NOAA 2003-R405
Contact: Cheva Heck
NOAA News Releases 2003
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Biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Damage Assessment Center plan to call on their feathered friends to help restore injured seagrass beds in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA biologists will begin installing a series of bird stakes, vertical PVC pipes topped by wooden blocks, to restore several seagrass beds injured by boat groundings in locations from Key West to Key Largo over the next few months. Weather permitting, work will begin in the next few weeks at a site near Marathon where the Motor Vessel N’Control ran aground. NOAA is an agency of the Department of Commerce.

The use of bird stakes is one of several methods NOAA biologists are using to restore seagrass beds injured by vessel groundings. Biologists line injured areas with the stakes, which provide attractive roosting areas for cormorants and other seabirds. The bird droppings provide a jolt of fertilizer to the area below, helping to speed the growth of shoal grass (Halodule wrightii). Shoal grass is a first colonizer of barren areas, preparing the way for other species, such as turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme), to grow once again.

Sean Meehan and Kevin Kirsch are the lead NOAA biologists in this seagrass restoration project. “We think it’s fitting that the first in a series of seagrass restoration projects coincides with Seagrass Awareness Month in March,“ said Meehan. “While we prefer to prevent boat groundings in the first place, we are happy that recently developed seagrass restoration techniques give us an alternative to watching these sites undergo a painfully slow recovery, or worse, continue to degrade.”

The N’Control, owned and operated by Marathon resident Nick Carter, ran aground 3:00 p.m. on May 29, 2001 off Knight Key Channel near Marathon. The grounding and subsequent salvage of the 45-foot Sea Ray injured 3,762 square feet (349.49 square meters) of critical seagrass habitat, an area larger than a tennis court. On July 18, 2002, NOAA settled the case for $30, 573. To restore the site, Meehan and Kirsch will install 97 stakes that will remain in place for about 18 months. In addition to the bird stakes, they will also use seagrass transplants to hasten the site’s recovery.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes NOAA to seek damages from the responsible party in a grounding to cover response costs, injury assessment costs, costs to restore or replace the injured habitat or acquire equivalent habitat, and costs to compensate the public for the value of the injured resources until they fully recover.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary averages more than 600 reported vessel groundings each year. In 2002, 128 reports resulted in warnings or citations for the vessel owner or operator. Of these, 122 involved injury to seagrass, while six occurred in coral.

Seagrass meadows provide both nursery and feeding grounds for recreationally and commercially important fish and other marine life. Seagrass also filters and stabilizes sediments, helping to create the clear waters for which the Florida Keys are known.

Boaters should learn and use proper navigational skills to avoid running aground. If contact with the bottom does occur, the boater’s course of action should be to stop the engines, trim them up and wait for high tide to drift free, or walk the boat to deeper water. Most injury to seagrass and coral occurs when boaters attempt to use their engines to break free of the bottom (known as “powering off”), or due to inappropriate salvage attempts.

The NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) seeks to increase the public awareness of America’s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, 13 national marine sanctuaries encompass more than 18,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources. In addition, the NMSP is conducting a sanctuary designation process to incorporate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve into the national sanctuary system. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1990, protects 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, hardbottom communities, mangrove shorelines and mud and sand habitat.

NOAA National Ocean Service (NOAA Oceans and Coasts) manages the National Marine Sanctuary Program and is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. NOAA Oceans and Coasts balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

The Commerce Department’s NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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