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Virginia's Wild Coast

December/January 2014

Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards

The Conservancy’s 40,000 acre, 14 island reserve thrives as a living laboratory for restoration along an otherwise crowded Atlantic seaboard.

Erika Schmitt peels open a plastic freezer bag and pours several pounds of slimy, brownish grains into a metal tray. A puff of rotten egg smell drifts by. “Stinky, right?” she says. “And these are the good ones.”

The grains—roughly 200,000 in all—are the seeds of a plant called eelgrass, and they were harvested nearly six months ago from the shallow lagoons along Virginia’s Atlantic shore. Since then, they’ve undergone something like a vegetal spa treatment: They’ve been agitated, tumbled, bathed in endless changes of water and held for weeks in fiberglass tanks at a comfortable temperature. Now, smell and all, they have an important job to do.

Seated on the bow of a fiberglass work boat, Schmitt, a graduate student at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Bo Lusk, a coastal scientist with The Nature Conservancy, wait for their signal. Around them, the calm surface of Spider Crab Bay stretches away in every direction. Corey Holbert, a researcher from the institute and the boat’s captain, double-checks his GPS and nudges the throttle. “OK, guys, go!” he shouts. As the boat glides forward, Schmitt and Lusk grab handfuls of seeds from the trays and fling them across the water. The seeds pepper the bay’s surface and disappear below.

This work is an act of faith. The seeds will sink to the bottom, lodge in the sand and, the theory holds, begin germinating once the water temperature dips into the 50s. But it won’t be clear until next spring whether all the care Schmitt, Lusk and many others have lavished on these seeds has paid off in the form of green, growing shoots.

A little more than a decade ago, there was no eelgrass to speak of in these bays. There hadn’t been since the early 1930s, when a deadly wasting disease struck the lush underwater meadows that once served as the foundation for aquatic life. Around the same time, a devastating hurricane finished off any remaining eelgrass. The plants’ demise had profound effects: Fish lost their foraging grounds, and waterfowl were forced to fly elsewhere in search of food.

Today, the eelgrass’s revival is only the latest in a series of restoration projects under way at the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, a chain of barrier islands that spans more than a third of Virginia’s coast. The reserve’s undeveloped shores feel a world away from the dense beach communities of the Mid-Atlantic—towns built on shifting sandbars, where roads, boardwalks and waterfront houses need constant defense against shoreline erosion, hurricanes and rising sea levels. But as scientists at the reserve work to restore its islands and bays, they are refining techniques that may also help restore coastal areas far less wild.

About 7.7 million eelgrass seeds were collected in May by Conservancy volunteers and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. They were used to plant 51 new acres of sea grass.

In the late 1960s, as much of the Mid-Atlantic shoreline was being  transformed into marinas, miniature golf courses and second-home subdivisions, developers fixed their attention on Smith Island, an eight-mile lump of sand and evergreen scrub near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, where the Chesapeake Bay empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Their blueprints were grandiose: A bridge and causeway were proposed, along with a yacht club, condominiums, a network of dredged canals, a golf links, a convention center, a shopping mall and an airport.

Concerned about the need to protect migratory bird habitat, in 1969 the Conservancy bought Smith Island. It was the first purchase in a string of acquisitions, for a total of 14 islands and marsh islands from nearly the Maryland state line to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There were plans after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed in 1964 to continue building bridges to connect all the Virginia barrier islands and build communities on them,” says Jill Bieri, director of the Virginia Coast Reserve. “By purchasing the lower islands, The Nature Conservancy was able to put a stop to the idea.”

At 50 miles long and accessible only by boat, the Virginia Coast Reserve—together with neighboring wildlife refuges and the Assateague Island National Seashore—protects one of the longest stretches of undeveloped shoreline on the Atlantic coast. The 40,000-acre property has come into its own as a natural laboratory: Scientists here are studying coastal processes and developing environmental restoration techniques that are informing efforts to save species, reverse habitat loss, restore fisheries, improve coastal water quality, and adapt to climate change all along the Atlantic seaboard and around the world.

The reserve may be undeveloped, but it would be a stretch to call it untouched. “We had squatters and poachers and dune buggies and dope smugglers out there—all kinds of stuff,” says Barry Truitt, the recently retired chief conservation scientist at the Virginia Coast Reserve. A few islands even had herds of feral cattle and sheep, remnants of earlier human settlers who had left for higher ground.

