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May 30, 2020

This page last modified:
March 21, 2001

The Economics of Seagrass

by Cheva Heck

Community Outreach, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

So, what do you do for a living? Here in the Keys some likely answers include: "I fish for lobster," "I work on a dive boat," or "I run backcountry charters." Many of us depend on the ocean, whether directly or indirectly, for our livelihoods. And that means we depend on seagrass.

As Seagrass Awareness Month continues, let's look at how seagrass sustains two of Monroe County's major industries: tourism and commercial fishing.

Healthy seagrass habitat is essential to the continued abundance of fish and other marine life in the waters of the Keys. Clearly, the commercial fishing industry depends on strong populations of commercially important species. Seagrass provides a place for these animals to live, hunt or graze at some point in their lives. You may hear seagrass beds referred to as nursery areas, because they provide shelter for the young of many species.

Commercially important species that spend at least some time in the grass beds include Florida spiny lobster, stone crab, pink shrimp, yellowtail snapper and gray snapper. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the estimated dockside commercial value of these species annually in Monroe County is:

  • Spiny lobster: $26.4 million
  • Stone crab: $10.1 million
  • Pink shrimp: $8.7 million
  • Yellowtail/gray snappe:r $3.5 million

In addition, marine life collectors target more than 30 species of tropical invertebrates that depend on seagrass habitats, including urchins, anemones, sponges and sea stars.

Perhaps less obvious is the connection between the tourism industry and seagrass. What draws visitors to the Keys? The chance to snorkel or dive the coral reef, kayak in the shallow waters of the backcountry or hunt bonefish and permit on the flats, and tarpon in the tidal channels.

A 1996 study found that 72% of the visitors interviewed during June 1995 to May 1996 participated in natural resource-based activities. Priorities for these visitors included clear water, many kinds of fish and other marine life to view and the opportunity to view large wildlife.

Recreational fishing contributes $34.3 million to Monroe County's economy, and the diving and snorkeling industry contributed $30.9 million. Glassbottom boat trips and backcountry and kayak tours contributed $7.56 million. In one way or another, all of these popular activities require the continued existence of healthy seagrass habitats.

Diving and snorkeling businesses need clear water to survive and so does our coral reef, which provides a home for hundreds of plants and animal species. Coral thrives where clear, nutrient-poor water allows sunlight through. Seagrass helps keep the water clear by trapping sediments washed off the land, preventing them from reaching the reef. Its root system anchors the bottom, so particles don't become suspended by the actions of wind and currents, clouding the water. Without the seagrass as a stabilizer, our nearshore waters would be far more turbid and threaten the survival of the reef. Large seagrass die-offs can harm water quality. The grasses absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the water. As dead seagrass decays, it releases nutrients back into the water, throwing off delicate water chemistry.

So next time you're out on the water, take a moment to appreciate the seagrass. As residents of Monroe County, our bottom line depends on it.

For more information on this research, contact the Florida Bay Education Project at 305-852-3592. Additional information on a variety of topics is available from the University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, 5100 College Road, Stock Island or call at 292-4501; fax: 292-4415; email: or visit our web site Our services are free and available to all without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.

The Florida Bay Education Project is an archived site. For more information go to NOAA's South Florida Ecosystem Education Project at