University of Florida Expert Says Replanting Sea Oats Can Help Save Dunes, Beaches
FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — Just in time for Earth Day, a UF researcher is leading an effort to restore one of nature’s most valuable beach defenses: sea oats.
Officials are replanting the protective sea oats along a one-mile stretch of beach on a Northeast Florida barrier island, but UF and federal experts say the effort can be a model for other coastal communities confronting beach erosion and dune loss.
The tall beach grass, named for its grain-like seeds, forms and maintains dunes by trapping sand, said Maia McGuire, an extension agent with Florida Sea Grant, a program of coastal research and education affiliated with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. But sea oats are easily destroyed by foot or vehicle traffic, leading to erosion of dunes and entire beaches.
“I don’t think the damage is intentional,” she said. “People just don’t realize how easily they can kill sea oats by stepping on them or displacing sand on dune faces. It’s ironic, because these plants are remarkably tough in other ways, surviving constant exposure to wind-blown sand, saltwater, heat, drought and nutrient-poor soil.”
In a healthy coastal ecosystem, sand circulates between the dunes, the beach and shallow-water areas, said McGuire, who works in four Northeast Florida counties. “But without plants to anchor the dunes, sand just blows away. Fortunately, we can help solve the problem by replanting sea oats and encouraging people to stay off the dunes.”
Dunes provide a natural barrier against storm surges and high winds during severe weather. Without dunes, waterfront property is at greater risk. Wildlife, such as shore birds and sea turtles, can lose critical habitat, and the coastline itself can be altered, said Josh Lott, a coastal management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md.
The agency, through a $25,000 grant from its Coastal Impact Assistance Program, is funding the replanting of sea oats on a popular stretch of Fernandina Beach where visitors have largely destroyed them by walking across the dunes.
On Saturday, McGuire, Nassau County extension agent Rebecca Jordi and local volunteers will plant 20,000 seedlings. The effort will be the third and final planting since last fall and is expected to replace thousands of plants lost on the stretch several years ago.
“The last replanting was in 1996 and for a time this area had fairly heavy vegetation,” McGuire said. “Storm damage periodically takes a toll on the plants, but that’s normal. Foot traffic has prevented them from growing back in naturally.”
McGuire said the stretch has been virtually bare for about three years. Once planted, the six-inch seedlings will mature and begin producing seed in two years or less. Survival rate for the seedlings could be anywhere from 5 to 85 percent, depending on factors such as irrigation and future foot traffic.
The coastal impact program, authorized by Congress last year, provides $150 million to the seven states closest to offshore oil and gas facilities: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California and Alaska.
“The program funds almost 600 projects, covering everything from oil spill response to wetlands restoration to land acquisition,” Lott said. “Approximately six to eight projects are devoted to dunes restoration, most of them in Florida.”
McGuire also has produced a fact sheet on sea oats conservation that will be distributed to rental properties in the area. It asks beach-goers to use established walkways to reach the shore.
Sea oats, known scientifically as Uniola paniculata, are native to Florida and found throughout U.S. coastal areas from Virginia to Texas. While not related to oats, the grass produces plumes of seed that resemble the familiar cereal grain.
“Those seed plumes used to be a popular item for home decorating, but today, sea oats are protected by law in Florida and other states,” McGuire said. “Citizens interested in dune restoration should contact their local Sea Grant marine agent to find out what procedures need to be followed in their area.”
The Fernandina Beach effort was organized by the city and required a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Vicki Wolfinger, Fernandina Beach grants administrator. Nassau County extension personnel recruited volunteers, publicized the effort and secured McGuire to act as scientific advisor.
“We did a small replanting last October, and in late March we planted about 26,000 sea oats in two days,” Wolfinger said. “This weekend should be the last step to restore a one-mile strip of dunes.”
The Fernandina Beach planting will begin at 9 a.m., and the public is invited to participate. Further information is available at the Nassau County extension office at (904) 879-1019.