With the return of eelgrass, the region’s blue crabs have more places to hide during their molt.

At the time it acquired Smith Island, the Conservancy was in the practice of buying land and turning it over to the federal government as wildlife refuge and parkland. Here, though, it would attempt something different. “We decided to keep the islands and manage them ourselves as an example of what we were capable of doing,” Truitt says.

Truitt, a self-described urban refugee from Norfolk, Virginia, hired on with the Conservancy in 1976. “Basically, I got the job because I had a science degree and knew how to run a boat,” he recalls with a chuckle. Now 66, he is a formidable presence, a stout, plain-spoken man with a snowy beard and appraising eyes. His back gives him trouble these days, the physical toll of decades spent banging through the reserve’s backwaters in small motorboats. Still, his love of the place is undiminished.

During his first years at the reserve, Truitt was its de facto steward, troubleshooter, conservation biologist, grant writer and wildlife researcher; he even spent a few weeks roping cattle and wrangling sheep. But an arguably more strenuous job was winning over the confidence of local residents, who were suspicious of the Conservancy’s motives. “We were deeply mistrusted when we first moved into this area,” he says. “I mean, people were comparing us to the CIA. But in the mid-80s, as the Eastern Shore became threatened with development, the local people finally had a use for us.” To put a stop to development, the Conservancy purchased many large, highly developable waterfront farms, put easements on them and resold them to recoup capital investments.

Around that time, the Conservancy was able to turn its attention to restoring the reserve’s declining wildlife. Birds came first.

Scientists had kept records of beach-nesting shorebird populations on the islands since 1974. “When you do a lot of long-term monitoring, sooner or later it’s going to tell you that you need to do something,” says Truitt. “And the thing that it told us we needed to do was manage predators.”

The culprits were easy enough to identify: mainland populations of raccoons (whose numbers were surging because of urbanization) and nonnative red foxes. Thanks to an aggressive predator-trapping program, populations of  beachnesting birds have since rebounded. The best example may be the piping plover, a threatened species whose nesting populations here have more than doubled since the 1980s.

Oysters, too, were in deep trouble at the reserve. By the 1990s, the bays’ once-abundant oyster reefs lay in ruins after decades of overharvest and two disease outbreaks. Partnering with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the state’s Coastal Zone Management Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Conservancy began an ambitious—and experimental—oyster-restoration effort at the reserve.

With grant funds from NOAA, Truitt and partners began dredging and planting old shells to create a welcoming space for young oysters to settle and grow. It worked, but shell material was limited. In 2006, the Conservancy was contacted by a concrete company that wanted to test man-made substrates known as oyster reef balls. The original design proved difficult to produce, so Truitt and his colleagues helped the company develop an alternative: stackable modules on which oyster spat could cling. Soon they started installing 500 donated Oyster Castles in four test areas around the reserve. Since then, the area of lagoon bottom covered by pre-existing and restored oyster reefs has grown to more than 900 acres. At last count, in 2007, the population of oysters along the peninsula’s Atlantic coast was estimated at more than 3 billion.

PLACE_HOLDER Libby Mojica and Courtney Turrin of the Center for Conservation Biology band a peregrine falcon chick. More than a dozen organizations help with bird research and management at the reserve. © PLACE_HOLDER

The most recent chapter in the reserve’s restoration success story began in 1997, at a portion of the reserve called South Bay. There Bob Orth, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science researcher and professor, was shown something no one imagined still existed in these bays: a few patches of live eelgrass, each no wider than a dinner table. “These were plants that came from somewhere else, naturally,” he says, adding, “They were an indicator that the water quality was healthy enough to do a restoration.” In just a few years, seeds collected from donor beds in the Chesapeake became the raw materials for a major eelgrass-restoration project led by Orth.

Each spring when eelgrass sends up its green, seedbearing tips, a corps of volunteers takes to the reserve’s waters in wetsuits, snorkels and masks. They trim the eelgrass shoots by hand, stuff them into mesh bags and deliver the bags to boats waiting nearby. Other seeds are harvested mechanically. The seeds get one to three months of special handling to replicate life in the wild, including a regimen of soaking, agitation, water circulation, fluming
and strict temperature control.

