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Vast meadows of eelgrass once covered the muddy bottoms of Virginia’s coastal lagoons. Fishermen plucked bay scallops by the thousands from these underwater prairies, and companies chopped down the long ribbonlike stalks to make home insulation and men’s hats. Then, in the early 1930s, a slime mold disease, followed by a hurricane, killed off nearly every last blade.
Now, almost 90 years later, scientists say they have successfully restored more than 3,600 hectares of eelgrass in Virginia’s lagoons. “Very few people can say they’ve seen an eelgrass area come back the way we’ve seen here,” says the project’s leader, Robert “JJ” Orth, a marine ecologist with William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “There’s nothing else like this in the world.”
Thirty years after the slime mold attack, eelgrass did return to many areas along the Eastern Seaboard—but Virginia’s lagoons remained barren of the plant. For decades, scientists thought poor water quality was to blame. But, in 1997, a local resident told Orth about a remnant eelgrass patch in Virginia’s South Bay. Surprised and thrilled at the discovery, Orth and his team soon realized the problem wasn’t related to water quality but to seed dispersal.
Normally, eelgrass’s flowering shoots break off and are carried by the current into new areas. But the shoots were rarely making it into the lagoons. “Because the bays are so isolated, with very narrow openings to the ocean, they simply couldn’t get there,” says Jonathan Lefcheck, a marine ecologist at Maryland’s Smithsonian Environmental Research Center who joined the project in 2015.
So in 2001, the scientists began harvesting shoots from the South Bay patch—first by hand, and then by using a lawn mower–like blade they attached to the front of a boat. Once they separated the seeds from the plants, they tossed handfuls into South Bay and other nearby lagoons. In time, the eelgrass beds became self-sustaining. “We just kind of gave nature a push,” says Orth.
A recent study showcases the project’s enormous effect. After eelgrass meadows sprouted, the water became clearer. Wildlife returned, including the blue crabs, silver perch, and bay scallops that use eelgrass beds as nurseries. Conservationists are hopeful the brant goose, which once wintered in the lagoons and feasted on the eelgrass stems, will also come back.
Perhaps most exciting is that, after just two decades, carbon and nitrogen sequestration rates in the restored eelgrass beds are comparable to those in undisturbed ecosystems. “Seagrasses will store as much carbon per unit area as temperate forests,” says Lefcheck. “So in terms of the global carbon cycle, they’re amazingly important.”
Orth hopes the project can be a road map for other seagrass restoration efforts, such as the one currently underway in Perth, Australia.
Susan Bell, a marine ecologist at the University of South Florida who was not involved in the project, says dispersing seeds might not work in some places, like Florida, where seagrasses reproduce mainly through underground runners. Still, she finds Orth’s decades-long effort impressive.
“I used to call him Johnny Appleseed,” Bell says. “You know: throw out some seeds and see what will grow.” Quite a bit, it turns out.