As part of the community effort to restore Kings Bay, the Southwest Florida Water Management District conducted a pilot project to restore eelgrass in Hunters Cove, a 10-acre area surrounding Hunter Springs. Eelgrass, once abundant in Kings Bay, is a native aquatic plant critical to improving water quality and sustaining beneficial fish and wildlife habitat.
A characteristic of most Florida springs is dense submerged aquatic vegetation. This vegetation provides food and shelter for fish and wildlife, and helps improve water quality by filtering particles. It also removes nutrients from the water and stabilizes sediments.
Spring systems are harmed when undesirable aquatic plants prohibit native vegetation, such as eelgrass, from growing. Lyngbya is an algae that grows quickly and has taken over much of Hunters Cove — as it has in many springs in the region. Once Lyngbya is established, it is nearly impossible for eelgrass to reestablish on its own. Part of this project was the physical removal of Lyngbya and other invasive species from the bottom of the cove, which is necessary for beneficial grasses to survive once replanted.
The first phase of the project was to grow a special type of eelgrass in mats made of coconut coir material. This eelgrass variety, cultivated by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), is extremely hardy, which has earned it the nickname “Rock Star” eelgrass. It was grown in cooperation with Duke Energy at its Mariculture Center in Crystal River.
In the second phase, the mats of eelgrass were transferred to Hunters Cove and laid on the bottom of the cove in sections, similar to planting sod on land. Specially designed fences were installed around the mats to prevent manatees from grazing on the grass before it is established. Once established, the eelgrass will provide a food source for manatees and help improve habitat and water quality in Kings Bay.
The District worked with other entities, which include Duke Energy Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) and IFAS.
The project concluded in 2017. District scientists learned a great deal about planting eelgrass in Hunters Cove, Kings Bay and beyond!