In September, teams like Lusk, Schmitt and Holbert’s spend several days on the water, sowing one-acre plots of lagoon they’ve mapped out in advance. The hard work is paying off. Only a decade and a half after its surprise discovery, eelgrass carpets nearly 5,000 acres of the lagoon, through natural spreading and by sowing its seeds.

“I grew up knowing that there used to be eelgrass out there,” says Lusk, who comes from nearby Cherrystone and spent summers plying the bays in is family’s boat. “My grandmother would talk about how it used to grow all over the place. You learned where the eelgrass had been. And I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it came back?’”

Eelgrass’s return has set into motion a cascade of positive ecosystem changes. In summer, blue crabs finally have a place to hide during their vulnerable shedding periods. Seasonal visitors like red drum, spotted seat rout and sandbar sharks are benefiting from improved hunting grounds. Brant, a grass-nibbling species of waterfowl that has known years of decline, has become a fixture on these waters once again. And bay scallops, a species absent for years, are being bred and reintroduced to the reserve.

The benefits aren’t limited to Virginia. In 2013, researchers from Denmark and Sweden visited the reserve and worked side by side with Orth, Truitt and others to learn how the strategies employed here might make a difference in their own waters, where sea grasses have suffered massive die-offs in recent decades because of nutrient pollution and disease. Though still in the early stages, sea-grass restoration projects replicating the Virginia model are now under way in Europe.

There’s so much to learn here, in fact, that the reserve has spawned its own research program. In 1987 the Conservancy, National Science Foundation and University of Virginia jointly established the Virginia Coast Reserve/Long-Term Ecological Research Program here, one of 26 natural laboratories in the United States dedicated to studying how ecosystems change across decades.

The reserve also offers a peerless location for studying the natural ebb and flow of coastal barrier islands. For researchers from the University of Virginia, the growth, erosion and creeping movement of the reserve’s islands and marshes, unaffected by human activities such as shoreline hardening and beach replenishment, is serving as a test case for natural shoreline resiliency in the face of sea-level rise. In eelgrass’s case, scientists have been able to document the plants’ full benefits to coastal ecosystems: absorbing wave energy, clearing sediment, stabilizing shorelines and serving as a nursery, refuge and feeding ground for hundreds of marine species. And because it stores prodigious amounts of carbon, eelgrass is even showing promise as an ally in the fight against climate change.

The value of the reserve’s restoration efforts is multiplied when the findings help guide decisions made in other coastal areas. According to reserve director Bieri, not many coastal regions have water quality like that of the Virginia Coast Reserve, so the restoration gains seen here might not be achievable to the same extent in habitats degraded by development and farm runoff. “It is very different, and I think every region has to look at their characteristics,” she says, “but I do think that we can export a lot of our knowledge.” Whether it’s protecting sea grass in Denmark or deploying Oyster Castles in New England or the Gulf of Mexico, many bays and barrier islands all around the Atlantic are benefiting from discoveries made along this quiet coast.

Piping plover nests have become a much more common sight at the reserve since nonnative foxes and overpopulated raccoons have been managed.

It’s late afternoon when the crew wraps up day one of its fall seeding project. “Hang on, guys,” Holbert warns. He puts the skiff up on plane and guides it through a spiral channel bordered by acres of marsh grass. Egrets stand impassively along the muddy banks. Flocks of shorebirds skitter apart, regroup and resume, probing the marsh edge for crabs. The late-afternoon sun touches off the ripening seed heads of the grasses all around, creating gorgeous striations of green and gold.

Back at the docks, a pair of anglers in their 60s, husband and wife, are disembarking from their own boat nearby. They wave the researchers over. Their plastic cooler is stocked with red drum, a hefty, bronze-colored game fish with black spots along the tail. “Just lookit ’em,” the man says, his face crinkling with pride.

The sun is skirting the treetops by the time Lusk climbs into his work truck and guides it up a winding back road, north toward the reserve office near the town of Nassawadox. He’s in a reflective turn of mind now.

“You know, it’s amazing to be a part of this work,” he says. “When you think about it, if you’re trying to restore, say, a forest, you go out and plant a bunch of trees and it’s 30 years before you really see any changes.” He pauses a moment. “The thing is, here it’s happened so fast. It’s just blown everyone’s mind.”