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Seagrass restoration effort with volunteers

The seagrass program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy for the third consecutive spring to use volunteers, especially recreational divers and snorkelers, in the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.

VIMS scientists have been restoring eelgrass to the seaside bays of Virginia's Eastern Shore since 1997. Their efforts to collect eelgrass seeds have resulted in more than 32 million seeds being broadcast into 262 acres within Virginia's southern coastal bays during the last decade. As of 2009, these restored sites have spread naturally to more than 3,400 acres.

The project is a collaborative effort between VIMS' Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) program, led by VIMS Professor JJ Orth, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). It currently receives financial support from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Virginia's Recreational Fishing License Fund, and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment.

The seagrass restoration effort is part of a much larger program that also aims to restore bay scallops and oysters. Work on the bay scallop, which depends on eelgrass for its primary habitat, is being led by Dr. Mark Luckenbach of VIMS' Eastern Shore Laboratory. The oyster restoration work is being led by Barry Truitt of TNC and Jim Wesson of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).

The 2010 seed-collection effort is now underway and will continue through  June 16 depending on how long seeds remain on the plants. This restoration effort is the largest to date, with a goal of harvesting up to 20 million seeds. Volunteers will collect the seeds from eelgrass plants in water about waist deep. Collection will take place in South Bay, a shallow-water bay behind Wreck Island located 10 miles from Oyster, Virginia.

The seeds will be transported and stored in either The Nature Conservancy's seagrass storage facility on Oyster harbor or in VIMS' seagrass facility at Gloucester Point. Seeds will be held in large tanks with flowing seawater until their planting in coastal bays in the fall.

Orth notes that the success of past plantings in Virginia's southern coastal bays provides a rare bright spot in regional efforts to restore eelgrass. "This area is unique," says Orth, "in that it is the only place in this region, and perhaps in the world, where eelgrass restoration is successful at such a large scale." Attempts to restore eelgrass in Chesapeake Bay have been marginally successful due to poor water quality in many areas.

Orth says the success of eelgrass in Virginia's coastal bays reflects their cooler and clearer waters. Water quality in these bays is now being monitored by Dr. Ken Moore of VIMS, a co-principal investigator of the project. These coastal bays were covered with vast eelgrass beds until 1933, when a wasting disease and a powerful hurricane all but wiped them out along with the bay scallop, which was being commercially harvested. A lack of natural seeding then kept the bays largely eelgrass-free into the 1990s. Bay scallops had also failed to recover.

"We got a report of a little patch of eelgrass in South Bay in 1996," says Orth. "That's when the light went on that conditions there might be ripe for recovery, as long as there was a source of seeds." Orth and colleagues began experimental restoration efforts the following year with both seeds and transplanted shoots, and have spent the last 15 years perfecting the techniques needed to successfully harvest, keep, and plant eelgrass seeds.

Other partners include the University of Virginia, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.

Maps of the seagrass beds in these coastal bays can be viewed on the VIMS SAV interactive map at http://web.vims.edu/bio/sav/maps, while information on real-time water quality data such as water temperature, oxygen, turbidity, and salinity can be viewed via the website of the Virginia Estuarine and Coastal Observing System (VECOS) at http://www.ysieconet.com/public/WebUI/Default.aspx?hidCustomerID=154.

Volunteer Information

Seed collection during the upcoming trials will be timed around the daily low tides. Collection trips will last 4-5 hours and boat transportation will be provided to the site from the public boat ramp in Oyster.

Volunteers must pre-register in order to participate. Registration forms are available by contacting Jennifer Rich at 434-951-0572 or via jrich@tnc.org; or Bev Watson of the Virginia Coast Reserve at 757-442-3049 or bwatson@tnc.org.