Restoring Eelgrass

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.

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 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.

Dive in and go behind the scenes of the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.

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 seed collection.  Photo © Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy

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 provides a brief orientation before volunteers hit the water.  Photo © Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy

How do volunteers collect up to 10 million eelgrass seeds during a roughly 10-day window? One handful at a time.  A volunteer examines one of the seed-bearing reproductive shoots. Photo © Mark Godfrey (l-both); © Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy (r)


A comb jelly swims through a seagrass meadow.  The "combs" are the groups of cilia it uses for swimming.  Video by Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy

Volunteer snorkelers collect seagrass shoots in a shallow coastal bay.  Photo © Daniel White / The Nature Conservancy

Volunteers hoist bags of eelgrass shoots.  Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Returning Scallops to Virginia's Waters

Bo Lusk holds open a bag containing millions of bay scallop larvae.  Britt Gonzalez releases the larvae into the seagrass meadow. Photos © Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy

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.  On Friday, May 26, 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. 

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.  Photo © Daniel White / The Nature Conservancy


 

Oh, snap! The “snapping” is actually the repeated muscle contractions scallops make for the jet propulsion they use for swimming. This bay scallop was released back into the water following its photo op. Video by Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy

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.  Photo © Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy

Storing and Curing

Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from VIMS stands next to a holding tank at the Conservancy's facility in Oyster, VA (right).  After the day’s haul, the eelgrass shoots are measured into holding tanks to cure.  The seeds will be extracted and stored in sea water until fall, when they’ll be sown back into the seaside bays.  Photos © Daniel White / The Nature Conservancy (l-both); © Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy (r)

Bo Lusk relaxes in a seagrass meadow.  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.  It's all part of the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world! Photo © Alex Novak / The Nature Conservancy


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