SEASIDE EELGRASS RESTORATION
Article and Photos By Ken Schultz
posted June 9, 2011
Helping bay- and seaside waterways by keeping an eye on your local creek, cleaning up trash in the water and along the shoreline, and monitoring water quality issues are some of the ways that individuals can help protect critical Eastern Shore of Virginia resources. Some of these activities take place on land, some on the water.
One fascinating way to help is by getting in the water and working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in their efforts to re-introduce eelgrass to lower seaside bays. The project, formally known as the Seaside Heritage Seagrass Community Restoration Program, is acclaimed as “the world’s largest seagrass restoration project,” with over 4,000 acres having been planted with eelgrass, a critical and missing part of the ecology of seaside bays.
The Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper is a partner in, and supporter of, this restoration program, and some of our members as well as Shorekeeper Dave Burden have helped with this project in the past. This year, I donned a swim mask and snorkel and plunged into the waters of South Bay near Oyster, to join in the restoration effort.
As TNC notes on their website, “eelgrass is a simple seagrass that once thrived in the coastal bays of Virginia. In 1933, an outbreak of disease and a major hurricane virtually wiped it out. The Seaside Seagrass Community Restoration Program has been conducting highly successful efforts to restore eelgrass in the nearby coastal bays since 1999.”
Eelgrass supports an intricate web of life that fosters creatures and organisms all along the food chain. One of these is the bay scallop, which disappeared from seaside bays when the eelgrass was gone, ending a once-thriving commercial fishery. Today, efforts are also underway to re-establish this bivalve, both with caged and wild specimens.
Volunteers Collect Seeds
Volunteers are essential in the eelgrass restoration effort, with several hundred individuals having taken part in this project since its inception. Some live locally, but many come from a good distance; several who were collecting with me came from the Hampton Roads area, and one lived west of Charlottesville. Their job is to swim among and over existing underwater eelgrass fields, plucking seed-bearing shoots that will eventually be spread by TNC and VIMS over new areas to help speed up the natural process of eelgrass expansion.
This year was my first experience helping to collect seeds, and it was an interesting and enjoyable experience. Collecting took place from May 25 through the first week of June, dates which are determined by water temperature and the state of the seeds. Collection has to take place when the eelgrass is fairly full of seeds, but before they begin to drop from the shoots on their own, which occurs once the water warms up.
The day of a volunteer starts at the public launching ramp in Oyster and meeting Bo Lusk, a resource steward and staffer of TNC. Lusk oversees the collection and storage of the seed-bearing shoots. Once on site in South Bay, he gets into the water, collects a sample, and explains to volunteers how to see and feel for the proper shoots.
With the water temperature around 70 degrees, and warming in later days, the water is a bit cool, so a wetsuit is helpful in keeping your body temperature comfortable. Armed with a collecting bag, you get into the water, which is no more than waist deep and falling to knee deep while you collect (collecting is done around low tide), stick your head in the water, and start swimming.
I collected seeds shoots on four days. The water was quite murky on my first day, with poor visibility, and I found it difficult at first to distinguish the seed-bearing shoots from the non-seed-bearing grass stems. In fact, feeling the grass, and detecting the more rounded and plump shoots worked best for me on this day, but I probably didn’t break any records for the amount I collected.
However, I wanted to be careful at collecting the right items, since you don’t want to just grab handfuls of seagrass and stick it into your collecting bag, with the result being that 90 or more percent of what you collect is useless.
On the second day, the water was significantly clearer, and identifying the seed-bearing shoots was much easier by sight. It was so good that I hardly had to move very far to collect ample quantities, making me wonder how much I’d passed by the previous day.
Fascinating Underwater World
While snorkeling and collecting I was constantly on the lookout for other creatures, who use the grass to both forage and hide from predators. There were a fair number of small crabs clinging to the lower stems of the grass, and assorted clams on the sandy bottom, but I was disappointed not to see any fish, although the commotion I made in shallow water probably sent anything that might have been in the vicinity scurrying away long before I could see them. One volunteer saw a small flounder, and another collected a scallop, which was about 2 inches in diameter.
Snorkeling among the seagrass gave me a whole new perspective on what things are like from below water. The movement of the tide and how it affected the grass, and how it impacted water clarity, was interesting. On each day, about an hour after low tide, when the water began to move more earnestly, clarity diminished. This was more pronounced on some days than others, but it did impact collecting and we usually stopped when visibility became poorer.
In all, some 3 to 4 hours were spent in the water each day collecting, and it was quite tolerable in my 2mm shorty wetsuit and without a hood, although most of the other collectors wore warmer gear and used a hood. The water temperature increased slightly each day, which certainly helped with my comfort.
After collecting, the wet bags of collected seeds are transferred by Lusk to TNC or VIMS holding tanks. The seeds are separated from the shoots and other matter and held in seawater until September. Then, over several days, the seeds are distributed in selected areas of several bays – Hog Island, Spidercrab, South, and Cobb Island – where they will settle shortly to the bottom and hopefully take root.
Little by little, seed by seed, the areas covered with eelgrass grow, and, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and staff members of TNC and VIMS, this process is accelerated over the time that it would have occurred naturally.
How You Can Help
For more information about this program from The Nature Conservancy, click here.
For more information from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, click here.
If you would like to volunteer next year to help with this project, contact Jen Dalke, volunteer coordinator, at 434-951-0572 or firstname.lastname@example.org.