Maryland staff during a successful eelgrass monitoring trip in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland.
Eelgrass Restoration Maryland staff during a successful eelgrass monitoring trip in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland. © Severn Smith / TNC

Stories in Maryland/DC

Eelgrass Restoration

A pilot project near Assateague National Seashore aims to restore seagrass to Maryland's coastal bays.

Severn Smith Director of Communications and Marketing

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Healthy natural communities can make a difference in people’s lives, especially in places like the Eastern Shore that are vulnerable to rising seas and the more frequent and intense storms associated with climate change. 

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) provides critical habitat for marine animals like blue crabs, seahorse, and striped bass, and is an important food source for water fowl. The simple seagrass was virtually wiped out in the 1930s by a noxious slime mold.

In October 2018, staff from The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia chapter joined staff from Maryland/DC, along with our NPS partners, to plant eelgrass in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore.

The pilot planting was done to determine if Virginia’s wildly successful restoration of seagrass meadows in the Virginia coastal bays is something that can be replicated and scaled up the coast into Maryland’s bays.

Staff from Maryland/DC and Virginia disperse eelgrass seeds in a coastal bay near Assateague National Seashore. October, 2018.
Eelgrass Restoration Staff from Maryland/DC and Virginia disperse eelgrass seeds in a coastal bay near Assateague National Seashore. October, 2018. © Severn Smith / TNC
Virginia Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk holds a small jar containing thousands of eelgrass seeds.
Restoring Eelgrass Virginia Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk holds a small jar containing thousands of eelgrass seeds. © Severn Smith / TNC

We planted two strains of eelgrass seed to determine if one strain would perform better than the other. Eelgrass seeds are collected from healthy meadows in the early summer, when female flowers are fertilized by drifting pollen and develop into seed-bearing shoots. The shoots eventually break off, float to the surface and release their seeds.

Monitoring for Success

In May of 2019, the same staff who conducted the pilot planting the previous fall went back to the site to see if the seeds grew into plants.

Although we always suspected the planting would be successful, it was still exhilarating when the underwater drone sent back images of the sprouts!

TNC staff prepare to deploy an underwater drone off Assateague National Seashore, Maryland.
Eelgrass Restoration TNC staff prepare to deploy an underwater drone off Assateague National Seashore, Maryland. © Severn Smith / TNC
An eelgrass shoot that germinated from seeds dispersed in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland.
Eelgrass Restoration An eelgrass shoot that germinated from seeds dispersed in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland. © Severn Smith / TNC
Resilient Coasts Program Director Kelly Leo holds an eelgrass shoot sprouted from seeds dispersed in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore.
Eelgrass Restoration Resilient Coasts Program Director Kelly Leo holds an eelgrass shoot sprouted from seeds dispersed in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore. © Severn Smith / TNC
Maryland staff during a successful eelgrass monitoring trip in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland.
Eelgrass Restoration Maryland staff during a successful eelgrass monitoring trip in Sinepuxent Bay off of Assateague National Seashore, Maryland. © Severn Smith / TNC

Bringing eelgrass meadows back to Maryland’s coastal bays would be a win for both people and nature. These habitats can help reduce shoreline erosion caused by sea level rise and subsidence along our coasts. 

Seagrass beds also have a role to play in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Five acres of eelgrass can soak up enough carbon dioxide to offset driving a car 15,000 miles a year.  According to a 2012 study by Florida International University, coastal seagrass can store more than twice as much carbon per square kilometer as terrestrial forests. They can also help take the punch out of waves caused by more frequent and intense storms brought on by climate change.

Longterm Eelgrass Restoration

Our efforts in Maryland build on the success of the Virginia chapter's longterm eelgrass restoration program.

A powerful Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane in the 1930s combined with disease to devastate seagrass meadows in Virginia’s coastal bays. In 1999, a patch of eelgrass was discovered in a seaside bay off the Eastern Shore.  It may have taken root from seeds that had drifted down from Chincoteague Bay.  According to Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), "That’s when the light went on that conditions there might be ripe for recovery, as long as there was a source of seeds."

Each spring since 2008, 40 to 60 volunteers have signed on to boost the now decades-long partnership.  Volunteer snorkelers collect reproductive shoots containing ripe seeds from the underwater plants. The shoots are measured into water tanks where the seeds are then cured, separated, and prepared for fall planting.

Starting from the mere remnant Orth located nearby, VIMS and The Nature Conservancy have since broadcast more than 72 million seeds into 600 acres to help accelerate the natural spread of eelgrass, which now covers almost 9,000 acres in Virginia's South, Spider Crab, Hog Island and Cobb Island bays.

In the photo gallery below, dive in with staff from Maryland/DC who joined their Virginia colleagues and other volunteers for 2019's eelgrass collection.

Severn Smith is the director of communications and marketing for Maryland/DC, supporting efforts in two key areas where the chapter's outcomes can have the greatest impact: protecting clean water and tackling climate change.