Stories in Virginia

Restoring Eelgrass on Virginia's Eastern Shore

Go into the water and behind the scenes of the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.

Two smiling women in wetsuits stand in hip deep water holding up large white mesh bags full of eelgrass shoots.
Restoration Success Volunteers hoist bags of eelgrass shoots. © Bo Lusk / TNC

From Disaster to Recovery

In the early 1930s, a noxious slime mold and the powerful Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane combined to devastate seagrass meadows in Virginia’s coastal bays. While seagrasses did regenerate in the Chesapeake, they never returned to Virginia's other coastal bays.

A smiling man in a wetsuit, mask and snorkel stands in waist deep blue water and holds up eelgrass shoots.
Ripe for Recovery Volunteer Al McKegg holds up long strands of eelgrass. For about 10 days in late spring, the grasses' seed-bearing reproductive shoots are in the prime stage for collection. © Alex Novak/The Nature Conservancy

A patch of eelgrass was discovered in 1999 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 and suited up to collect eelgrass (Zostera marina), a simple seagrass that once thrived in the coastal bays of Virginia, but was virtually wiped out in the 1930s by disease and hurricane. While volunteer collection was curtailed for two years due to Covid, 2022 saw more volunteers than in recent memory turn out! 79 volunteers filled 10 tanks with seeds, giving 287 hours over 7 days. Over more than a decade nearly 500 volunteers have given 2,175 hours to the effort.

Collecting Eelgrass

How do volunteers collect up to 10 million eelgrass seeds during a roughly 10-day window? One handful at a time.

Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk stands on a floating dock in a coastal bay. He is wearing a black wetsuit and holds up two long strands of green eelgrass. Two people stand in a boat behind him.
Underwater view of a snorkler collecting eelgrass shoots. A person floats above a patch of seagrass meadow. Sediment muddies the water where the person is grabbing a large handful of grass.
A woman wearing a yellow snorkeling mask looks closely at an eelgrass shoot that she holds stretched between her fingers.
The heads of two people bob above the water while a third person floats and snorkels along the surface of a coastal bay. Large puffy white clouds fill the bright blue sky above.
Three people stand at the end of a boat. An apparatus attached to the boat allows them to 'mow' and collect eelgrass shoots from submerged beds of aquatic grass in the coastal bay.
A smiling woman stands in thigh-deep water holding clumps of long, green eelgrass.
A smiling man in a wetsuit crouches in water that rises up to his shoulders. A mesh bag floats on the surface next to him.
Two people collect seagrass. The man on the left is kneeling with water rising to his chest. The woman on the right puts eelgrass shoots in a mesh bag while standing in thigh-deep water.
Water bubbles up through long green strands of eelgrass held in a large open storage tank.
Four people wearing wetsuits stand in thigh-deep water under a cloud-streaked blue sky.

The Eastern Shore community has provided a willing partner to this restoration. Working side-by-side with hundreds of volunteers collecting seeds for this project is a highlight of each spring.

Coastal Scientist, Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve
Dr. JJ Orth at TNC's eelgrass curing facility in Oyster, VA. A man stands next to a large open tank filled with water that holds eelgrass shoots. Three rows of tanks stand behind him.
Ripe for Recovery Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from VIMS stands next to a holding tank at TNC's eelgrass curing facility in Oyster, VA. © Peter Frank Edwards

Ripe for Recovery

After they're collected, the eelgrass shoots are measured into holding tanks to cure. The seeds will be extracted and stored in sea water until fall, when they will be sown back into the seaside bays.

Starting from the mere remnant discovered in a seaside bay, TNC and VIMS have since broadcast more than 72 million seeds into 600 acres to help accelerate the natural spread of eelgrass, which now covers 9,000 acres in South, Spider Crab, Hog Island and Cobb Island bays.

VVCR’s eelgrass restoration is also the subject of a blue carbon feasibility study, the first of its kind in world, which provides the potential for future implementation of a long-term carbon credit project.

A scallop sits on the sandy bottom of a coastal bay.
Coastal Recovery TNC's successful efforts to restore eelgrass to Virginia's coastal bays has created conditions and habitat for the return of bay scallops. © Jay Fleming

Turning the Tide

Bringing Scallops Back to Coastal Bays

As eelgrass collapsed, it created a ripple effect. Virginia supported the most productive bay scallop fishery in the United States in 1930; with the loss of this critical nursery habitat, commercially important bay scallops completely disappeared from Virginia’s waters.

But after more than 80 years, the tide may be turning.

TNC is working with VIMS on an effort to produce and grow scallops from larvae to juvenile size. In May 2017, we released 12.3 million bay scallop larvae that were spawned by VIMS and Cherrystone Aquafarms into the eelgrass in South Bay.

Scallops affix themselves to blades of seagrass which provide shelter from strong currents and from predators like crabs and rays. Along with our partners at VIMS, we’re working to build on our successful eelgrass restoration efforts in the hope of eventually restoring a self-sustaining population of bay scallops to Virginia waters.

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A man in a wet suit floats above a seagrass meadow in shallow water. A fish eye lens has been used, giving a curve to the horizon behind him.
Conservation Success Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk relaxes in an eelgrass meadow. © Alex Novak / TNC