- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

MARATHON, Fla., Feb. 26 (UPI) — Marine scientists are trying to influence where sea birds leave their droppings so they can refurbish a patch of sea grass wiped out when a boat ran aground.

It's a pilot project that can be used at hundreds of sites, because about 600 boats run aground in the keys every year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will erect 97 vertical PVC pipes topped with wooden perches at a site near Marathon, Fla., next week. Cormorants, pelicans and other sea birds are expected to perch on the wooden blocks and do their duty into the shallow water.

Officials at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary said the grounding of a motorboat in May 2001 and subsequent efforts to free it tore up a patch of turtle grass on the bottom.

Sean Meehan, a NOAA field scientist, said the droppings contain phosphorus, a sea grass fertilizer. He said the small steady doses are expected to restore the sea grass within 18 months.

"The birds are already — how should we put this delicately — doing their thing," marine sanctuary spokeswoman Cheva Heck said. "We're just encouraging them to do it in certain areas."

Meehan said scientists first noticed the connection between the birds and the grass several years ago, noting the grass grew near channel markers and other perches over the water.

The fertilizer is intended to help grass that has begun to grow again, but also plugs of shoal grass that will be transplanted at the site. That should fill in empty spots. Turtle grass can then creep in and take over, Meehan said.

Biologists intend to practice the strategy from Key West to Key Largo, the length of the keys. Among the 600 groundings every year, about 122 of the incidents result in damaged sea grass meadows, which are a food source for manatees and nurseries for fish.

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