A team led by researchers at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science will use a $2.25 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to expand their already successful efforts to restore seagrass and scallops to the seaside bays of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

During the four-year project, led by Christopher Patrick and Richard Snyder of VIMS, scientists from the institute and its Eastern Shore Lab will join with staff and volunteers from The Nature Conservancy to plant at least 60 acres of eelgrass and release more than 6 million bay scallops into the shallow waters of Burtons Bay, a large coastal embayment about midway up Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Project funding comes from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act and will be administered by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management program.

A map shows the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Google Maps image

The project — conducted with support of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Coastal Zone Management Program and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission — will build on VIMS’ success in leading a decades-long, multi-institutional effort to restore the South Bay region of the Eastern Shore. Largely barren when VIMS’ Robert Orth began seagrass restoration efforts in 1999, the region is now home to nearly 10,000 acres of lush eelgrass meadow. This ranks as the most successful seagrass restoration project in the world and has provided VIMS with the impetus in 2009 to begin restoring a viable bay scallop population to these underwater grass beds. Like many other species, bay scallops depend on seagrass habitat.

Both eelgrass and bay scallops had been functionally extinct from the area since 1933, due to the combined impacts of a seagrass wasting disease and a devastating hurricane. Preservation of the area within the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve — the longest coastal wilderness on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard — provides the water-quality conditions and protection from development that have contributed to the restoration’s success.

Patrick, head of the Seagrass Monitoring and Restoration Program at VIMS, stresses that the Burtons Bay project will benefit far more than just eelgrass.

“Our work represents a whole ecosystem restoration,” he says. “Eelgrass is a key foundation species that not only improves water clarity, increases oxygen concentrations and reduces erosion, but also creates essential habitat for bay scallops, waterfowl and other marine organisms.”

A scallop can be seen underwater
Eelgrass beds help protect bay scallops from predators and strong currents. (VIMS photo)

Snyder, who heads VIMS’ Eastern Shore Laboratory in Wachapreague, notes that the project will have socio-economic benefits as well.

“Restoration of eelgrass meadows boosts the productivity and biodiversity of local ecosystems,” he says. “Eelgrass meadows enhance charter fishing, recreational hunting and fishing, ecotourism and commercial wild harvests of blue crabs and other species.”

These benefits extend regionally, as eelgrass provides nursery and forging habitat for many species of migratory fishes.

The knowledge gained during the ongoing South Bay restoration effort will stand VIMS and its partners in good stead as they embark on the new project in Burtons Bay.

“We now have decades of experience in collecting, storing, and planting eelgrass seeds; as well as in monitoring the abundance and distribution of the seeded beds,” says Patrick. “Our prior work shows excellent potential for expansion beyond planted areas, with a current return on investment of 20 acres for every acre planted over a 20-year period.”

If that proportion holds true in Burtons Bay, the 60 planted acres should eventually spread to more than 1,000 acres of eelgrass meadow.

A ruler sits atop a pile of scallops
VIMS researchers have released bay scallop broodstock into South Bay since 2009 for grow-out and in-situ spawning. (VIMS photo)

VIMS Eastern Shore lab has been working with bay scallops since the 1960s, when Mike Castagna pioneered the aquaculture methods needed to successfully grow the these mollusk. Mark Luckenbach began the effort to restore a wild population in 2009, and Snyder has continued that work.

“We’ve successfully raised and released bay scallops each year since 2009 from our Castagna Research Hatchery,” says Snyder, “and maintained broodstock in cages in South Bay for grow-out and in-situ spawning. These efforts have jumpstarted a bay scallop population in the restored meadows with densities increasing in recent years.”

A key part of the project will be to monitor and assess the success of the restoration and its ecosystem services. In addition to direct monitoring of eelgrass and scallops, the team will leverage and build on a multi-faceted Ecological Monitoring Program established at the Eastern Shore Lab in 2018 by Snyder and P.G. Ross. Leveraged sampling will also include longline, acoustic video monitoring, and trawling surveys of fish populations by Drs. Mary Fabrizio, Rob Latour, Troy Tuckey and Patrick of VIMS along with Hongsheng Bi of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. They will also establish a real-time water-quality monitoring station for public use.

In addition, project supporter TerraCarbon LLC will catalog and credit the accumulation of “blue carbon,” which refers to the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere through the growth, decay, and burial of eelgrass and other organic matter. The Virginia Coast Reserve recently established a new blue carbon market in an effort to help combat global warming.

Overall, says Patrick, “We expect our restoration efforts will bring both ecological and socio-economic benefits to the entire mid-Atlantic region, including enhanced fisheries, greater recreational opportunities, increased biodiversity, improved water quality, reduced erosion and sequestration of carbon and nutrients.”

Beyond these regional benefits, he adds, “The project promises significant advances in our understanding of the value of seagrass habitat to seascapes and fisheries at larger scales and in different regions globally.”

Editor’s note: Water is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.