By Ken Schultz
I’d like to think that anglers, whether on their own or through clubs they belong to, do something to give back to the resources that they so clearly enjoy. Things like helping clean up trash on a lake, recycle fishing line and soft plastic lures, habitat improvement projects. There are many ways that anglers can do something to help.
One fascinating way to help is by getting in the water and working with groups that are restoring habitat in areas that critically need such. Stream restoration projects, for example, are commonly undertaken by some anglers, particularly those belonging to local Trout Unlimited chapters. Building oyster castles and reefs is another one undertaken in coastal estuaries, where oyster recovery is necessary to help with water quality improvement as well as forming habitat that attracts forage and predator species.
This past week I got in the water on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with
folks from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in their efforts to re-introduce eelgrass to lower seaside bays. The project, formally known as the Seaside Heritage Seagrass Community Restoration Program, is acclaimed as “the world’s largest seagrass restoration project.” As TNC notes, "eelgrass is a simple seagrass that once thrived in the coastal bays of Virginia.
In 1933, an outbreak of disease and a major hurricane virtually wiped it out. The Seaside Seagrass Community Restoration Program has been conducting highly successful efforts to restore eelgrass in the nearby coastal bays since 1999.” As of 2017, some 6,200 acres have been planted with eelgrass, a critical and missing part of the ecology of seaside bays.
Just about anyone who has fished for redfish and speckled trout knows how important grasses are to these species. It’s one of the most likely places to find them. In Virginia it’s eelgrass.
Eelgrass supports an intricate web of life that fosters creatures and organisms all along the food chain. One of these is the bay scallop, which disappeared from seaside bays when the eelgrass was gone, ending a once-thriving commercial fishery. Today, efforts are also underway to re-establish this bivalve, both with caged and wild specimens.
This year, I donned a swim mask and snorkel and plunged into the waters of South Bay near Oyster, to join in the restoration effort.
Volunteers Collect Seeds
Volunteers are essential in the eelgrass restoration effort, with hundreds having taken part in this project since its inception. Their job is to swim among and over existing underwater eelgrass fields, plucking seed-bearing shoots that will eventually be spread by TNC and VIMS over new areas to help speed up the natural process of eelgrass expansion.
This was my fourth time helping to collect seeds, and it is always an interesting and enjoyable experience. Collecting took place in late May on dates determined by water temperature and the state of the seeds. It has to occur when the eelgrass is fairly full of seeds, but before they begin to drop from the shoots on their own, which happens once the water warms up.
The day of a volunteer starts at the public launching ramp in Oyster and meeting Bo Lusk, a resource steward and staffer of TNC. Lusk oversees the collection and storage of the seed-bearing shoots. Once on site in South Bay, he gets into the water, collects a sample, and explains to volunteers how to see and feel for the proper shoots.
Wearing a wetsuit, face mask, and snorkel and armed with a collecting bag, you get into the water, which is no more than waist deep and falling to knee deep while you collect (collecting is done around low tide), stick your head in the water, and start swimming. The water was quite murky at first, and I found it difficult to distinguish the seed-bearing shoots from the non-seed-bearing grass stems. But I acclimated as sediment settled with the waning tide.
Feeling the grass, and detecting the more rounded and plump shoots worked as well as sight-finding them, and I probably didn’t break any records for the amount I collected. When the water is clear, identifying the seed-bearing shoots is much easier by sight.
Fascinating Underwater World
While snorkeling and collecting I was constantly on the lookout for other creatures, who use the grass to both forage and hide from predators. Sometimes there are small crabs clinging to the lower stems of the grass, and assorted clams on the sandy bottom, but I’ve seldom seen any fish, although the commotion you make in shallow water probably sends anything that might have been in the vicinity scurrying away long before they could be observed.
Snorkeling among the seagrass gave me a whole new perspective on what things are like underwater. The movement of the tide and how it affected the grass, and how it impacted water clarity, was interesting. About an hour after low tide, when the water began to move more earnestly, clarity diminished. This has been more pronounced on some days than others, but it does impact collecting, which usually stops when visibility becomes poorer.
After collecting, the bags of collected seeds are transferred to holding tanks. The seeds are separated from the shoots and other matter and held in seawater until September. Then, over several days, the seeds are distributed in selected areas of several bays, where they’ll settle shortly to the bottom and hopefully take root. Little by little, seed by seed, the areas covered with eelgrass increase, and, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and staff members of TNC and VIMS, this process is accelerated over the time that it would have occurred naturally.
I’ve gone to some of the newly grown areas and caught speckled trout, and it’s a good feeling to know that you’ve played a small part in helping restore the habitat and providing a place for important gamefish to forage.
Thanks for checking out my blog commentary on all things fishing-related. Please follow, share, and enjoy, but make sure you get out on the water as often as possible. Good fishing!
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