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Virginia scientists bring seagrass back to Virginia’s Eastern Shore

The McGlathery Coastal Resilience Lab collaborates on world’s largest seagrass restoration project

<p>Graduate researchers Kayleigh Granville (in the water) and Ieva Juska (holding the field tape) place flags around their experiment to track seagrass growth rate.</p>

Graduate researchers Kayleigh Granville (in the water) and Ieva Juska (holding the field tape) place flags around their experiment to track seagrass growth rate.

Experts from the University, the Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science under William and Mary have dramatically transformed Virginia coastline through the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world. Since 2001, the efforts have expanded seagrass meadow area to 9,500 acres off the Virginia coast.

Seagrass provides a habitat for many fish and other aquatic creatures, notably bay scallops, and plays a role in carbon sequestration, which helps combat climate change. 

Environmental Science Prof. Karen McGlathery, who heads the University’s coastal resilience lab, said seagrass is critical to marine ecosystems in the eastern U.S.

“[Seagrass] plays a role in locking up carbon for a period of time,” McGlathery said. “There are also a lot of co-benefits from restoring seagrass, for example, increasing water quality and increasing fisheries. The whole package is important, but it is driven in large part by the role of seagrass and climate mitigation.” 

In the 1930s, seagrass wasting disease decimated the Virginia seagrass population, and in 1933, all of the remaining Virginia seagrass meadows were destroyed by a hurricane. In the 1990s, VIMS was made aware of a few small sites of eelgrass growth off the coast of Virginia — which presented a natural answer to the carbon balance in the ecosystem.  

VIMS conducted pilot studies in the 1990s to see if the seagrass could be replanted. The studies successfully showed seagrass growth potential, and in 2001, VIMS began restoration of the seagrass meadows. 

Chris Patrick, director of submerged aquatic vegetation, helps conduct annual aerial surveys of the Chesapeake Bay, mapping seagrass and submerged aquatic vegetation to indicate overall Bay health.

“Once people started seeing signs that there was a little bit of natural recolonization, we decided to try again and those plots were quite successful,” Patrick said.

Annual seeding is a key aspect of the restoration, aiding in the expansion of the seagrass in addition to natural recolonization. Since 2001, there have been annual seeding efforts led by VIMS with support from the Nature Conservancy, where 500 acres of seed have been planted annually, leading to today’s over 9,500 acres of seagrass.

“We are able to carefully quantify the acres and the spread of the grass over time because of the annual aerial surveys,” Patrick said. “It’s also helped us track how the functions of the seagrass have been changing, so it’s given us this really nice long term view of the restoration as a whole.”

Bo Lusk, coastal scientist for the Nature Conservancy and Class of 1997 alumnus, is involved with organizing volunteers for annual seed collection.

“We joined VIMS in the project by bringing a bunch of volunteers to help scale up seed collection,” Lusk said. “That is something we do to this day, every spring. We lead a bunch of volunteers to help collect flowering shoots of grass with developing seeds in them … and we bring them to our seed curing facility and work to separate the mature seeds from the plant material over the course of the summer.” 

In conjunction with aerial surveys, research by the U.Va. Coastal Resilience Lab and VIMS help the Nature Conservancy discover the locations where planting may or may not be effective.

Graduate environmental science student Kylor Kerns studies how marine heatwaves might affect the seagrass. She works to uncover methods to make carbon accounting — quantifying greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration for use by organizations to understand environmental impact — more accurate for Virginia. 

Understanding how factors like heat affect seagrass is important in understanding how to best maintain the plant. One of the biggest threats to the seagrass’ ability to sequester carbon is temperature.

Heatwaves and temperature stresses are some of the greatest threats to the carbon permanence the seagrass offers. Claiming carbon credits depends on the accuracy of carbon accounting, and understanding what may impact the seagrass is crucial to maintaining the seagrass and the carbon credits.

In 2015, the restoration was registered through Verra, an organization that develops and verifies  carbon standards. From the standards and former doctoral students’ research, legislation in Virginia was created to establish carbon credits for submerged aquatic vegetation.

“We have a fairly new legislation in Virginia that helped us establish carbon credits for submerged aquatic vegetation,” Kerns said. “This means you can make money off of creating new seagrass. 

A carbon credit is a permit to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since the seagrass is able to store carbon and remove it from the atmosphere, carbon credits can be sold, only if the data on how much carbon is being stored by the seagrass is accurate. 

McGlathery serves as Director of both the Environmental Resilience Institute and the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research Program, or LTER, leading much of the research concerning the seagrass, heat waves and carbon sequestration.

“Understanding these other things that can stress ecosystems and mitigating those is really important in promoting this long term restoration.” McGlathery said. “Both the process of the restoration that is being run by VIMS and TNC [The Nature Conservancy] and the carbon sequestration that is being run by U.Va. help other places and other parts of the world design restoration projects and figure out ways they can be funded.”

The presence of the seagrass not only helps with carbon sequestration and climate change but also provides a habitat for fish and other marine life, notably bay scallops. Bay scallops lived in the eelgrass habitat up until the 1930s when the eelgrass population was decimated. Restoring bay scallops and other marine life to the bays is another goal of the restoration. 

The presence of the seagrass also increases water clarity, reduces coastal erosion and can act as a water filter, creating recreational benefits.

The future of the restoration includes continuing long term datasets and annual seeding efforts of the seagrass meadows. Since the Eastern Shore seagrass restoration project is a model restoration, maintaining long term datasets is crucial for future seagrass restorations and understanding how they change over time. 

After over 65 years, generations of Virginians are finally able to enjoy seagrass and bay scallops on Virginia coastal bays.

“My grandmother was alive when the eelgrass disappeared in the 1930s,” Lusk said. “My father grew up without any eelgrass in the seaside bays. It’s really cool that I’ve been able to find a job back here helping to work on continuing that restoration … and I’m raising my kids here now and they have never known the seaside without eelgrass.”