Seagrass restoration effort with volunteers

VIMS seagrass program embarks on major restoration effort with volunteers

The seagrass program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy to use volunteers, especially recreational divers and snorkelers, to help collect eelgrass seeds this spring in the seaside bays of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

VIMS scientists have been restoring eelgrass to these bays since 1997. Their efforts have resulted in the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world, with 190 acres restored to Virginia’s southern coastal bays during the last decade.  These restored sites have now spread naturally to more than 1,400 acres.

The project is a collaborative effort between VIMS’ Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) program, led by VIMS Professor JJ Orth, and The Nature Conservancy. The project operates under the banner of the Seaside Heritage Program, part of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.

The upcoming seed-collection effort, tentatively scheduled to take place between May 31 and June 16, is the largest to date, with a goal of harvesting up to 20 million seeds. Volunteers will collect the seeds from eelgrass plants in South Bay, offshore of Oyster, Virginia, in water about waist deep.

The seeds will be transported to The Nature Conservancy’s new seagrass facility on Oyster harbor.  Seeds will be held in large tanks with flowing seawater until their planting in the coastal bays in the fall.

Orth notes that the success of past plantings in Virginia’s southern coastal bays provides a rare bright spot in regional efforts to restore eelgrass. “This area is unique,” says Orth, “in that it is the only place in this region where eelgrass is increasing.”

Eelgrass is declining in the seaside bays of Maryland and Delaware, as well as throughout Chesapeake Bay. Orth attributes these declines to a combination of declining water quality and increasing water temperatures.

Virginia’s eelgrass is at the southern edge of its thermal range, making it susceptible to water temperatures even slightly higher than normal. Bay grasses in general are also suffering from increased turbidity, which blocks the sunlight they need in order to thrive. Turbidity in the Bay is on the rise due to sediment runoff from farmland and storm sewers, and nutrient-fueled blooms of algae.

Orth says the success of eelgrass in Virginia’s coastal bays reflects their cooler and clearer waters. Historically, the bays were covered with vast eelgrass beds until the 1930s, when a wasting disease and a powerful hurricane all but wiped them out. A lack of natural seeding then kept the bays largely eelgrass free into the 1990s.

“We got a report of a little patch of eelgrass in South Bay in 1996,” says Orth. “That’s when the light went on that conditions there might be ripe for recovery, as long as there was a source of seeds.” Orth and colleagues began experimental restoration efforts the following year with both seeds and transplanted shoots, and have spent the last decade perfecting the techniques needed to successfully harvest, keep, and plant eelgrass seeds.

Seed collection during the upcoming trials will be timed around the daily low tides. Collection trips will last 4-5 hours and boat transportation will be provided to the site from the public boat ramp in Oyster. A training workshop for interested volunteers will be held Tuesday, May 13, 2008, at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Virginia’s Anheuser-Busch Center for Coastal Research in Oyster. Volunteers will learn how to identify and collect the reproductive shoots from the eelgrass plants.

Volunteers must pre-register in order to participate. Registration forms will be available at the training workshop or by contacting Jennifer Rich, volunteer coordinator, at 434-951-0572 or, or Bev Watson, Virginia Coast Reserve, at 757-442-3049 or

Additional financial support for the upcoming project comes from Virginia’s Recreational Fishing License Fund, the Army Corps of Engineers, and The Nature Conservancy.  Other partners include the University of Virginia. The Nature Conservancy’s seagrass facility on Oyster harbor was built with funds from a grant from the Norfolk Foundation.