What is eelgrass?
Zostera marina may sound like an oceanic form of the chickenpox virus, but it’s actually the scientific name for one of the most important marine species on the planet. Often mistaken for green algae, Zostera marina, or eelgrass, is in fact a true vascular flowering plant. Unlike seaweeds, eelgrass has roots—albeit short roots—and rhizomes that spread into a sandy or muddy substrate. Dense concentrations of eelgrass are referred to as beds, or meadows, and are usually found in sheltered bays or estuaries.

Why is eelgrass important?
Take a deep breath—filling your lungs—exhale and then thank eelgrass. Seagrasses, like eelgrass, help produce the oxygen we breathe. And if giving us the gift of oxygen isn’t enough, give thanks for your family’s salmon dinner. Eelgrass habitat plays an integral role in the salmon lifecycle. Salmon youngsters hide among eelgrass, avoiding predation from large predators and allowing them to grow bigger before they’re ready to risk the gauntlet of the open sea. Salmon aren’t the only species seeking refuge in eelgrass as juveniles; eelgrass meadows have the critical role of acting as the ocean’s nurseries. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of commercially important fish and invertebrate species rely on eelgrass; Pacific herring, dungeness crab, Pacific sandlance and many other species depend on eelgrass for the early stages of their lifecycle.

Commercial importance shouldn’t be the only measure of value; eelgrass also protects species integral to coastal food webs including that of the endangered resident killer whale. Marine birds—ducks, herons, and gulls—find a smorgasbord of prey in eelgrass, and Brant geese feed directly on the grass itself. Other species calling eelgrass home include snails, shrimp, nudibranchs (sea slugs), seastars, isopods, sea anemones, and a variety of fish—sticklebacks, perch, flatfish, gunnels and pipefish.

If providing us with oxygen and food wasn’t enough, eelgrass also decreases shoreline erosion and filters out pollutants.

Where to find eelgrass?
The need for eelgrass to photosynthesize means it grows in relatively shallow water (less than six metres), making it easy to access during a good low tide. When considering eelgrass locations, remember its connection to salmon; eelgrass is common at the mouth of spawning rivers. One notable meadow not directly associated with a river is on Sidney Island—a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Sidney. Eelgrass can also be found at Portage Inlet/Gorge Waterway, Esquimalt Lagoon and Patricia Bay.

Eelgrass Etiquette
By following the rules below you’ll not only protect this critical habitat, but you’ll also maintain your law-abiding citizen status. Eelgrass is protected by the Federal Fisheries Act—“No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.”

1) Watch your step—don’t walk directly on or through eelgrass; doing so can disrupt and damage the root system or injure hiding animals.

2) Carefully and gently move eelgrass aside with your hands to look for creatures among the blades. Be sure to place eelgrass back as you found it—remember it’s critical for the protection of its inhabitants.

3) If you find eelgrass washed up on the beach, leave it; it’s food for a variety of animals and will decompose, returning nutrients to the system.

4) Just like your feet, kayaks and dinghies should not be dragged through eelgrass.

5) Boaters best be cautious of their propeller while in shallow water and never anchor in eelgrass.

6) Tell at least two people about the importance of eelgrass and how to safely explore it.
Enjoy exploring eelgrass this summer while keeping in mind future salmon barbecues!

Tina Kelly is the Visitor Experience Director at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney.