Eelgrass Disappears in Morro Bay
The mysterious disappearance of eelgrass from the large tidal flats of Morro Bay, California, has scientists baffled and prompted a new research collaboration to investigate the reasons for the collapse and the potential adverse effects on local fish and wildlife.
Scientists assume water quality and environmental factors contributed to the loss, but the exact cause remains unknown. To investigate this mystery, a new research partnership — the Eelgrass Research and Monitoring Collaborative (ERMC) — has emerged. It includes staff from NOAA Fisheries, California Sea Grant, MBNEP, California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) professors and students, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who are all looking into factors such as dredging, shoreline development, freshwater inflow, sedimentation, disease, overgrazing, and competition with macroalgae to determine the potential causes of the eelgrass decline, with hopes that what they learn will lead to restoration efforts in Morro Bay and up and down the West Coast.
Morro Bay has long been known for its vast beds of native eelgrass, which provides one of the richest and most productive coastal habitats in the world, helping to protect shorelines, improving water quality, and supporting many invertebrate and fish species, like the threatened and endangered steelhead. While natural cycles normally drive increases and decreases in eelgrass over time, Morro Bay’s has declined by 97 percent, crashing down from 344 acres in 2007 to just 13 acres by 2015.
“To solve a problem of the magnitude of loss of eelgrass in Morro Bay will take a whole community. The collaborative group is bringing together expertise and resources from all sectors because we cannot sit by while a major state ecosystem collapses,” said Jennifer O’leary, a marine ecologist with California Sea Grant and faculty at Cal Poly.
Over the next few months, the ERMC plans to release some preliminary findings and published articles that shed new light on this puzzle and help launch a strategic restoration effort to revive Morro Bay eelgrass and the vast ecosystem it supports.