Saving Seagrass at Virginia Coast Reserve

By Daniel White

I've just scrunched my 6-foot-2-inch frame into a black neoprene wetsuit for the first time. As the sun climbs above our barge anchored in South Bay, I’m a little distracted during our brief workday orientation.

Here’s what I’m thinking: I feel like a smoked sausage.

Minutes later, I’m out of the frying pan and into the freezer — that is, waist deep in the shockingly cold bay. Within seconds, though, the neoprene performs like a layer of blubber, and I’m drifting comfortably over an underwater prairie.

Attack of the Slime Mold

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 sea grasses did regenerate in the Chesapeake, they never returned to Virginia's other coastal bays.

One species, eelgrass, served as the urban infrastructure — the neighborhoods, food markets and hospital nurseries — for bustling communities in our shallow bays and lagoons.

As the eelgrass collapsed, waterfowl went away and one goose species, the brant, nearly perished altogether. Commercially important bay scallops completely disappeared, while myriad other marine animals — from blue crabs to seahorses and striped bass — became refugees.

Around 1996, reports of a surviving patch of eelgrass in a seaside bay off the Eastern Shore led Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from the  Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) to investigate. According to Orth, "That’s when the light went on that conditions there might be ripe for recovery, as long as there was a source of seeds."

Seeds of Survival

Fast-forward to today. Our humble barge in South Bay serves literally as our jumping-off point for the largest, most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.

Starting from the mere remnant Orth located nearby, VIMS and The Nature Conservancy 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 - that's an area the size of the city of Charlottesville.

Each spring since 2008, 30 to 40 volunteers have signed on to boost the now decade-long partnership. So how exactly does a volunteer make a dent in our goal of collecting enough eelgrass shoots to yield 10 million seeds?

One handful at a time.

That’s the gist of Bo Lusk’s introduction prior to our hitting the water. A coastal scientist with the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, Lusk dips down and surfaces with several emerald strands. He separates the seed-bearing reproductive shoots and holds them up to demonstrate our quarry. Catching sunlight, the vaguely rice-shaped seeds emit a golden glow.

Underwater, however, one clump of grass looks much like another to me. Maybe I just haven’t yet found my "seagrass eyes," as Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Dalke puts it. But for now, I find touch more reliable than vision. While the bulk of the vegetation feels much like the skinny ribbon used for gift-wrapping, the seed-bearing shoots feel tubular, like tiny pea pods.

Face to Face with a Crustacean

Both Lusk and Orth claim they can fill a laundry-sized mesh bag in 15 minutes. I sincerely hope the fate of eelgrass doesn’t depend on my keeping pace. I also hope neither is watching while I spend about that long standing with my face planted in the water, staring down a blue crab.

I’ve seen scores of small crustaceans scuttle away. This character, though, is as large as my hands, which I am holding well away from a formidable set of claws. The crab’s eyestalks track my every move, its appendages and mouthparts in constant twitching motion.

Perhaps I wave my hand in a menacing way, or the crab simply grows annoyed. Whatever the trigger, the crab suddenly launches itself upward as if to gobble down my fingers like so many clam strips.

Last Man Snorkeling

The tide is rising, and after some six hours alternately on and in the water, our energy levels are falling. Everyone is finning or wading back to the barge with the day’s last bag of eelgrass. Everyone, that is, except JJ Orth.

Nearly all of the bags have been loaded onto the VIMS and Conservancy skiffs by the time Orth finally approaches. Someone shouts, "Hey JJ, you missed a seed!" Orth responds with a dive, comes up clutching a shoot in his teeth. Bobbing for eelgrass.

Back on the barge, Orth voices the obvious. "I just love snorkeling," he says. "To me this is the most special time of year."

"With the water at this level," he adds, "it’s like hovering over a prairie — you feel like a fish."

During our return to dock, Orth’s enthusiasm echoes throughout various conversations. Everyone on board, I realize, is going home with an exciting fish story to tell. Or in my case, a crab story.

How You Can Help

Become a part of the largest seagrass restoration project in the world.

Learn more about Virginia's marine habitat restoration projects.

About the Author

Daniel White is a senior conservation writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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