In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, citing serious concerns and the public interest, vetoed a measure that would have allowed developers to offset the destruction of seagrass on publicly owned submerged land with the use of mitigation credits to grow seagrass elsewhere.
With Florida currently experiencing another population surge and pressures building for more coastal development, two bills, HB 349 and SB 198, are working their way through the legislative process. The bills call for the use of seagrass mitigation credits that would allow developers to purchase credits from private “mitigation banks” to replace destroyed seagrass beds with the planting of new seagrass beds in other locations where they do not already grow.
While the use of mitigation credits is theoretically workable, when it comes to Florida’s fragile seagrass it is a pipe dream.
Florida’s native seagrass is vital to the health of the state’s marine ecosystem and is the main forage for its manatee population. However, it is experiencing an alarming decline as a result of deteriorating water quality, destruction from human activity and sea level rise.
During the past decade, Tampa Bay has lost 13 percent of its seagrass, Sarasota Bay 18 percent, and Indian River Lagoon an astounding 58 percent. With tens of thousands of acres of seagrass lost and the record-setting 1,101 manatee deaths primarily from starvation due to depleted seagrass beds, offsetting the destruction of established seagrass beds with mitigation credits is a solution chasing a problem.
Repeated scientific studies dating to the 1980s have found that mitigation credits frequently failed to replace what had been destroyed. Given the track record of failure for mitigation credits, respected environmental organizations as the Ocean Conservancy, Florida Conservation Voters and Save the Manatee Club oppose the measures because seagrass is particularly one of the most costly and difficult habitats to restore since the water quality has to be good.
Rather than risk accelerating the destruction of the state’s established seagrass beds by offsetting their loss with the uncertain effectiveness of mitigation credits, Florida lawmakers should be looking to improve water quality to protect established beds and to restore the acreage lost over the years, as Save Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District are successfully doing in King’s Bay.
With Florida’s established seagrass beds struggling to hold their own and the Florida manatee on the precipice of possible extinction from starvation, now is not the time to fool with Mother Nature by destroying established beds for the wishful thinking of growing new beds elsewhere.
This editorial first appeared in the Citrus County Chronicle. “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.