Conservation Moorings - Sailors for the Sea

Conservation Moorings

By: M. Conor McManus and Eric G. Schneider, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Lisa N. Havel and Chris Powell, Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership | November 27, 2017

Local Action to Help Preserve and Restore Marine Ecosystems

seagrass, scuba diver, seagrass bed

When mooring your boat, you may not think much about the sea floor beneath you, but it supports several critical habitats, including seagrasses. Seagrass is found in the shallow coastal waters of most continents and the health of these seagrass beds has wide ranging impacts. For many fish and invertebrates, it provides spawning and nursery habitat, areas of refuge, and forage grounds.

Seagrass also serves an important role as the base of many marine food webs. Like other plants, seagrass converts energy from the sun into food for larger, predatory organisms in coastal marine ecosystems. Many endangered species rely on seagrass for food, including sea turtles and manatees.

Seagrass not only provides nourishment and protection for sea creatures, it also improves water quality by stabilizing sediments on the seafloor, producing oxygen for aquatic animals, and removing excess nutrients. Seagrass also helps mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide from ecosystems at a rate ten times faster than tropical rainforests.

Yet seagrass beds have been disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate since 1980, and the loss has been accelerating in recent years. They are considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, in part due to the one billion-plus people that reside within 50 kilometers of them. Coastal development, nutrient runoff, chemical pollution, dredging, and boating impacts have all greatly reduced the expanse and quality of seagrass beds. However, if proper attention is given, these negative impacts can be mitigated.

mooring, conservation, seagrass bed

One way to reduce the impact from boats is with conservation moorings. Traditional moorings, the ones we typically think of in harbors and waterfronts around the world, rely on long heavy chains at least twice the depth of the water that connects a mooring ball to an anchor of some sort. Conservation moorings, on the other hand, use a buoyant bungee-like cord or floating, flexible rode to minimize contact with the seafloor. This reduces the “halo-effect” in seagrass beds caused by traditional chain moorings dragging along the bottom.

The drag with traditional moorings can scour the seafloor and create a scar, or halo, of bare sand where seagrass has been damaged or destroyed, particularly as moored boats move with the wind and tides. Instead of a traditional cement block mooring or mushroom weight, conservation moorings employ a helix anchor, which is installed with minimal impact and has a much smaller footprint on the seafloor.

seagrass, seagrass bed, halo, damage, moorings

The success of conservation moorings has been documented via aerial and SCUBA survey programs. Pilot projects in Massachusetts and Rhode Island implementing conservation moorings have shown a decrease in sea floor scouring and seagrass degradation when these moorings have been properly installed and maintained. From underwater, the rode appears to float above the seagrass, preserving the benthic habitat.

For boaters, conservation moorings have benefits as well. A properly installed conservation mooring may exceed the holding power of a traditional mooring. Conservation moorings can have financial benefits as well. While they may be more expensive upfront to install, manufacturers claim that routine inspection and maintenance costs are less expensive compared to traditional moorings.

While these projects use conservation moorings to preserve seagrass in mooring fields, other structured, stationary marine habitats could also benefit from this innovative technology, such as coral reefs. Damage from moorings may take years or decades to recover, depending on the habitat and damage inflicted. Thus, installing conservation moorings in popular anchoring sites with coral reefs and seagrass beds may reduce impacts from anchoring.

moorings, seagrass

These efforts highlight the impacts that small actions, such as mooring reconfigurations, can have in trying to preserve these valuable ecosystems that serve so many ecological and economic roles in coastal areas around the globe. 

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