Eelgrass once thrived in Virginia's coastal bays -- lush meadows of
slender blades undulating just below the surface.
The species of seagrass provided critical habitat to scallops, blue crabs, shrimp and other marine creatures. It trapped sediment and improved water quality.
But by the 1930s, eelgrass was in trouble, devastated by a wasting disease that was slowly wiping it out. Then a powerful hurricane estimated at Category 1 strength slammed into Hampton Roads in 1933 and finished the job.
Bay ecosystems were irrevocably altered. The commercial bay scallop fishery collapsed.
"In 1987, there wasn't one blade of grass on this entire bay," said Robert "J.J." Orth as he helmed a motorboat skimming along South Bay behind Wreck Island last week off the Eastern Shore. Orth is a marine scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, or VIMS, in Gloucester Point.
That was then.
Now South Bay is a rare success story in seagrass restoration, with more than 4,200 acres returned to eelgrass meadow. Every year, the meadow expands, aided by Mother Nature and a navy of volunteers.
Today, VIMS' seagrass restoration project is the largest and most successful in the world, by acreage. It draws scientists and technicians from other countries to study the process and determine how it might be adapted to their own bays, rendered barren by pollutants and sediment.
Every spring, it's backbreaking labor conducted under a ticking clock to harvest millions of seed, store them in large flowing seawater tanks in nearby Oyster to ripen over the summer, then, come fall, sow them by hand.
Eduordo Infantes, a Majorca-born marine scientist with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, was onsite Wednesday to observe the harvesting process and determine if it could be adapted to the rolling seabeds of Sweden's coastal bays. He said 80 percent of the country's seagrass beds have been lost.
"So it's a very big loss," Infantes said. "Now there's interest to try to recover the habitat. They're realizing how important they are."
He donned a wetsuit, grabbed an underwater camera and sank into the chest-deep water to see the eelgrass firsthand.
"It's like a forest underwater," Infantes marveled.
How it's done
No one was sure it was feasible to restore native eelgrass until the South Bay itself showed it could be done.
In 1996, small patches of eelgrass were discovered naturally recolonizing its former habitat. According to VIMS marine scientist Scott Marion, it may have started with shoots washing into the bay, perhaps from around Chincoteague Island, and implanting on the bare seabed.
The next year, Orth led a team of volunteers to manually plant seeds and shoots in a 4-square-meter test plot to boost the recovery.
Since then, more teams have broadcast tens of millions of seed across hundreds of acres in four coastal bays. Natural reseeding has expanded the acreage many times over.
Six years ago, VIMS began partnering with The Nature Conservancy to collect seed using recreational divers and snorkelers.
Other partners include the University of Virginia, which stores seed at its research facility in Oyster, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.
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