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.
Lusk recently 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.”
NOAA recently 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.
Another key experiment is under way in aptly named Oyster, Virginia. Community members are working with the Conservancy’s Joe Scalf to fortify 450 feet of shoreline and crumbling bulkhead against erosion and rising seas.
Instead of a traditional armored bulkhead, volunteers are building up natural protections, including a marsh and oyster reefs. “We’re protecting our property,” says Scalf, “but we can also show how to preserve habitat for birds, fish, shellfish and other aquatic life.”
And instead of enduring an eyesore, the community can take pride in its new green demonstration site. The state is helping fund visitor access and interpretive materials so that the Eastern Shore’s first open-to-the-public living shoreline can serve as a model to inspire others.
“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.
Daniel White is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy based in Charlottesville, Virginia.