Around the world, sea grasses were once common as breeding grounds for fish and crabs. Today they are disappearing, because of pollution, climate change, and other factors.
But here, east of the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, a vast and lush meadow of eelgrass sways in clear water. The soft green ribbons with golden seeds caress my face and feet. I reach into the soft hair and find something extraordinary: a bay scallop.
Bay scallops were extinct from Virginia’s Atlantic coastline for nearly 80 years. But now they and other forms of aquatic life are creeping back, because what had been a barren bottom has been replanted with eelgrass.
More than 4,300 acres of eelgrass have spread among the barrier islands and lagoons south of Chincoteague. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has described it as the largest seagrass restoration project in the world.
The Johnny Appleseed of eelgrass is Dr. Robert Orth, Professor of Marine Science at VIMS. He and a team of volunteers are out in motorboats on South Bay, wearing wetsuits and snorkels, collecting seeds in bags so they can spread them.
“The amount of seagrasses in the world are declining at rates exceeding the loss rates for tropical forsests and coral reefs,” Dr. Orth said. “And this is one of the rare efforts to actually restore grasses where we’re being successful.”
Over the last 14 years, Dr. Orth and several partners -– including federal and state agencies and The Nature Conservancy -- have planted 41 million eelgrass seeds over 350 acres, and the plants have taken off and have started to spread on their own.
Seagrasses are critical to the aquatic environment because they are a nursery for a wide range of species, including crabs, fish, and shellfish. The grasses dampen wave action and reduce erosion along shores. They trap sediments and improve water quality.
Historically, prairies of eelgrass thrived up and down the East Coast. But the eelgrass along Virginia’s coast was wiped out in the 1930s by a wasting disease, with the damage compounded by a powerful hurricane. This killed both the scallops and the scallop harvesting industry.
On the other side of the peninsula, in the Chesapeake Bay, much of the aquatic vegetation was smothered with silt during a storm in the early 1970s. Efforts to replant eelgrass in the Chesapeake have often failed, in part because water pollution in the Bay is worse than in the Atlantic, Dr. Orth said. The murkiness, caused by both algal blooms and sediment, blocks light that eelgrass needs to grow.
In December 2010, EPA created new pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay that require a 25 percent in reduction in major pollutants by 2025. But agricultural and development industry groups have sued in an effort to overturn these limits.
The resurgence of eelgrass in Virginia’s Coastal Bays is a vivid illustration of why protecting and enforcing these pollution limits is vitally important. Because with clean water and a few seeds, underwater meadows full of life can return.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo of eelgrass meadow at top from Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Pictures of VIMS scientist Dr. Robert Orth and Bo Lusk of The Nature Conservancy by Tom Pelton)