Over the last six years, Marion has been developing a specialized "harvester" to do the job faster and a little easier.
Now in its third iteration, the harvester consists of a large net at the end of a rope and pulley system that's fixed to a large wooden frame and attached to the bow of a boat.
Under the bow, a set of blades mows the eelgrass as the net scoops them up.
Marion, along with VIMS graduate student Erika Schmitt and marine scientist Sarah Sumoski, haul the catch aboard in a kind of tug of war with the net, heavy and dripping with wet eelgrass. Infantes lent a hand, too.
They dump the haul onto a platform, load up a trash can by the fistful, then upend each trash can load into a netted bag.
The eelgrass is so slick, green and shiny it looks like it belongs in an Easter basket.
Each haul typically nets some unsuspecting creature or other that gets tossed back into the bay -- a striped burrfish, a sponge crab, a slim, slippery pipefish that could easily be mistaken for a blade of eelgrass.
It's a 15-minute process that repeats countless times throughout the day. By the end of it, Marion estimates they've filled more than 100 bags.
They have about a week to harvest the seeds -- the size of rice grains and stored in the reproductive blades of eelgrass -- before they begin to flower.
If the harvest is a good as last year, Marion said, they'll collect 12 million seeds.
Only one word
The South Bay and three other coastal bays used in the project are perfect sites for eelgrass restoration and research, VIMS says: They're part of the Virginia Coast Reserve, their waters are relatively pristine and cool in summer, and their coastline is largely undeveloped.
The reserve is managed by The Nature Conservancy as a Long Term Ecological Research site administered by the University of Virginia.
According to Orth, this gives marine scientists a unique, low-impact, natural lab to study the ecological benefits of restoring eelgrass as a dominant species.
The Chesapeake Bay is less hospitable for restoration work because its waters are warmer and less clear.
According to VIMS, studies are showing eelgrass meadows have boosted key "ecosystem services" that result in the removal of harmful nutrients and the trapping of suspended sediments. This leads to enhanced water quality, which in turn stimulates more eelgrass growth.
This intrigues Leo Mosgaard Nielsen of Denmark and Per Nystrom of Sweden, who arrived last week to study the harvesting and seeding process.
Nielsen is manager of MultiDyk and Nystrom is director of NyFam, businesses which specialize in environmental restoration.
According to Nielsen, 90 percent of the eelgrass disappeared from his country's coast in the '70s, 80s and '90s as water quality deteriorated from fertilizer and sewage runoff.
After much effort, the water has been cleaned up, he said, "but the eelgrass still doesn't come -- it spreads so slowly."
A five-year project was launched to study eelgrass restoration, he said, with the first three devoted to researching and developing the best techniques.
The two explored the shallow waters of the bay from a Nature Conservancy barge as snorkelers methodically harvested and bagged eelgrass shoots by hand -- a laborious method used for the past 16 years.
At low tide, on the boat trip back to the landing in Oyster, Nielsen and Nystrom lay flat and face-down across the bow -- the better to watch acres and acres of eelgrass undulating a few feet below, just beneath the surface.
"There's only one word for it," Nystrom said. "Success."
(c)2013 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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