Billowing clouds were sitting up against a backdrop of cerulean blue sky as I pulled up by Marine Science Center in Natant. I was so excited to meet Northeastern University’s marine ecologist Randall Hughes and check out their seagrass greenhouse. I had been talking to everyone who came to my studio about this greenhouse for weeks.
I walked into the Marine Science Center’s office and found welcoming students to greet me and take me to Randall. We met and Randall quickly took me to their outdoor lab..the greenhouse for seagrass!!!! How cool!!!
As we approached the greenhouse I could see a bunch of grass..but it did not look like seagrass..It looked like some kind of dune grass. The only way I remembered was it looked a lot more pointy at the top than seagrass and was more round than the flatter seagrass blades
NA: This isn’t seagrass right? It looks kinda like that cord grass? What is it?
RH: Yes it’s salt-marsh cord grass, Spartina we are also studying them here. Cordgrass is similar to seagrass – it creates the habitat that we call a salt marsh. Cordgrass can look very different, depending where you are in the marsh. Near the water’s edge, it can be over 3ft tall, but closer to land it may only be 1ft. We are doing field and greenhouse experiments to understand whether that difference in height is only due to differences in the environment, or whether there is also a genetic component.
We walked pass the Spartina and got to the mini seagrass containers. I was so excited to see the rows of mini seagrasses. It was true, they really grew seagrass in greenhouses!!!
NA: How old are these seagrasses?
RH: These seedlings are about 1 year old
NA: Thats tiny, hmm…they are hardly 4 inches tall.
Wow I thought to my self, we are getting rid of 20 football fields a day and it takes so long for the seagrass to get established.
NA: What exactly are you studying here?
RH: We are starting an experiment to test how Wasting Disease affects these seedlings.
NA: I heard of that, in the 30’s a bunch of seagrass and mollusks were wiped out because of this Wastings Disease, and fishermen lost income in MA.
RA: Yes, thats right. We are studying different stressors and what happens when seagrass has excessive amounts of it. Naturally seagrass has wasting disease, but the questions is at what point does it become a problem.
We moved to the next row, I could see some shiny buckets and elegant green blades floating around. These looked more like the seagrass I had seen in the North Shore.
NA: How old are these ones?
RH: About 3-4 years old.
NA: What are those snails doing there?
RH: We add them to the tanks to help clean the algae off the seagrass blades.
How cool I thought it was just like the“SeaHares” I had researched for the title of one of my paintings.
NA: So how do these seagrasses grow here? Do you plant them one by one, what happens?
RH: These ones in the bucket have grown through Asexual or Vegetative Growth, meaning that they produce genetically identical new shoots through their underground rhizome system. We collected them as adult shoots in the field. With the other ones, we planted them from seed.
NA: Amazing , so seagrass does both, how versatile!
RH: Yes, it does. The seagrass produces flowers just like on land that pollinate one another and produce seeds that grow into new seagrass individuals. They also expand asexually underground to produce clones of themselves.
We moved through the isle and I stopped to look at the brownish bubbly stuff in the container, there were no seagrass in this one.
NA: Yuck, what’s all this gunky stuff? Is this that algae bloom thing that everyone is talking about with seagrass depletion?
RH: Yes, our fertilizers and run offs create too much nutrients that the algae soak up before the seagrass..In normal conditions the algae is a natural part of the ecosystem and helps produce oxygen and works well with the habitat. But whats happening in many places today is nutrient overload- i.e.. fertilizers just make them grow and get dense and block light for whats underneath. The algae also like our greenhouse conditions, so we have to add snails to eat the algae or remove it by hand.
NA: What can be done to lessen this or prevent blooms from happening in the first place?
RH: Controlling run-off and sewer inputs to the coast can help to reduce nutrients and algae in the water.
NA: What other factors affect seagrass beds?
RH: Changing water quality that results from nutrient overload, leads to too much algae and not enough light. Boating is another problem. Not anchoring in shallow waters. Boats in MA can haphazardly kill seagrass just by where they anchor their boats. One solution for that problem is to switch to conservation moorings. It takes 100 years for seagrass beds to establish themselves.
NA: Where do you collect your seeds from?
RH: We have natural beds in Nahant, Gloucester, and Beverly. We collect a variety of seeds to plant.
NA: Do you know if one area of seeds are better at getting established than another?
RH: We are working on figuring that out right now.
NA: What is better for seagrass health Asexual reproduction or pollination?
RH: They are both important. Asexual reproduction is important for the expansion of existing beds. Sexual reproduction through pollination is important for generating genetic diversity and for colonizing new habitats.
NA: So more mutt seagrass is good?
RH: That’s right diversity of seagrass makes them stronger.
NA: How did you get involved with seagrass? Were you scuba diving and liked it and thought I’d like to be a marine ecologist?
RH: No, it was the other way around. I was a lot more curious about the science first rather than the diving. The ecosystems are all connected, if you don’t have the plants you don’t have the sea-life and habitat around it to support life.
NA: So seagrass is a kind of architecture, similar to our apartments or homes?
RH: Right, its considered to be a foundation species.
NA: Wow, that is amazing. I have been painting abstractions relating to seagrass architecture without even knowing about this fascinating concept “Foundation Species”.
NA: You mentioned scuba diving, how far do you dive?
RH: Up to 20 feet, we check on the seagrass beds and dive for an hour
NA: What do you check exactly?
RH: It varies. Sometimes we are counting and measuring the numbers of seagrass plants. Other times we will collect seagrass leaves to look at disease or genetic variation. We also study the invertebrates that live in the seagrass beds, so we count and collect them to do experiments.
NA: That’s wonderful! Monitoring our oceans health and seagrass beds are really important today, especially with all the pollution we are dumping into our oceans and shifts in climate change. It is kinda crucial if we want to keep a healthy planet. How does the current EPA and administration affect or not affect the work you are doing here?
RH: The current administration wants to reduce funding for all types of science, including valuable programs like Sea Grant, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which benefits coastal ecosystems and the many people that depend on them. They are also rolling back environmental regulations that protect our air and water. Because seagrass is like a ‘canary in a coal mine’, it will likely be negatively affected by these changes.
NA: It is mind boggling when you think of all the advancements we have made in science which is intertwined with our health, our industry, and commerce. This topic is so huge that I will need to write a whole blog for it. For now what are the take home messages everyone should know about seagrass?
RH: First, it’s important for everyone to know that seagrass exists – it is much less familiar to most people than corals, but it is just as important to the ocean. Seagrasses provide essential habitat for lots of animals, many of which we like to eat. They also help reduce erosion of our coastlines. And by growing rapidly and storing lots of tissue below ground, they can help remove carbon dioxide from the ocean. Finally, they are pretty amazing plants – not many species of plants can live underwater their entire lives!
NA: Thank you so much for sharing your time with me on this beautiful afternoon!