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June 1, 2007

One Year Later, Compliance ‘Good’ on Seagrass Regulation

ROCKPORT, Texas — A year after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission made it illegal to uproot seagrasses with a submerged propeller within the boundaries of the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area, local game wardens are calling compliance with the regulation “good.”

The regulation — which went into effect May 1, 2006 — marked the first time the TPW Commission used its proclamation power to protect coastal habitat and require changes in boater behavior in the popular fishing destination near Rockport and Aransas Pass.

“Compliance has been fairly good. We’ve given about 50 verbal warnings and eight written warnings,” said Maj. Larry Young, TPWD’s regional law enforcement director for the lower coast. “We’re still going to do our best to educate people first, especially the ones who are new to that area.”

Violation of the regulation is a Class C misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $500.

Young said that the eight game wardens who routinely patrol the area have noticed that fewer boaters are accessing the flats in Redfish Bay.

“I think we still have some folks who are confused about what they can and cannot do out there,” said TPWD Ecosystem Leader Karen Meador. “Anyone in any type of vessel can run anywhere within the scientific area; just don’t uproot seagrasses or dig a prop scar.”

Meador, the lead fisheries biologist for the Aransas Bay System, said her staff — along with local game wardens — have been busy over the past year educating the boating public about the new regulation and about the importance of seagrass conservation.

“We have had nearly 10,000 hits on our Web site and placed more than three dozen articles in local, statewide and national publications,” she said. “We’ve distributed more than 30,000 brochures and made nearly four dozen presentations to civic and sportfishing organizations. My staff and I have personally talked about this regulation and the importance of seagrasses face-to-face with 3,645 boaters and anglers. It’s been a huge effort this past year.”

The education and outreach push followed a recommendation from the TPW Commission — and multiple requests from user groups and boaters during last year’s public hearing process — to make sure the word got out about the regulation.

Redfish Bay, a shallow, highly productive body of water straddling the Aransas Bay and Corpus Christi Bay systems in the Coastal Bend, boasts the state’s northernmost extensive stands of seagrasses. Anglers’ success here has led to a surge in the area’s popularity, and the fragile seagrass meadows — which cover about a third of the 32,000-acre portion of the bay that has been designated a state scientific area — are showing the effects.

“This area is number one for guided fishing trips, and receives the second highest pressure along the Texas coast for private boat anglers,” said TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division biologist Faye Grubbs. “Visitors outnumber locals two to one.”

In a study done in 2001, areas in the Estes Flats section of the bay showed evidence of extensive propeller scarring. These scars create trenches that destroy the seagrass, fragment habitat, channel tidal movement and sometimes take years to recover.

That can hurt the productive red drum and spotted seatrout fishery that draws so many anglers to the area.

“A seagrass meadow supplies everything that many marine organisms need. It provides food for grazing animals at the base of the food chain, surfaces to cling on for small crawling critters, shelter and hiding places for small invertebrates and fish, and ambush points for the larger predators and game fish,” said Dennis Pridgen, another Coastal Fisheries Division biologist. “For them it’s the nursery, the roof over their heads and the grocery store all rolled into one.”

In a presentation to TPW commissioners May 24, TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division Regional Director Ed Hegen noted that many factors — some natural and some caused by humans — affect the health of seagrasses. These include storms and algal blooms (natural) and dredging, excessive nutrients in runoff, shoreline development and recreational boating (human induced).

“We’re concerned about all of the factors that affect the health of our coastal ecosystems, and in particular seagrasses,” Hegen said. “Things like nutrient loading, shoreline development and sedimentation caused by dredging require a long-term approach and cooperation between numerous local, state and federal government entities as well as the private sector. Our commissioners addressed one factor we could immediately affect.”

Boundary markers and boat ramp signs explaining the regulation went up early last year, as did markers for a first preferred-access lane, or PAL, in the popular Estes Flats area. This spring Coastal Fisheries staff surveyed and installed a second PAL in the Terminal Flats area near Hog Island.

“What we’re trying to do is really get boaters to think about what they’re doing out in the water,” Grubbs said. “The responsibility is on the boater to know the area he’s fishing in, and also to protect and preserve the habitat that supports the fish that he’s fishing for.”

A survey of boaters who use the area was recently completed, and will be used as a baseline to determine how attitudes about seagrass and boating behavior in the RBSSA change over time. Biologists also acquired high resolution aerial imagery this spring which will be used to evaluate the current extent of propeller scarring. Potentially this imagery could be compared to imagery taken in the future to detect changes in scarring.

A separate study involves in situ scar counts along transects in RBSSA to determine the extent of propeller scarring. Overall, results from each of these assessment tools will be used to determine the effectiveness of the regulation. Biologists will continue to monitor the situation over the next several years. The regulation will be reviewed by the TPW Commission in 2010.

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AR 2007-06-01

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