Virginia Coast Reserve Restoration
The Nature Conservancy and our partners are restoring eelgrass at this coastal wilderness.
By: Daniel White
If you were to overhear the conversation I’m having with Bo Lusk, you might assume he’s showing off baby pictures. And in a sense, he is. But the “gorgeous blue eyes” Lusk is pointing out actually belong to a bouncing baby bay scallop — and it has 18 pairs.
Lusk has spent much of the year literally submerged in his work as a restoration specialist for The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve. In addition to the revelation that bay scallops have beautiful blue eyes, Lusk is sharing details about a new initiative to restore this prized shellfish.
On one hand, a wave of restoration has been building for decades as a logical progression of the Conservancy’s conservation of such an extraordinary coastal wilderness. But there’s a growing awareness as our climate changes that the healthiest, most intact ecosystems will be the most resilient and likely to endure.
Healthy natural communities also stand to make a real difference in people’s lives, especially in places as vulnerable as our Eastern Shore.
The Ties That Bind: Eelgrass and Scallops
Lusk assisted the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in releasing the first test batch of 5,500 juvenile bay scallops. The South Bay site is part of the restored eelgrass meadows where volunteers helped collect more than 10 million seeds this spring.
Almost immediately, Lusk observed evidence of the close ties between scallops and eelgrass. The scallops began emitting byssal threads, affixing themselves to the blades that will shelter them from strong currents and from such predators as crabs and rays.
While sustaining even a recreational scallop fishery will require significantly more work and investment, Lusk believes these efforts offer realistic promise. “Our goal for this project is to evaluate different methods and find the most economically viable way to achieve large-scale scallop restoration,” he says. “If we can get the funding, scallops can make a real comeback here.”
Related Story: Bringing Back Virginia's Scallops (WVTF-Radio IQ)
An Outdoor Laboratory for Climate Change
NOAA awarded $2 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, funding 24 new oyster reefs in addition to the eelgrass and scallop projects. A separate living-shoreline project will also incorporate oysters.
Each effort expands critical habitat and ecological diversity at the Virginia Coast Reserve. But program director Steve Parker also points to the bigger picture: “We have one of the biggest outdoor laboratories in the world here for climate change.”
“Our working hypothesis is that the best chance of survival for the most species is healthy, whole natural systems,” explains Barry Truitt, who leads the reserve’s science programs and partnerships. Restoring eelgrass meadows, for instance, shelters and sustains myriad marine animals, from blue crabs to striped bass.
Other benefits also ripple out to human communities. Eelgrass beds can help absorb nutrients, trap sediment and curtail erosion as storms and runoff intensify. Moreover, five acres of eelgrass can soak up enough carbon dioxide to offset driving a car 15,000 miles a year.
A Response to Rising Seas: Living Shorelines
Another key experiment is under way in aptly named Belle Haven, Virginia at Camp Occohannock. Together with partners and the local church that owns the camp, we are undertaking an ambitious project to restore 1,000 feet of shoreline. Instead of a traditional armored bulkhead, the project builds up natural protections by regrading the bank, creating new tidal salt marsh, and installing low sill walls in the intertidal zone to buffer wave energy. Take a guided tour along the shoreline (launches video).
Much of the camp's shoreline - up to 2 feet per year - has been lost due to coastal erosion generated by storms like Hurricane Sandy. This living shoreline approach maintains key coastal processes and the connection between the water and land. The steady volume of children and families that spend time at the camp throughout the year make Camp Occohannock an ideal site for demonstrating living shoreline approaches to the surrounding community.
“Our defining challenge in vulnerable places like the Eastern Shore may well be the choices we humans make as we adapt to climate change,” says Judy Dunscomb, the Conservancy’s lead scientist in Virginia.
Helping nature help us, it turns out, just may be our own best defense.
Related story: Project Helping a Living Shoreline to Emerge on Shore VA Creek (Bay Journal)