TPWD Seeks Input on Expanded Seagrass Protection

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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Agency Scoping Possibility of State Scientific Area near JFK Causeway

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AUSTIN — The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will hold initial scoping meetings and take online comments this winter about two possible regulations changes for 2012, depending on stakeholder input—a new state scientific area to protect seagrass in the Laguna Madre near the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway in Nueces County, and a clarification of emergency rules to protect fish during coastal freezes.

The two coastal items are part of possible statewide hunting and fishing regulation changes for 2012. They will not become official proposals until January, after which there will be more statewide meetings and comment opportunities before final rules are approved by the TPW Commission in March.

Shallow-water seagrass meadows are among the world’s most productive marine habitats, next to coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves. Seagrass meadows serve as nurseries for juvenile game fish, crabs and shrimp. They also provide food for sea turtles, shorebirds and waterfowl, help prevent erosion, and play a biological filtering role to improve water quality.

The JFK causeway proposal would create a new 15,500-acre protected area similar to the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area created in 2000. Redfish Bay was the state’s first scientific area for education, scientific research, and preservation of flora and fauna of scientific or education value. A key goal was to allow submerged seagrasses time for recovery from extensive damage caused by outboard motor propellers, as well as prevent further harm to the delicate aquatic plants.

When the Redfish Bay area came up for five-year renewal in 2005, TPWD enacted a rule to prohibit seagrass uprooting in the scientific area. At that time, TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division launched a comprehensive outreach and education campaign about the new rule and the importance of seagrass, emphasizing a “Lift, Drift, Pole, Troll” message. In 2010, the TPW Commission voted to indefinitely extend the “no uprooting seagrass with a boat propeller” law in the Redfish Bay area.

Public surveys of boaters before and after the Redfish Bay rule change showed that 88 percent of respondents were aware of the regulation, and 87 percent of them reported that their boating behavior had changed, the most common change being to avoid known shallow areas.

Also, scientific studies demonstrated the Redfish Bay rule has helped seagrasses recover. Using transect surveys and aerial photography, coastal fisheries biologists found the number of boat propeller scars in Redfish Bay decreased 45 percent from 2005 to 2009. Among the good news: preliminary data suggest seagrass propeller scars may recover faster than was previously thought.

In the wake of this success, the TPW Commission directed staff to explore expanding seagrass protection on the Texas coast. The team came up with a short list of five sites, from Galveston Island down to South Bay near Brownsville.

The JFK causeway site was chosen because it has extensive shallow seagrass flats that would benefit from protection, plus heavy boat traffic with many access points. Also, the site offers beneficial “overlap” from the nearby Redfish Bay area, only 10 miles away. The region benefits from previous outreach and conservation efforts, and existing partners dedicating to helping the cause. Because of this, many boaters and anglers in the region are already familiar with rules and boating practices to protect seagrass.

Seagrass protection in the JFK causeway area would be essentially the same as in the Redfish Bay scientific area. Boaters could motor throughout the area under power as long as they do not uproot seagrass with boat propellers.

TPWD is also proposing to clarify rules to protect fish during prolonged freezing weather on the Texas coast. For example, on Feb. 2, the agency issued a temporary closure to saltwater fishing at specified areas or thermal refuges along the Texas coast. Texas has about two million acres of bays and estuaries susceptible to freeze. There were three major freezes during the 1980s, including one in 1989 when the temperature at Brownsville dropped to 16 degrees and an estimated 11 million fish were killed.

The existing rule says no one can fish with a hook and line, pole and line, or throwline in an affected area during a freeze closure. The proposed rule change for 2012 makes clear that no one may take or attempt to take any aquatic life by any means in an affected area during a freeze.

The agency will hold public meetings to scope both items along the coast before the Jan. 25-26 commission meeting in Austin, and will also take comments via the TPWD website. Interested parties should stay tuned to the agency news release web pages for meeting dates and locations. The staff will make proposals for commission consideration at the January meeting. If approved by the commission, the proposals will be published in the Texas Register and the items will be considered for final adoption at the March 28-29 commission meeting.

A map showing the outline of the proposed JFK causeway scientific area is available on TPWD’s news images web page.

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