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Green Algae replacing what once lush sea grass meadows in Matlacha Pass

Posted at 1:36 PM, Apr 17, 2024

MATLACHA, Fla. — Sea grass is such an important part of our environment here in Southwest Florida. It provides habitat for our fish and food for our manatees. But unfortunately, that sea grass is going away and is being replaced by green algae. Meteorologist Andrew Shipley spent the day with Calusa Waterkeeper Codty Pierce to get a closer look at this problem.

Pierce grew up in Lee County, fishing its waters both recreationally and professionally.

"At one time, we had what seemed to be an overabundance of natural area,” said Pierce. “Everywhere you went, you could catch redfish, snook, and trout. These days it's much more challenging to do that.

Pierce says that the challenge greatly stems from the changes in water quality and the loss of our sea grass. What were once lush sea grass meadows, are now dense green algae beds.

"When you lose that biodiversity, you lose the biomass,” said Pierce. “The fact we are going from complex multi-cellular organism down to a predominately single cellular organism, is quite concerning for us."

Shipley wanted to see these changes for himself, so Pierce took Shipley throughout Matlacha Pass to some of his former fishing spots to find areas in total void of sea grass meadows. Instead, they found algae, not just on the sea floor, but also wrapped around mangrove roots.

"Since we had less and less of those meadows available to our grazing species like our manatees and sea turtles, we see an increase of grazing on the grass that is already there,” said Pierce. “We see a lot of stressors after Hurricane Ian. Any of the grass species that weren't already well mature and established specimens were washed away with the storm surge."

Pierce says we are truly at a tipping point when it comes to restoring these valuable ecosystems

"How long can we continue to push the can down the road where we stand up and fight for what's ours? This area has sustained life for almost 2000 years. We have had a 150-year chapter here, and the loss of this is something you can't quite put into words."

But he's still optimistic that if we reduce pollutants and excess nutrients in our waterways…the sea grass may have a chance.

"We need to take care of the nutrients. We need to have a better understanding of how these storms are impacting these areas. There are many aspects of this,” said Pierce."When you have an area as such as the miserable mile, that has sometimes 500 to 1000 vessels traversing it a day. That agitation from the boat wake too, is another factor that plays into the health of sea grass estuary."

Restoring these ecosystems, Pierce adds is a critical task for all of us in Lee county and Southwest Florida as a whole.