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Seagrass Protection Act awaits approval

South Jamesport Beach overlooks the Great Peconic Bay.

South Jamesport Beach overlooks the Great Peconic Bay. The attached park features tennis and basketball courts. (June 28, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

An act that would protect sea grass by allowing a state environmental agency to regulate potentially damaging coastal and marine activities awaits Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s expected signature.

The State Senate and Assembly passed the Seagrass Protection Act, co-sponsored by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) and state Sen. Owen Johnson (R- West Babylon), on June 21. The bill is expected to have a minimal financial cost.

For years, disease, brown tides and inputs from the watershed like nutrients and herbicides have caused severe damage to regional populations of sea grass, which help maintain the health of New York bays by providing habitat for local fish, shellfish and other marine life.

“Efforts to rebuild populations of fish and shellfish, such as Peconic Bay scallops, are unlikely to achieve long-term success without adequate protection and restoration of sea grass,“ said Nancy Kelley, executive director for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island in a news release.

The act will permit the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to work with stakeholders to set up sea grass management areas as a first step to curbing nitrogen pollution, which a recently released federal study says greatly threatens sea grass health.

The study also underscored the need to protect resilient sea grass populations in the state — particularly in the Great South Bay of Long Island, home to a type of sea grass called eelgrass.

“The once vast sea grass meadows have suffered dramatic declines, making it essential we take action now to protect the sea grasses in our costal regions,” Sen. Johnson said in a statement on his website.

It’s unknown exactly how much sea grass acreage has been lost in New York. Historic photography and available records would estimate up to 200,000 acres existed in 1930; 21,803 remain, according to a recent DEC report.

A 2006 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report found that species that rely on sea grass produced more than $1.9 billion in sales, $41 million in employment impacts and $1 billion of earned income nationwide.

Above: South Jamesport Beach overlooks the Great Peconic Bay. (June 28, 2012)

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