What is it? 

Zostera marina, commonly known as eelgrass, is the primary seagrass species found in Rhode Island. Eelgrass is a flowering underwater plant which grows in nearshore waters at depths ranging from approximately 3 to 12 feet in Narragansett Bay. The growth and survival of eelgrass is dependent upon clear water to provide light for photosynthesis.

The long, slender blades capture rays of sunlight to produce oxygen and bend with the ebb and flow of the tides. Eelgrass can form large meadows or small separate beds, which range in size from many acres to just a yard across

Why is it so important?

Eelgrass is one of the most diverse and productive underwater habitats found in North America. This critical marine habitat provides a primary source of food and shelter to an abundance of marine life, including economically important finfish and shellfish species, such as flounder, tautog, bay scallops, quahogs, lobster, and blue crabs.²  The bay scallop fishery has been nonexistent in Rhode Island since 1957, largely due to the loss of eelgrass beds. Recently born bay scallops as well as blue mussels rely on eelgrass beds as attachments sites where they are afforded protection, food, and structure. It is widely recognized that the vitality of an estuary’s eelgrass beds is an indicator of its health.

In addition to its value for marine life, eelgrass also protects our shoreline by dampening wave energy, reducing coastal erosion. Eelgrass filters pollutants and cycles nutrients in the water column. This habitat provides prime recreational fishing areas due to the abundance of marine life at all levels of the food chain. When warm tropical waters break off from the Gulf Stream, tropical fish species carried in these currents often find refuge in eelgrass beds. This phenomenon attracts SCUBA divers who seek out these beds to view the unusually rich diversity of sea life.

² - Visit Life in the Eelgrass Beds for more information on these and other species.