FGCU researchers study seagrass, key indicator of Caloosahatchee health

It’s not the same as the grass on your lawn, but researchers are going beneath the surface to see how healthy the Caloosahatchee River is.

FGCU researchers we met in Punta Rassa Wednesday explained what seagrass can tell us about the water quality in Southwest Florida.

“This type of seagrass that we have here in this part of the estuary is called turtle grass because it’s one of the favorites of sea turtles,” FGCU professor James Douglass said.

Douglass, an associate professor at The Water School, and his students study both water quality and seagrass in the estuary.

“We learned that the seagrass is still alive, at least at this one site,” Douglass said. “And we saw some evidence of grazing on the seagrass by sea turtles and manatees, which is also something we like to see.”

The FGCU researches demonstrated for us Wednesday morning.

“Seagrass depends on good water quality to live because seagrass, like all plants, needs a lot of light,” Douglass aid.

That means, if the water is murky, seagrass can thin out and die.

“Seagrass also has to compete with algae for that light,” Douglass said. “So when there’s pollution in the water, it makes so much algae grow that the algae can take over the seagrass.”

One indicator of water quality is where seagrass grows and how much.

“The grass is pretty healthy looking at this location,” Douglass said.

While the seagrass looked healthy at the site in Punta Rassa, the Douglass said, closer to Fort Myers, the grass is not growing as well and can’t tolerate a natural amount of animal grazing.

The research is part of a two-year study, and it’s inspiring a new generation of scientists.

“I like knowing that I’m making a difference in this part of science,” graduate student Ashley Szumski said. “I’m able to use that data and then help others understand why we need to protect these seagrass beds.”

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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