Seagrass is the unsung hero of Florida’s waterways.
It captures carbon more effectively than rain forests. It reduces nutrient pollution, traps sediment and provides habitat for marine life.
It’s a dietary staple for Florida’s manatees — which is why a massive loss of seagrass in the northern Indian River Lagoon has contributed to an “unusual mortality event” during which more than 1,000 manatees have died in Florida during the past year.
Florida’s waterways are losing seagrass at alarming rates. Biscayne Bay has been suffering from seagrass loss for almost a decade, leading to depleted oxygen levels and more frequent fish kills.
So it’s baffling that the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would make it easier to destroy seagrass.
For the second year in a row, state Rep. Toby Overdorf, of Palm City, is pushing a bill that would let private companies create “seagrass mitigation banks” on state-owned land, then sell credits to developers proposing projects that would destroy seagrass.
If a development project would destroy an acre of seagrass in Biscayne Bay, for example, that developer could offset the impact by paying to have seagrass planted on state-owned land elsewhere in the large watershed.
Under current law, it’s cumbersome for developers to find state-approved methods to offset seagrass damage. Sometimes they’re required to remove derelict boats, for example — but the options are limited.
Overdorf’s bill would make it faster and easier for seagrass-damaging projects to move forward.
A similar bill failed to get approval during the 2021 legislative session. That’s the fate the current bill deserves now.
This year, Overdorf’s effort has support from Rep. Tyler Sirois of Merritt Island, who co-sponsored House Bill 349 in the House, and state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez of Doral, who filed a companion, Senate Bill 198.
The bill also has significant opposition — and not solely from the usual environmental suspects. State Rep. Randy Fine has been strongly critical of the bill, pointing to the massive loss of seagrass in his district in Brevard County. Over the past decade, the Indian River Lagoon has lost more than half of its seagrass beds. The problem has gotten so bad for manatees that Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in December launched a pilot program to feed romaine lettuce to the starved sea cows in Cape Canaveral.
Fine raised concerns about destroying even more of the lagoon’s seagrass, only to have it replanted in a distant waterway. He also pointed to the difficulty in getting seagrass to survive when it’s replanted.
“We have a certainty of destruction and a possibility of success,” Fine said of the bill during a Dec. 1 meeting of the House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee.
Overdorf is an environmental consultant who works for developers on mitigation banking, among other things. He describes the bill as “a new tool in the toolshed.”
But this tool merely establishes an offset program — it does nothing to improve the declining state of Florida’s seagrass and the water-quality problems driving that decline.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a similar bill in 2008, citing the potential for environmental damage.
The risk is only more acute now.
We hope this year’s effort doesn’t get as far as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Eve Samples is executive director of Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit founded in 1969 by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Royal C. Gardner is professor of law and director of the Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy at Stetson University.