WILMINGTON

An unexpected expansion of underwater seagrass along North Carolina's coast has developed as state agencies work on a revised definition of the habitat, a discussion that could protect more areas from human disturbance.

Officials with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries have said that the state must modify the definition of seagrass to more accurately describe the habitat -- and possibly help identify and protect areas that could support the seagrass.

But much of the shallow areas ideal for seagrass growth lies in territory ideal for piers or docks. So the discussion among state officials has some regulators and developers worried about what a new definition could mean for coastal development.

"Unfortunately, it's an awkward situation," said Jim Leutze, who serves on the Coastal Resources and Marine Fisheries commissions. "But both sides are trying to do the best they can within their responsibilities."

The debate comes as clusters of the submerged aquatic vegetation have sprouted in places where it had not been for years. Researchers are trying to figure out whether the grasses are recolonizing old habitat or expanding their range -- and why.

New beds are popping up around Topsail Island and appear ready to grow in New Hanover's tidal creeks and other coastal waters.

The seagrass, found in North Carolina's coastal waters from the Cape Fear River north into Virginia, is critical habitat for a range of sea life from fish to flora. It usually grows in water less than 6 feet deep.

Water clarity, strength of the current and sedimentation are also critical in determining where the grasses may grow.

Smaller fish look for protection in the beds, other small animals attach themselves to the plants or eat the plants themselves, and other animals come into the beds looking for food.

"You end up with a big food web that's very productive and supports a high-diversity of animal life," Deaton said.

Regulators have treated the areas like rare commodities, limiting dredging and dock building around them.

Fisheries officials have said that a new definition is important because some of the vegetation is seasonal. And regulators want to make sure that dredging or development will not cut into the areas where it could grow.

But that could make it difficult for regulators to determine the locations of seagrass beds that are not always present. And some have worried about an avalanche of permit appeals.

A committee has been formed that hopes to have a unified definition by early next year.

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