Longtime Charlotte Harbor enthusiasts are likely familiar with the ever-important seagrass floors that line the harbor floor. These shallow water systems are among the most productive in the world. It is estimated that up to 80% of commercial and recreational fish and shellfish are dependent on seagrass habitat at some stage in their life cycle. Seagrass meadows provide food and shelter for marine life such as juvenile tarpons, green turtles, and manatees.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District recently released its draft biennial seagrass maps of Charlotte Harbor. Between 2018 and 2020, Charlotte Harbor saw a 4,615 hectare decline in seagrass habitat from 19,715 hectares in 2018 to 15,100 hectares in 2020. This represents a 23% loss in mapped seagrass area across the port and the lowest mapped area since mapping began of the Seagrass District in 1988.

Seagrass relies on good clarity and quality of the water in order to stay healthy. For example, excess nutrients in the harbor can help increase algae growth, which in turn can damage seaweed by reducing the amount of light reaching them. Many state and regional agencies are actively researching how sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes, and human disturbance can affect seagrass floors and other aquatic habitats in this dynamic ecosystem. We still have a lot to learn about how these drivers affect the health of the port, but Charlotte County and its partners continue to monitor and address potential impacts on the seagrass habitat and identify causes of water quality degradation. These efforts include:

The Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership and Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves coordinate monthly water quality sampling events in Charlotte Harbor. CHAP has been conducting annual seaweed population assessments across the port since 1999. Charlotte County is creating a water quality monitoring network that will help us better understand how highland activities contribute to the water quality of Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosahatchee River.

Previous studies have shown that septic tank fields make an important nutrient contribution to our waterways. Since 2007, Charlotte County has converted approximately 2,300 homes from septic tanks to sewers. In the Ackerman-Countryman and El Jobean areas, around 2,014 sewer connections are to be added over the next five years.

Here are some ways you can reduce your nutrient footprint and protect seagrass habitats:

• Think Before You Fertilize: Did you know Charlotte County has a fertilizer ban ordinance? With a few exceptions, no fertilizer may be applied to lawn or landscape plants from June 1st to September 1st. 30. Please do your part to reduce the nutrient runoff into the port.

• Make a promise to clean boating: Help protect our waters by following the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s clean boating habits. Be vigilant when boating in shallow water. Column scarring can severely damage seagrass bottoms and other shallow water habitats.

It’s important to remember that despite this news, the port is still home to more than 15,000 acres of seagrass habitat. Charlotte County, SWFWMD, CHAP, FDEP, CHNEP, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and many other organizations continue their important work to assess, improve and protect the health of the port. Look forward to future articles on these initiatives and other related topics, including the development of the One Charlotte, One Water Plan. In the meantime, please visit www.charlottecountyfl.gov/OneCharlotteOneWater for more information on the resources and opportunities described above.

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