0807 seagrass study

Rosario Beach Marine Station in Anacortes hopes to identify the cause of a wasting disease that is killiing eelgrass and other seagrasses around the world. The marine station’s work is being funded by a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. (Laura Hoberecht/NOAA Fisheries)

Walla Walla University’s Rosario Beach Marine Station in Anacortes has received a $58,926 grant to study a wasting disease that Cornell University called “the bubonic plague of seagrasses.”

The disease’s impact is significant because the world’s 60 species of marine seagrasses provide habitat for finfish and shellfish, protect shorelines from erosion, filter out pollutants, and are a food for seabirds and marine mammals.

Seagrasses are also symbols of resilience, struggling to endure despite sediment and nutrient runoff, invasive species, algae blooms and warming water temperatures, according to the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Seagrass wasting disease produces dark lesions on seagrass blades and reduces how much the seagrass can photosynthesize (how plants eat), eventually killing the seagrass.

According to M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which awarded the grant, seagrass wasting disease affects half of the seagrass meadows in the Salish Sea. Wasting disease was responsible for the disappearance of 90% of eelgrass in the 1930s along the Atlantic coasts of North America and Europe, Cornell University reported.

Marine station biologists hope to identify the cause or causes of the outbreak — information that could help battle the disease elsewhere in the world. Every year, the world loses an estimated 7% of its seagrasses, according to the Smithsonian Institute.

“Specifically, I am interested in collaborating with undergraduates to answer the question: What factors influence outbreaks of seagrass wasting disease in the Salish Sea and to what extent can we predict, and therefore prevent, disease outbreaks?” WWU assistant professor of biology C.J. Brothers said in an announcement of the grant.

Many marine biologists agree environmental stressors make marine seagrasses more susceptible to disease. An extensive seagrass die-off in the early 2000s in Westcott Bay, San Juan Island, was credited to turbidity that reduced the amount of sunlight available to the plants for photosynthesis.

Eelgrass in Hood Canal is making a recovery after an extensive die-off. And after 18 years of monitoring, the state Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are about 88 square miles of eelgrass in Greater Puget Sound — a number that has remained relatively stable since the start of the monitoring program. The University of Washington reports eelgrass die-offs at individual beaches “are not pervasive enough to affect the overall population across the region.”

The Puget Sound Partnership is targeting a 20% increase in eelgrass area in Washington’s coastal waters by 2020.

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