The Worlds Most Successful Seagrass Restoration Site: Virginia Coast Reserve Oyster Village, VA

Posted on December 27, 2019
Estuary near Oyster Village

Virginia Coast Reserve, a Long-Term Ecological Research site (VCR-LTER). South Bay is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by Wreck Island to the east and bordered to the west by Man and Boy Channel.

This summer, I thought I had won the lottery when I got an invitation to go check out the seagrass in Virgina at Synoptic 2019.  Every year 30 scientists/students are invited to participate in collecting data at the Eastern Shores of Virginia. Karen McGlathery, an Environmental Scientist at University of Virginia was gracious enough to allow me to participate at Synoptic 2019 in collecting seagrass data in the Long- Term Ecological Research Site(ICR_LTER). The location of the research site is in the Eastern Shore of Virginia with sites on Hog Island, Parramore Island and mainland marshes near Nassawadox,VA.

Synoptic2019 Team

A big thank you to Karen McGlathery, Cora Ann Johnson, and Kyler Kerns for organizing this Synoptic2019 event and also the scientists-students that participated from University of Virginia. The generosity and enthusiasm the team showed in being ocean protectors as well as welcoming me into their project was outstanding. I was learning so many new things from the scientists every minute, on and off boats, just inspiring!

The History

Karen McGlathery explained how this site is the worlds largest restoration site. Before the 1920’s there was a thriving scallop and fish industry and eelgrass beds in Virginia’s seaside bays. However due to pathogens(wasting disease) in the 1930’s and the hurricane in1933, the beds died off. The loss of seagrass meant the life it supports including fish and scallops disappeared. A thriving scalloping industry had ended.

Robert Orth, in 2001 at Virginia Institute of Marine Science began seeding the barren areas. University of Virginia scientists including McGlathery joined the effort. They conduct research on the conditions that allow seagrass to grow. They evaluate the success of the habitat, check water quality and marine life, and monitor seagrass growth. After 10 years of seeding healthy seagrass meadows expanded out to 17 square kilometers . The flourishing eelgrass creates beneficial conditions for the overall health of the bay. The eelgrass is increasing water clarity, stabilizing the sea floor, capturing “Sequestering” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and nitrogen from the water. Which in turn reduces harmful algae blooms explained McGlathery. 

The new meadows are also providing new habitat for a variety of marine species, including fish, crabs, mollusks and scallops.

The Importance of Long Term Study

Since its inception, the Long Term Study( VCR-LTER), provides documentation of the restoration and helps scientist model conservation efforts. Annually we are loosing 7% seagrass globally. Long- term studies like this are important in helping us firstly understand all the amazing complexities of ecosystems. They help scientists define feasible sites, and us plan for future environmental changes. 

Excerpts below are from https://news.virginia.edu/content/seagrass-restoration-virginias-coastal-bays-proving-successful-studies-show

“This restoration has given us a great opportunity to track the importance of seagrass as a foundation species on which other species depend,” McGlathery said, “and we’ve been able to compare the seagrass beds we’ve seeded with areas of the bay where there is no grass.”

Without the grasses, she said, sediment from the sea bottom is continually stirred up by wind and current and storms, reducing water clarity and limiting the growth of any existing small patches of seagrass and the marine life they support. When seagrass becomes established, it initiates a positive feedback on its own growth conditions and meadows continue to spread.

“We’re following the trajectory of growth over time – how long it takes the seagrass meadows to provide habitat and what we call ‘ecosystem services,’ such as improving water quality and storing carbon. We’ve seen an exponential increase in the size of the meadows and a marked improvement in the benefits they provide to the ecosystem of the coastal bays.”

The researchers also are developing computer models based on field data to determine possible vulnerabilities the grass meadows might face as sea levels rise and waters warm, or if development and commercial farming increases on the Eastern Shore, as anticipated.

“We’ve looked at this from a number of different angles – everything from the genetics of the restored populations to the implications for vulnerability in possible future climate change scenarios,” McGlathery said.

She noted that VIMS researchers are using eelgrass seeds from different regions to create a genetic mix that allows for hardier and more resilient grasses in the face of environmental stresses, such as climate change.

“We’re changing the environment of these bays back to what it was when it was a very healthy thriving system 80 years ago, so it’s an exciting change,” McGlathery said.

