AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissions on Nov. 3 voted to authorize seagrass conservation measures to protect ecologically important seagrass beds in the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area near Rockport. The new rules will take effect May 1, 2006.

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.

This past January, the department acted to continue the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area through 2010 and sought input from anglers, fishing guides, conservation organizations and others on the best ways to protect shallow-water seagrasses from motor boat propeller scarring.

On Aug. 25, the TPW Commission authorized department employees to move forward and take public comments on the proposed mandatory seagrass rules, and the department held three meetings on the Texas coast to get public input.

The new rules define “seagrass plant” as five marine flowering plant species: clover grass (Halophila engelmanni), manatee grass (Syringodium filiformis), shoalgrass (Halodule beaudettei), turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), and widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima).

The rules make it illegal to uproot seagrass anywhere within the state scientific area. This has been called the “area wide” seagrass proposal for Redfish Bay. Violations would be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. A separate proposal to create three smaller propeller up or “no prop” zones inside the state scientific area was not approved by the commission.

Alongside the new rules, department staff said they intend to continue and expand a concerted public education campaign, including extensive efforts to identify and mark access points into the area to minimize seagrass loss.

“We believe we can design clearly marked running lanes to get in and out of these sensitive seagrass areas in a fishing friendly way,” McKinney said. “Local communities, fishing guides and conservation groups have said public education is important, and we welcome their help in that area. In fact, while game wardens will be enforcing the new rules, we expect and depend upon voluntary public compliance and support on this issue, just as with all hunting and fishing regulations.”

McKinney said TPWD will monitor the results of the new rules and consider whether stronger steps are necessary if seagrass damage continues.

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide