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Mapping identifies eelgrass health

Eelgrass meadows are swaying in good numbers along the coast of Gabriola Island, according to environmental stewards looking to keep it that way.

Islands Trust, in partnership with SeaChange Conservation Society and Seagrass Conservation Working Group, has released the results of a two-year eelgrass mapping project as part of an effort to conserve and monitor the marine habitat.

According to stewards, eelgrass is a critical part of the ocean environment, absorbing 90 times the carbon as forests and providing food and protection for commercially harvested fish. They say it’s important to protect, especially as the habitats face threats of growing populations and changing ocean temperatures.

An estimated 18 per cent of coastal marine and nearshore habitat has already been lost in the Salish Sea.

Those behind the new mapping project are now recommending conservation measures from monitoring the health of the plant, to public education and regulations that limit shoreline development.

“The habitat we have on the island is good. We were pleased with what we did find,” said Kate Emmings, ecosystem protection specialist with Islands Trust Fund, who points out that Gabriola has one of the highest eelgrass counts among the larger gulf islands.

But she said people still need to worry about the impact human activity has on the shoreline habitat.

“It seems almost like death by a thousand cuts,” Emmings said. “You put one dock out or one boat through eelgrass and it doesn’t feel like you are doing a lot of damage. But there are a number of people in our area and it’s a growing population. If everyone puts docks on the shoreline and boats and moors in the eelgrass then we’ll see a lot of loss over the next 50 years and that I think will have a significant impact on the habitat it provides.”

The mapping effort – which has seen Islands Trust and Islands Trust Fund pay more than $55,000 so far – was launched in 2012.

Island Trust representatives say they wanted to start looking at how its landscapes were connecting with marine environments and help mitigate negative effects island activity could be causing.

While the ocean is the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial governments, there are places local government can have influence, including marine conservation and nearshore development, according to Sheila Malcolmson, chairwoman of the Islands Trust Council.

“I think there is more appreciation for the importance of [the marine environment] at one level,” she said, of the push to inventory eelgrass. “And then ... we’ve got provincial and federal government cutting their costs and having fewer employees in the environmental and protection areas so more of it is falling to local volunteers, [conservation agencies] and local governments.”

The report also suggests efforts to regulate shoreline development and encourage the public to practise conservation. Boaters, for example, could anchor outside of eelgrass beds and design buoys so the chains don’t drag on the ocean floor in low tide.

The Islands Trust and its partners aren’t expected to roll out conservation measures until after the mapping project wraps up in 2015.

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