The Harbor Report: The eelgrass is greener with state blessing

This week's column should be titled "Eelgrass for Dummies" — because the topic has been a sticking point around the harbor for years, and we all have to understand it better if we ever want to obtain dredging permits for our docks.

In my column dated Jan. 11, I discussed Regional General Permit 54, which helps residents acquire a dredging permit without going through all the sediment-testing and agency negotiations. I should also point out again how lucky we are to have Doug West as our Harbor Commission chairman and Chris Miller as our harbor resources manager leading us to the goal line.

To continue with the football analogy, I see the harbor in the red zone at first and goal. The goal is to receive a Newport Harbor amendment from the National Marine Fisheries Service's Southern California office, which will allow us a "Newport Specific Plan" that will supersede the Southern California eelgrass mitigation plan, then blend this plan into our RGP 54 permit for April 2014.

I lost you, didn't I? The problem now with our RGP is that most people cannot use it because of the cost of the mitigation of the eelgrass under their docks. What our harbor commissioners and resource team are proposing is the "Newport Specific Eelgrass Plan" that will manage eelgrass on a harbor-wide basis, manage thresholds for total eelgrass population and reduce the burden for individual mitigation.

This means if we can grow 19.6 acres of shallow-water eelgrass, from our bulkheads to the end of our docks, we can impact 1.5 acres a year. I do not recall the exact average amount of eelgrass under impacted slips, but I recall something like a couple of square yards per dock. The last harbor eelgrass survey showed that we have more than 15.45 acres of shallow-water eelgrass at this time.

Within the next couple of weeks, Miller and West will be meeting with the National Marine Fisheries Service and selling this plan to them. If they can make the sale, it is my understanding that most of the other agencies will fall in line and we could just end up with a usable RGP by March of next year. So the next time you see West or Miller, make sure they understand we are all behind them.

Reader Harry Crowell recently sent me a list of questions regarding eelgrass, and I passed those questions off to Mike Josselyn of WRA Environmental Consultants. Here are those questions, with Josselyn's answers.

Crowell: Can you explain exactly why this eelgrass is becoming so important?

Josselyn: Eelgrass is considered an important habitat for fish and invertebrates, and the EPA considers any area supporting eelgrass to be a "special aquatic site" and subject to special attention during permitting. The National Marine Fisheries Service also must evaluate impacts to eelgrass as Essential Fish Habitat.

Crowell: Exactly what is the value of eelgrass within Newport Bay?

Josselyn: Eelgrass provides habitat to a variety of fish in the bay, provides stability to the sediments and is a food source for some fish and invertebrate species. Eelgrass only grows in sheltered habitats along the California coast, and where it is found has generally been considered a productive marine habitat.

Crowell: How long has eelgrass been growing in the bay?

Josselyn: It is a native plant in California and has been found in aboriginal middens along the California coast. It is likely to have been in Newport Bay to various levels for thousands of years as sea level rose and flooded the river valley that is now Newport Bay.

Crowell: When was it first known that eelgrass was in the bay?

Josselyn: I have seen early photographs of the beaches within the bay, and it appears to be present. The population of eelgrass has been monitored since 1993 and most recently by the city since 2003.

Crowell: Has the eelgrass been in larger amounts in the past?

Josselyn: Detailed and consistent surveys in the bay have only been started by the city in 2003 and only in shallow-water areas. Those first surveys found about 30 acres in the shallow portions of the bay; however, surveys in deeper water indicate that large areas of eelgrass also occur in navigation channels.

Go to my blogsite at to learn how you can legally grow eelgrass in your own backyard.

Sea ya.

LEN BOSE is an experienced boater, yacht broker and boating columnist.

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