Virginia's Efforts To Restore Seaside Grasses May Be A Worldwide Model

Jul 13, 2018

Harvested eel grass with seed pods
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Sea grass worldwide is in trouble. Losses are estimated at an area the size of a football field every half-hour.

Along the Atlantic, near the very tip of the DelMarVa Peninsula, scientists and conservationists have been working for a decade to restore one underwater sea grass that succumbed to disease and the hurricane of 1933.

When you hear “bay” you probably think of the Chesapeake Bay. But on the the Atlantic coast of Virginia's Eastern Shore there are tiny coastal bays between the barrier islands where there used to be thousands of acres of lush underwater meadows of eel grass.

Scientists thought they were extinct. Then in 1999 came a discovery. "For the first time in almost 70 years, someone found a small patch of eel grass just east of here behind the north end of Wreck Island," says Bo Lusk, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy who grew up on the Eastern Shore.

Bo Lusk, coastal scientist, at a tank filled with harvested flowering grass shoots at The Nature Conservancy-Virginia Institute of Marine Science project site in Oyster, Virginia
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Lusk has been working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to resurrect eel grass. So far they've planted some 500 acres which has spread to 7,000.

Each spring a team of volunteers snorkel down to harvest flowering grass shoots that contain seeds. Those are put into giant tanks and tended until the seeds are ready to harvest. In the fall they will be spread to other areas.

So, why all the fuss over something that looks a lot like crab grass? Well, besides cleaning the water and providing important habitat for blue crabs, bay scallops, sea horses and other marine life, they protect the Eastern Shore's Atlantic shoreline. "It's like rolling across a thick shag carpet and waves actually lose a significant portion of their energy before they hit marshes and shorelines and helps to reduce erosion rates too," Lusk says.

Across the creek from Lusk is the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research and the  Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center of the University of Virginia that have been collecting long-term ecological research data on the grass.

Cora Johnston, site director of Virginia Coastal Reserve Long Term Ecological Research and UVA's Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Director Cora Johnston says the replanting effort is paying off to the point that grasses are healthy enough to recover from small die-offs. But a changing climate is bringing stronger storms and bigger heat waves. "If those events start happening more and more frequently, which we expect that they often will, then as those become closer together, there's a potential for that to create conditions that would be insurmountable for the seagrass," Johnston warns.

As the Trump administration considers allowing off-shore oil drilling in Virginia waters, a potential oil spill could prove disastrous for DelMarVa's seaside. "One of the really important reasons for keeping this area protected is that it is one of our last sentinel sites that allows us to see how these dynamics play out naturally," Johnston says. "But then to be able to translate that knowledge to understanding what's happening on other coastlines and how we can make coastlines more resilient in general as climate changes and as sea-level changes."

Scientists also point out that water quality is key to restorations efforts, in the Atlantic and on the Chesapeake Bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.