The Rick Howe Show
News 95.7
April 13, 2021

Marine biologist Dr. Kristina Boerder of Dalhousie University speaks with host Todd Veinotte about the incredible ecosystem services that eelgrass meadows provide.

How might this important ecosystem be adversely affected by golf course & residential developments? Listen to the interview to find out.

Todd Veinotte: All right, we talked a lot today about Owls Head and the development (or the potential development) of this parcel of land. Joining me to discuss all of this is Dalhousie University marine biologist Kristina Boerder, to share some insights on the ecosystems at Owls Head. Professor, thanks for doing this today; we appreciate your time.

Kristina Boerder: Thank you for giving me the time to talk about this.

Todd: All right, so tell us more about Owls Head itself, and the makeup of the area, and the ecosystem in general. Educate us please.

Kristina: Well, I’m a marine biologist, so I’m mostly interested and focused of course on the marine environment around Owls Head. But land and sea are very closely connected, so I became interested in this whole story, learning about the secret backroom deal, selling off this property (slated for protection), and my first thought was really, “What does that mean for the environment in the ocean?” I love to go up to the Eastern Shore, to kayak, to snorkel – I really enjoy the area. And I got really worried. So, I went up, I looked at the area, we took a team of scientists and volunteers and went snorkeling and I have to say, I was just blown away by how beautiful it is.

And that’s where I really started to engage more in highlighting the issue of this proposed golf course development for the marine environment and potential consequences that are likely going to be fairly negative.

Todd: Okay, so tell us the complexity – you talked about the ecosystem and all of that, why do people need to understand and what’s at stake here, if in fact this area is developed?

Kristina: Indeed. So, what really stands out in that area is the eelgrass. Eelgrass is a very, very interesting ecosystem. It’s actually type of plant in the ocean and there are about 72 species [of seagrass]. We have one very common species up here, commonly known as eelgrass. It’s just an amazing ecosystem. It’s one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. It produces about (in a square metre) about 10 litres of oxygen per day. So, it really benefits everybody. It protects the coast from erosion, it improves water quality, and the two points that really stand out about eelgrass are:

  • It forms dense beds. They are so dense that they can be seen from space
  • 1 acre of eelgrass can store about 330 kilograms of carbon per year. So just to translate this, that’s about as much carbon as a car travelling from Halifax to Vancouver would emit.

So, this is very, very important. The function of eelgrass beds trapping carbon is incredibly important when talking about climate change and a warming planet.

And then also, eelgrass beds are known as biodiversity hotspots. They host hundreds of species. These species hide there, they feed, and they spawn. So this can be, for example, lobsters and crabs, scallops, young fish like herring, salmon, flatfishes. And this lead to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] declaring it an “essential fish habitat.” So, we have treasure along our coast, and most people don’t really know about it.

These treasures have been evaluated at more than $20,000 per hectare, per year, regarding the services they provide (some of which I just listed).

Todd: Do you feel as though, because obviously this is not seen, it’s not visible unless you’re in the environment, close to it, that because of that, people don’t appreciate this type of thing, what you’re talking about, because it’s not visible?

Kristina: Absolutely, that’s often the case for the ocean. It’s under the waves, so it’s out of people’s sight and mind. And not a lot of people go snorkeling here or diving. (I mean, I can understand it, with the water temperatures most of the year.) But that doesn’t mean that this [ecosystem] is not there and this won’t be affected.

That might be in a variety of ways that people won’t expect. For example, one thing can be that fisheries can be impacted when these eelgrass beds disappear. So fishing has often been called the best argument for protection of seagrass or eelgrass beds. For example, for the North Atlantic, these ecosystems really provide nursery habitat, so protection for young fish – for more than 300 fish species. So more than 300 fisheries here rely on these eelgrass beds in some way. Some, for example, would be herring or cod. A lot of people are not aware that we have these ecosystems or how under attack they are.

The problems really come from all sides. One is the development of the land and what happens on land, because the coastal waters are so closely connected to the land. Anything that comes from land impacts water quality, such as runoff of sediment or the use of pesticides and fertilizers. That can severely cause stress and damage on these eelgrass beds.

Todd: What do we know about the developmental plans themselves? How will these eelgrass beds be impacted? Do we know?

Kristina: Well, there have been a couple of studies looking at what happened to eelgrass beds around other coastal areas with development that had golf courses. One comes from Florida, where the scientists were able to observe what the seagrass looked like before the development of the golf course and after. They found that due from the runoff from the golf course, the seagrass (in this case it was turtle grass, which is another type of seagrass), was diminished by more than 40%.

This, of course, has severe consequences for everything that is associated with that. On the U.S. East Coast in the 1930s, there was a disease that decimated almost 90% of the eelgrass down there. Of the associated fisheries – mainly scallop fisheries – many collapsed and some have never recovered. So I think it’s very important to know that this is a very fragile, extremely valuable, and extremely important ecosystem that we have in a very healthy condition, right outside our doorstep. But if we lose it, we’re not going to get it back. It’s not that easy, that it just grows back. This is not happening.

Globally, we lose this ecosystem at a rate of about 1.5 percent per year. So about a third of all seagrass has died off in the past century (globally). So this is not a good trend. It’s really, really worrisome. So, that’s why I would like to highlight the impacts that this development on land might potentially have on the ocean.

Of course, everyone rightly talks about the impacts on land but the ocean, as you just said, is forgotten.

Todd: Kristina, I appreciate your insight. Thanks so much for doing this is. It’s been an interesting chat.

Kristina: Thank you, have a good day.

Todd: You as well.

Dalhousie University marine biologist Kristina Boerder.

And again, this is something that we’ll continue to talk about, I’m sure, in the days and weeks to come. But you can’t help but consider what she just said. It’s pretty obvious. She said 300 species rely on this, including species that are part of our fishing communities. If we just completely just disregard these things and these warnings… A caller made an excellent point; we listen to the doctor about the pandemic and science and “we have to follow science.”

And yes, we have to follow science. Because we’re told that, we’re ordered that, and we have a buy-in for that. Yet, we’re told by scientists and biologists about this habitat, and you cannot damage it, and this is why. And people say, “yeah, but there’s a development there that we could have, and we can make some money off it, so isn’t that more important? Heck with science.” Complete contradiction… complete contradiction.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Related Content:

Wetlands, eel grass, and golf courses don’t mix (The Chronicle Herald)

Dalhousie marine biologist calls sensitive eel grass at Owls Head ‘treasure’

Meet the Super-Plant from Nova Scotia’s Shorelines: Eelgrass

Marine Ecosystems Q&A

How Golf Courses Would Jeopardize Important Marine Ecosystems

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