Patterns in seagrass coverage and community composition along the Texas coast : a three-year trend analysis
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Seagrasses are extremely productive coastal plant communities that serve as habitat for various types of marine and estuarine fauna and provide numerous ecosystem services. Seagrass meadows around the world have become threatened by environmental and anthropogenic pressures such as altered hydrologic regimes, physical disturbances, and eutrophication. Monitoring programs that provide high-resolution information and document changes in cover, morphometric characteristics, species composition, and tissue nutrient content across large spatial scales are critical in global conservation and management efforts. In an attempt to address the uncertainties regarding the current distribution and condition of seagrasses in the southwest Gulf of Mexico, I conducted annual sampling from 2011-2013 to examine seagrass cover and condition at 558 permanent stations. Sampling occurred in three regions of the Texas coast: the Coastal Bend (CB), Upper Laguna Madre (ULM), and Lower Laguna Madre (LLM), which together comprise over 94% of the seagrasses in Texas. Significant trends in seagrass coverage and tissue elemental composition were highly location- and species-specific. In the CB, I did not observe significant changes in seagrass cover and no spatial patterns in tissue nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P) were apparent. However, I observed a species shift in the northern ULM, where significant decreases in Syringodium filiforme cover were coupled with significant increases in Halodule wrightii cover. Long-term salinity records at four stations throughout the study area suggest that S. filiforme mortality in the ULM in 2013 was a product of an extended period of high salinity (> 55) that began in late 2012. In LLM, there were significant increases in H. wrightii cover in the north and significant decreases in T. testudinum cover in the south, which cannot be explained based on underwater light levels, salinity, or nutrient availability. Both H. wrightii and T. testudinum displayed lower C:N, C:P, and N:P ratios, along with enriched δ¹⁵N signatures nearest urban areas, particularly in the LLM. This study illustrates the value of integrating rapid-assessment field sampling and rigorous statistical and spatial analysis into a large-scale seagrass monitoring program to uncover patterns in seagrass community structure. I detected significant trends in seagrass coverage and condition across multiple spatial and temporal scales, including a massive species replacement that coincided with a prolonged period of hypersaline conditions.