ROCKPORT, Texas — The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is planning a new approach to protect ecologically important seagrass beds in coastal bays from propeller-scarring by recreational boats. Scientists believe this propeller scaring is causing long-term damage in some areas. “We’re going to be seeking input from anglers, fishing guides, conservation organizations and others to develop a coast-wide approach to protect shallow-water seagrass in areas of high boat traffic,” said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., and TPWD coastal fisheries director. “We want to continue to emphasize boater and angler education to encourage voluntary seagrass conservation along the entire coast and generally get away from focusing on special areas. We will make use of our existing Seagrass Conservation Task Force and focus our activities in the Redfish Bay Scientific Area.” McKinney said the department is proposing to continue the Redfish Bay scientific area through 2010 and will be working with the task force in the spring to come up with any specific actions or changes to afford greater seagrass protection in the scientific area. The department is not proposing to continue the Nine Mile Hole Scientific Area, mainly because it is located in a remote region and TPWD lacks the resources to properly monitor and study the area. McKinney emphasized that fisheries biologists are still talking with local groups to get their ideas on the future of Nine Mile Hole. McKinney said the department prefers an approach that will focus on reducing direct impacts that destroy seagrass root structure and substrate (bay bottom) integrity. Evidence shows that these actions reduce the likelihood of seagrass recovery in areas where the bay bottom is scarred by motorboat propellers. The current extension of the Redfish Bay Scientific area is being proposed as part of a legislatively-mandated rule review and is packaged with several other cleanup items in department regulations regarding fisheries. The proposed regulatory changes that would take effect sometime around June, if adopted. The department will publish proposals in the Texas Register and hold public meetings to solicit input before the TPWD Commission votes to finalize these proposals at its April 7 meeting. Subsequent proposals dealing with seagrass will probably come in early summer, depending on the work and the progress of the department working with the task force. Shallow-water seagrasses in Texas bays provide vital nursery areas for diverse marine life, food and cover for game fish, bottom stabilization, and better water quality. Seagrass has declined in many areas on the Texas coast. In Galveston Bay, 95 percent of all seagrass has disappeared. In the Redfish Bay area, the total acreage of seagrass has declined by 13 percent since 1958. The area marks the northernmost extent of one important species commonly known as turtlegrass. This species is particularly susceptible to propeller damage because of the long recovery time when damaged. In 2000, a Seagrass Conservation Task Force made up of commercial and recreational anglers, local governments, homeowners, fishing guides, boat dealers and other business owners unanimously supported a plan to create restrictions on boating at Redfish Bay and Nine Mile Hole in the Lower Laguna Madre. A study done in the 1990s by the Corpus Christi National Estuary Program found seagrasses declining, changing or fragmenting in areas with high boat traffic. TPWD and the seagrass task force concluded that scars from boat propellers contribute substantially to seagrass fragmentation and loss and may worsen bottom erosion. Prop scars are more common near popular fishing areas. Anyone may receive a copy of the proposed extension of the scientific area designation for Redfish Bay by sending a written request by e-mail to jerry.cooke or by regular mail to Jerry Cooke, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, TX 78744. Anyone may comment about the proposed new rules by writing to the same addresses or by commenting online via the TPWD Web site.

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide