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For humans, eelgrass not always greener

Underwater plant great for wildlife but burdensome, high maintenance for dock owners.

December 11, 2010|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com
  • Eelgrass grows in front of resident Seymour Beek's house on Balboa Island, shown during a minus tide.
Eelgrass grows in front of resident Seymour Beek's… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — Some call it a weed. A scourge on the bay. Others, mainly fish, can't live without it.

Eelgrass, a type of seagrass found throughout Southern California bays, lines the shore in many parts of Newport Harbor and provides refuge and food for marine life. Because of strict environmental regulations, homeowners avoid disturbing the plant. Many haven't dredged their shorelines for years, and their boats and floating docks have begun to run aground.

Trying to strike a delicate balance between the recreational and environmental value of the bay, the city is proposing a novel plan to manage eelgrass. City officials are negotiating with federal and state regulators to allow homeowners to dredge under their docks without costly mitigation. But part of the plan relies on growing the unpredictable grass in other parts of Newport Harbor using methods never tested in Southern California.

"We are trying to make things work for our residents, yet recognize the importance of eelgrass," said Chris Miller, the city's harbor resources manager.

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Federally protected under the Clean Water Act, eelgrass has many ecological benefits. Besides the shelter and food it provides, it filters excess nutrients from fertilizers and other material washed into the bay. It also oxygenates water and sediment, and removes excess carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

With long, ribbon-like blades, eelgrass provides small fish and invertebrates a refuge from predators. Crabs and other herbivores also eat it, and some smaller species attach to it for survival. Sand bass, California halibut and other fish use it as a nursery.

"We don't want to see a loss of eelgrass habitat in Newport Bay," said Bryant Chesney, a biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service office in Long Beach.

Because of its benefits, National Marine Fisheries Service guidelines require dock owners to evaluate, transplant and monitor growth of the delicate grass. This process can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Since regulators began strictly enforcing rules about 10 years ago, hardly any homeowners have dredged under their docks, local officials say.

To obtain a dredging permit, dock owners have to ensure the plant thrives for five years after dredging. If it doesn't survive, they're required to plant anew.

"It's a blank check," said Mark Sites, owner of Intracoastal Dredging, based in Newport Beach. "I haven't found many people that want to take on that responsibility."

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