Governor Cuomo has signed into law new legislation designed to protect New York State’s seagrass beds. The law requires the Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) to designate seagrass management areas and to regulate marine and coastal activities that threaten those areas, although it is uncertain whether the Seagrass Protection Act will result in requirements for a new “seagrass permit.”
Seagrass beds provide habitat and food for fish, shellfish and waterfowl, and help to stabilize bottom sediments, among other ecological benefits. A 2009 report from the New York State Seagrass Task Force found that seagrass acreage in the state had declined from an estimated 200,000 acres in 1930 to less than 22,000 acres in 2009, located primarily within the South Shore Estuary Reserve along the southern coast of Long Island. Seagrass beds are threatened by nutrient loading (excess nitrogen from fertilizer runoff that impairs water quality), persistent algal blooms, and fishing and shellfishing gear.
The new law, which will take effect in December 2012, instructs DEC to designate seagrass management areas and to develop management plans for those areas in consultation with local governments, recreational boating interests, fishermen, property owners and other affected stakeholders.
Seagrass habitat overlaps to some extent with tidal wetlands in New York (over which DEC has jurisdiction and regulates through its Tidal Wetlands Permit Program); however, existing laws and regulations do not give DEC the authority to specifically restrict activities that may negatively affect seagrass. The Seagrass Protection Act gives new jurisdiction to DEC to regulate activities both on land and in water, including the authority to adopt rules and regulations to regulate coastal and marine activities that threaten seagrass beds or seagrass restoration efforts.
Similar legislation was passed in 2010 and vetoed by Governor Paterson. The 2010 version of the act contained specific restrictions on the application of phosphorous-containing fertilizer in Nassau and Suffolk Counties that are not contained in the 2012 law.