but these images were deemed insufficient to reliably map the SAV due to the clarity of the images. low water resulting from wind and rain in the days preceding the flights”.

The region was mapped again in May and June 2020 and this aerial imagery was more than sufficient.

“Given the large amount of coastal and estuarine waters covered, as well as the limited trained personnel, delineating all visible VAS takes months. That said, APNEP and its partners were able to produce this updated SAV map much faster than our previous two mapping efforts, and we plan to continue to increase our mapping efficiency in the future based on available resources and staff capacity,” Ellis continued. “APNEP is fortunate to be able to lead a large group of dedicated partners committed to the monitoring and protection of VAS.”

Collaborative monitoring and evaluation with partner organizations will continue each year as part of APNEP’s new regional strategy, with results to be released to the public as they become available, officials said.

Ellis explained that the new regional surveillance strategy is an effort to coordinate actions carried out by APNEP with regional partners.

“As part of EPA’s National Estuarine Program, APNEP is required to have a monitoring plan for the region, and we have chosen to begin by formalizing our long-term strategy for SAV monitoring,” Ellis said. .

“In short, rather than trying to fly and map the entire APNEP region for SAV every five years or so, we now fly and map a different sub-region every year,” he said. “This approach was designed not only to improve the efficiency of our mapping, but also to allow us to take a closer look at the resource in each sub-region to better understand the seasonal variability in extent, abundance and species composition.

In addition to 2020 map data used to determine where submerged aquatic vegetation is declining, the data should help guide the development of protection and restoration strategies.

“These mapping efforts are a key part of implementing North Carolina’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan,” APNEP Coastal Habitat Coordinator Jimmy Johnson said in a statement. “Protecting SAV habitat will increase the resilience of our coastal ecosystems as a whole.”

The Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, or CHPP, is a long-term effort developed by the state’s Division of Environmental Quality to improve coastal fisheries through the protection and enhancement of habitat. ‘habitat. The state commissions of marine fisheries, environmental management and coastal resources adopted the plan in 2004.

Johnson was part of the team that developed an amendment to the plan approved in 2021 that recommends actions to protect and restore submerged aquatic vegetation through improved water quality.

APNEP is currently hosted by the State Department of Environmental Quality under a cooperative agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and works closely with Virginia. The program area stretches from the headwaters of the mountains of Virginia and the Piedmont of North Carolina, across the coastal plain and to the chain of barrier islands bordering the Sounds, according to the website.

EPA and NCDEQ funded APNEP for this 2020 Map Update Project, with field and technical support from the Marine Fisheries Division and other partners.

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