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Evaluating and Defining Water-Quality Criteria for Seagrass Habitats Using a Bio-Optical Indicator

Patrick D. Biber 1, Hans W. Paerl 1, Charles L. Gallegos 2, and W. Judson Kenworthy 3

1 Institute of Marine Science University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
Morehead City, North Carolina
2 Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater Maryland
3 NOAA Beaufort Laboratory, Beaufort North Carolina

Seagrass are an important estuarine habitat that is declining worldwide. Much of this decline can be attributed to decreased light availability to the plants because of reductions in water clarity due to declining water quality. Seagrass have relatively high light requirements compared to other marine primary producers and so are more susceptible to low light stress. For this reason, they have been proposed as indicators of estuarine change. However, it is desirable to have an indicator(s) that provides an early warning of potential seagrass demise, rather than waiting until after the fact.

We are developing an optical water quality modeling approach to assess habitat suitability (water clarity) for seagrasses that will improve early detection of potentially unsustainable conditions. The optical modeling approach focuses on decomposing the components of light attenuation through the water column into its constituents, namely total suspended solids (TSS), phytoplankton chlorophyll (chl a), and colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM). By determining the relative contributions of these constituents to light attenuation, the importance of each constituent can be evaluated. Using this indicator in a management-oriented approach allows a direct link to be made between loading and attenuation. This information forms the basis of an integrative indicator of water quality that will permit evaluation and determination of the suitability of water quality in estuaries nationwide for continued seagrass sustainability.

Keywords: seagrass, water quality, criteria, chlorophyll, turbidity, color, and optical model

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