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Natural and human-induced disturbance of seagrasses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Frederick T. Short*
Department of Natural Resources, University of New Hampshire, Jackson Estuarine Laboratory, 85 Adams Point Road, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA
Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria
School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA
* Dr Frederick T. Short Tel: +1 603 862 2175 Fax: +1 603 862 1101 e-mail:


Many natural and human-induced events create disturbances in seagrasses throughout the world, but quantifying losses of habitat is only beginning. Over the last decade, 90000 ha of seagrass loss have been documented although the actual area lost is certainly greater. Seagrasses, an assemblage of marine flowering plant species, are valuable structural and functional components of coastal ecosystems and are currently experiencing worldwide decline. This group of plants is known to support a complex trophic food web and a detritus-based food chain, as well as to provide sediment and nutrient filtration, sediment stabilization, and breeding and nursery areas for finfish and shellfish.

We define disturbance, natural or human-induced, as any event that measurably alters resources available to seagrasses so that a plant response is induced that results in degradation or loss. Applying this definition, we find a common thread in many seemingly unrelated seagrass investigations. We review reports of seagrass loss from both published and ‘grey’ literature and evaluate the types of disturbances that have caused seagrass decline and disappearance. Almost certainly more seagrass has been lost globally than has been documented or even observed, but the lack of comprehensive monitoring and seagrass. mapping makes an assessment of true loss of this resource impossible to determine.

Natural disturbances that are most commonly responsible for seagrass loss include hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, and grazing by herbivores. Human activities most affecting seagrasses are those which alter water quality or clarity: nutrient and sediment loading from runoff and sewage disposal, dredging and filling, pollution, upland development, and certain fishing practices. Seagrasses depend on an adequate degree of water clarity to sustain productivity in their submerged environment. Although natural events have been responsible for both large-scale and local losses of seagrass habitat, our evaluation suggests that human population expansion is now the most serious cause of seagrass habitat loss, and specifically that increasing anthropogenic inputs to the coastal oceans are primarily responsible for the world-wide decline in seagrasses.

Copyright © Foundation for Environmental Conservation 1996

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