“We’re also now trying to understand how much more growth could occur. Our projections show the potential for vast stretches of bay bottoms to eventually become carpeted with seagrass.”

The Experience

The experience of being out in nature and gathering data from a scientific perspective has had a profound influence on the way I see things. Firstly, the work is not at all as romantic as I had first imagined. It was very process oriented and physically straining. You get up at 5 am and ready to go by 6am. Jumping on and off boats, diving down and trying to keep down while collecting sediment cores(tubes of earth samples) requires a lot of dexterity and balance. Dodging Stingrays or big moon Jelly fish that swam near by was challenging. Or trying not to step on a crab with its claws out, meant that you had to be alert at all times. The scientists were tenacious about making sure everything was labeled and documented correctly. What was amazing was that not once did I hear my team complain about the heat or the weight belts they had to wear to stay low in the water. Instead there was an underlying feeling of doing something bigger than us, the community, in helping the oceans. For me it was unbelievably uplifting work being side by side with these young scientists that know the value of finding a live scallop in the bay, or seeing a Burr fish( looks like a box fish) swim graciously by us. It was like being in a Toy shop with a bunch of excited kids, who didn’t want toys, they just wanted to help identify and document  the living  fauna that had emerged in the newly formed seagrass beds. Joy!

The Field Work

Departing Oyster Village

The synoptic group of 30 volunteers headed out in boats at 5-6am. Each group was quipped with site maps,  GPS , gear and systems for data retrieval and storage.

My team heading out to Outlet Bay. We had our cube net for collecting live fauna and our plastic quadrants ready for shoot density counts. The inflatable boat was ready with waterproof paperwork and sample collection tubes. 

Mapping out the Plan with a Transect

Once we got to each location of study the transect was put in place. Our transect or path of study was created using a long waterproof measuring tape. We could plot, record data along this line for each sample section. We had six sites a day with 5 sections to sample. 

Sediment samples were collected along five subtidal transects to quantify Carbon

distribution patterns in the meadow. Also above ground and below ground biomas samples were retrieved. Water quality data, shoot density, and fauna data were collected to monitor the health of the meadow. 

Small Cores

Small cores were collected using the 60cc tubes with a plunger. I had lots of goes at this, it was very difficult to balance underwater with wave action. I had to dive down and collect sediment sample by inserting the plunger in the earth and pulling up the plunger to collect the sediment. I had to dive down at least 3 times. Other team mates were more skilled at this and could whip up the correct amount in one go! We collected five of these samples at each site along the transect.

Large Biomas Cores:

The large “Core” sampling, was the hardest of all. Staying underwater to dig a huge core (big plastic tub) to get more sediment samples below ground required a lot of twisting and turning to get the tube in. Then the buoyant wetsuits were not allowing scientists to stay down so one person would leverage their weight on the other to help collect the data. I was also in charge of gently swishing the bag around until all the sand dissolved and we were left with the below ground biomas .

Photo Credit: Sarah Cox

FAUNA SAMPLING:

A cube like net structure was designed to catch living organism in the water column.

 Max was very excited with his “Beard Coral” their group caught with their fauna net.

These samples we collected in the photo, don’t look like much. However they are labor intensive and time consuming research that adds to the story of successful seagrass restoration. Monitoring the health of the eelgrass beds and how they are flourishing gives other scientists around the world insights to what they can achieve given the right variables. By studying the sediment organic matter of biomas below ground, these scientists can pinpoint the percentage of carbon and nitrogen stored in the sediment. This is huge in thinking about how these amazing seagrass beds are in holding down and storing Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Or how seagrass can help mitigate climate change as we look to a future of warmer and more acidic oceans. The work that that Karen McGlathery, Cora Johnson, and all the scientists-students are doing here are vital to helping others around the globe figure out ways to stop or decrease seagrass loss. They are a working model for success.

This Long-term study provides a road map for re-establishing and maintaining healthy meadows. It is also a wonderful example of how it takes many great minds to come up with new methodologies of dealing with growing the meadows. The Nature Conservancy for example overseas the whole seed collection and maintenance part before they get re-planted in October. So from May- October the seeds are looked after in huge tubs where they are oxidized and stirred – they miss the heat wave and are carefully scattered in October after the heat wave(Another trip maybe in May for seed collection). 

For now I’ll just enjoy the memory of seeing live scallops and the sheer joy of being out with my team members!

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