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Ocean Foundation makes dubious claims in sea grass proposal

A Washington-based foundation has teamed up with a controversial local company to propose a radical change in the way Florida deals with the destruction of its sea grass beds.

The proposal from the Ocean Foundation says that anyone who needs to destroy sea grass — say, for a new marina — could make up for the damage by writing a check to the foundation. Then the foundation would hire a contractor — most likely Seagrass Recovery of Indian Rocks Beach — to repair sea grass beds that have been scarred by boaters.

Foundation president Mark Spalding predicted this approach could bring in "billions of dollars every year" for sea grass, but the proposal has already hit some rough waters:

• The foundation has undertaken only one previous sea grass restoration project — financed by Absolut Vodka — and officials say they don't know yet whether it worked. The foundation's claim that it completed a second project, this one in the Tampa Bay area, turns out to be false.

• Critics say Seagrass Recovery's methods have yet to show any verified success, and question how fixing damaged sea grass beds can count as making up for wiping out other beds.

• The foundation has already had to backpedal from a claim that the state's top sea grass expert is working with it.

Margaret "Penny" Hall, sea grass administrator for the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said she had one five-minute phone call with a foundation official several months ago, so she was stunned this month to see her name included in a public notice about the foundation's federal permit application. The Ocean Foundation had listed her as someone who would be helping evaluate sea grass restoration sites around the state.

"It looks as if we're on board, and we haven't even had a chance to review it," she said.

She wasn't alone. The public notice, sent out Dec. 8 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also mentions that the director of the University of South Florida's Institute of Oceanography, John Ogden, sits on the foundation's board of advisers.

Ogden said that while he does sit on that board, when it comes to the sea grass restoration project, "I have reviewed nothing."

"My bad," Spalding said. He said he had erred on the side of being as specific as possible about his foundation's plans. The Corps has now sent out a revised public notice that does not mention Hall, although Ogden's name still appears.

Nevertheless, Spalding remains optimistic about the Corps approving his proposal, which experts say could be the first of its kind in the nation. Soon, he said, it could begin providing a way to make up for sea grass damage caused by everything from new marina construction to offshore oil drilling — although Spalding said he wouldn't be too happy about that one.

"There are going to be some kinds of projects that don't smell good," he said.

Florida currently has 2 million acres of sea grass beds, more than any other state. A survey in the mid 1990s found that 173,000 acres were scarred by boat propellers that hit bottom.

Although sea grass plays a crucial role in the health of the state's fisheries, there are still projects where the beds are smothered or ripped out. Making up for such damage can be difficult. The cost usually runs hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. And even the best-planned efforts to restore sea grass frequently fail, sometimes for unexplained reasons.

One reason such projects are so expensive is that they tend to require planting the sea grass by hand. Seagrass Recovery founder Jim Anderson invented a machine that plants a lot of sea grass at once, speeding up the process. But studies have found it doesn't produce as much healthy sea grass as the hand-planting method.

However, the company's current president, Jeff Beggins, says that technology hasn't been used in years, and it has a new technique involving planting biodegradable tubes that has been approved by federal officials.

Last year, using money donated by Absolut Vodka as part of a campaign to combat global warming, the Ocean Foundation hired Seagrass Recovery to repair prop-scarred sea grass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The Absolut project, aimed at repairing a 4,000-foot gash in the grass, is "trending strongly toward success," according to the foundation's permit application to the Corps of Engineers. But sanctuary officials said last week that they don't know yet whether it's going to work.

The foundation's application makes a similar claim of success about another project, this one to repair 7,000 feet of scars in Cockroach Bay near Apollo Beach. However, Beggins said the Cockroach Bay project won't begin until January at the earliest.

Spalding acknowledged that neither project is finished, and the Cockroach Bay project is not even started. However, he said, "it's good to know that an effort is under way to prevent further erosion of the sea grass meadows."

Beggins said the foundation's plan would mark a huge advance for sea grass restoration by providing funding for a comprehensive approach to the problem.

But sea grass experts were more cautious. Mark Fonseca, a federal biologist who literally wrote the book on sea grass restoration, said the foundation's proposal was "an interesting business model, but I'm not sure about the ecological ramifications."

Curtis Kruer, a sea grass expert who headed the Florida Keys Environmental Restoration Trust Fund, said the whole effort seemed like a waste of time and money — and maybe worse.

"Seeing that most prop scars naturally heal themselves over time, it makes no sense, nor is it legal," Kruer said. The boaters who make those big prop scars should be the ones paying to repair the damage, not some developer who's only going to be wiping out still more sea grasses elsewhere, he said.

Roy "Robin" Lewis, a veteran of three decades working on sea grass projects, agreed with Kruer that damage to sea grass beds "should be paid for by those who cause them," and not used to mitigate for damaging more sea grass.

But the big problem, he said, is that unless boaters are slowed down to pole and troll in those areas, "you can repair a prop scar on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon, it is hit again. A total waste of money and no offsetting successful sea grass restoration."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Ocean Foundation makes dubious claims in sea grass proposal 12/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 2:17pm]
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