Volunteers hoist bags of eelgrass shoots.
Restoration Success Volunteers hoist bags of eelgrass shoots. © Bo Lusk / TNC

Stories in Virginia

Restoring Eelgrass

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

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.  Over the past decade nearly 500 volunteers have given 2,175 hours to the effort.

Starting from a mere remnant discovered in a seaside bay off the Eastern Shore, The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Institute for Marine Science (VIMS) have since broadcast more than 72 million seeds into 536 acres to help accelerate the natural spread of eelgrass, which now covers almost 7,200 acres in South, Spider Crab, Hog Island and Cobb Island bays.

Volunteer Al McKegg collects eelgrass shoots in South Bay, Eastern Shore, Virginia.
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 / TNC

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 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." 

VCR Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk holds up an eelgrass shoot while explaining the seagrass seed collection process prior to volunteers entering the water.  The sack tied around his neck will be used to collect the shoots.
Diver Instructions VCR Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk holds up an eelgrass shoot while explaining the seagrass seed collection process prior to volunteers entering the water. The sack tied around his neck will be used to collect the shoots. © Alex Novak / TNC

How do volunteers collect up to 10 million eelgrass seeds during a roughly 10-day window?

One handful at a time.

How do volunteers collect up to 10 million eelgrass seeds during a roughly 10-day window? One handful at a time.
Restoration Success Volunteers collect seed-bearing eelgrass shoots. © Mark Godfrey (l-both); Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy (r)
Comb Jelly in the Grass A comb jelly swims through a seagrass meadow. The "combs" are the groups of cilia it uses for swimming.
Volunteer snorkelers collect seagrass shoots in a shallow coastal bay.
Restoration Success Volunteer snorkelers collect seagrass shoots in a shallow coastal bay. © Daniel White / TNC

As eelgrass collapsed, it created a ripple effect.  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.

We are working with VIMS on an effort to produce and grow scallops from larvae to juvenile size.  3 million of VIMS’ bay scallop larvae are currently being raised in Conservancy setting tanks. 

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.  The hope is to eventually restore a self-sustaining population of bay scallops to Virginia waters. 

Bo Lusk holds open a bag containing millions of bay scallop larvae.  Britt Gonzalez releases the larvae into the seagrass meadow.
Returning Scallops Bo Lusk holds open a bag containing millions of bay scallop larvae. Britt Gonzalez releases the larvae into the seagrass meadow. © Alex Novak / TNC

Virginia supported the most productive bay scallop fishery in the United States in 1930, but the scallops disappeared along with the seagrass meadows. 

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 by returning bay scallops to Virginia waters.

Virginia supported the most productive bay scallop fishery in the United States in 1930, but the scallops disappeared along with the seagrass meadows.
Returning Scallops A volunteer holds a bay scallop. © Daniel White / TNC
Oh, snap! The “snapping” is repeated muscle contractions scallops make for the jet propulsion they use for swimming.
Staff and volunteers from VIMS collect eelgrass trimmings with a boat-mounted mower. The process is similar to mowing a lawn; the eelgrass will soon grow back.
Restoration Success Staff and volunteers from VIMS collect eelgrass trimmings with a boat-mounted mower. The process is similar to mowing a lawn; the eelgrass will soon grow back. © Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy

That’s when the light went on that conditions there might be ripe for recovery, as long as there was a source of seeds.

Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences
Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from VIMS stands next to a holding tank at the Conservancy's facility in Oyster, VA (right).  Eelgrass shoots are measured into holding tanks to cure.
Restoration Success Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from VIMS stands next to a holding tank at the Conservancy's facility in Oyster, VA (right). © Daniel White / TNC (l-both); Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy (r)

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. 

The Nature Conservancy and VIMS have broadcast more than 70 million seeds into 525 acres to help accelerate the natural spread of eelgrass, which now covers almost 6,200 acres in South, Spider Crab, Hog Island and Cobb Island bays. 

Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk relaxes in an eelgrass meadow.
Conservation Success Coastal Scientist Bo Lusk relaxes in an eelgrass meadow. © Alex Novak / TNC