Eelgrass—Nowhere to Hide

Bay Pipefish in Eelgrass

Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus)–one of many species that depend on eelgrass habitat for survival.

A marine ecologist in Hart Crowser’s Anchorage, Alaska office, overheard a recent complaint, “When I go fishing I can’t stand all this ‘eelweed’ getting in my prop and fouling my lines.”

“Then why do you fish where there is eelgrass?” asked the marine ecologist.

“Because that is where fishing is best.”

That was the crucial connection. Eelgrass is essential fish habitat. Without it, even migratory fish (including our beloved salmon), don’t have a place to call home.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) is native to shallow waters of most temperate oceans and seas, including Puget Sound, Oregon, northern California, British Columbia, and Alaska. It is not a seaweed like kelp, but a flowering plant that evolved from terrestrial flora (similar to what you might find in your front yard).

Eelgrass is important to many fish and invertebrates. Juvenile salmon, rockfish, and Dungeness crab find shelter in eelgrass meadows in early life. Herring, in particular, spawn on eelgrass, making it crucial to its survival. Many species (including commercially important ones) use it to live, eat, spawn, and hide from predators.

Eelgrass is also very good at converting carbon dioxide into tissue that may get buried, taking it out of the system (blue carbon). An acre of eelgrass can remove nearly 150 kg of carbon from the atmosphere every year, making it important to the issues of ocean acidification and global climate change.

Eelgrass is pretty hearty, dealing with coastal storms, being exposed at low tide, and spending part of each year under sea ice (in northern areas). Yet, as hearty and important as eelgrass is, it is on the decline, leaving fish and invertebrates that depend on it with nowhere to hide. Stay tuned for the reasons why, and what’s being done about it.