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Eelgrass decline affecting ecosystem of California's coastal habitat

Kathryn Winfrey

At nearly 66 degrees, the Morro Bay estuary water is warm say the divers zipping up their wet suits on this Saturday morning in mid August. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the average Morro Bay water temp for August at 58 degrees, nearly 8 degrees cooler than its current temperature.

Scientists believe warmer water is among the main culprits behind the decline of the area's eelgrass, a plant that grows along the bottom of the estuary.

"In many respects, eelgrass is like the base of the food chain here," Jen Nix is the Restoration Projects Manager for the Morro Bay National Estuary Program. "What's becoming more apparent is how important it is on a worldwide scale - it's not just Morro Bay that's having these declines - in the last 30 years I think a quarter million acres of sea grass have declined which is on par with tropical rain forest decline, coral reef issues and so I think that's something that people are starting to really grasp is how really important the eelgrass is for biodiversity from that standpoint."

Keith Merkel and his San Diego-based consulting firm are on site working with a group of volunteers on how to collect, bundle and replanting eelgrass in the most efficient manner. He's been called into help by organizations up and down the California coast to help with the wasting disease.

"The first time that it actually was definitively found was in LA harbor, in one of the beds there, and then ultimately Morro Bay, since that time it's been found up in Humboldt Bay, and then this year we found it in San Francisco," said Merkel. 

The grass is being killed off by a slime mold that occurs naturally, but when conditions for the mold are too favorable it overtakes the grass withers and dies.

This is the third year the Morro Bay National Estuary Program is making the push to save the local eelgrass. While the beds are known to show fluctuations in size, they're currently at their smallest recorded level—just 15 acres—down from several hundred in a previous count.

Survival of the grass depends on larger underwater fields to help balance the conditions for its sustainability. If the scale tips too far, Nix says the local grass could be lost completely. Keith Merkel agrees, saying the grass is visibly different as you travel the west coast.

Among the animals that count on the success of this week's replanting effort are the endangered steelhead trout, the black brant goose, and a wide variety of other creatures that call the estuary home.