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Legislation to protect sea grass advances

One of many eelgrass restoration sites off of

One of many eelgrass restoration sites off of Cornelius Point, Shelter Island. (May 30, 2007) Credit: Kim Petersen

ALBANY -- Legislation to protect sea grass on the Long Island shorelines advanced Monday when the State Senate passed a modified version of a bill already passed in the Assembly.

If enacted, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would designate "sea grass management areas" that would be subject to regulation of commercial and recreational activities.

Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), who sponsored the original legislation, said the Assembly would amend its bill to match the Senate's. "They're close enough," said Sweeney, who chairs the Assembly environmental conservation committee. "In the interest of getting something done we would pass that bill."

Sea grasses are plants that take root below the water surface along coastlines and provide a home to shellfish and other aquatic species. Long Island lost about 40 percent of its sea grass in the 1980s when the coast was hit with algae blooms that prevented sunlight from reaching the plants, according to Bradley Peterson, an associate professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

"We know that we've lost more since then," he said. "Not as dramatically but it continues to go down."

The grasses function as nurseries for fish and transfer oxygen into the sediment, which helps other species grow. Peterson, who was part of a state task force that produced a 2009 report from which the legislation grew, said the main threats to sea grass are pesticides, chemicals that kill weeds, human waste from septic tanks and mechanical damage from boats and fishing operations.

"They are very valuable environments and we're losing them worldwide," Peterson said. "There's a lot of concern about what we can do to reduce this massive loss of sea grass around the planet."

The regulations would be created in consultation with local governments and local interests such as commercial fishing and recreational companies.

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