January 27, 2011 — Virginia Sea Grant is awarding $535,899 to 12 coastal research projects in the commonwealth, including a seagrass restoration project run by University of Virginia environmental scientists.
U.Va. researchers Karen McGlathery, director of U.Va.'s Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Program; Patricia Wiberg, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences; and Arthur Schwarzschild, Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center site manager, are receiving $30,000 to fund a graduate student fellowship to refine methods for predicting seagrass growth in three bays behind Virginia's Eastern Shore barrier islands.
The researchers are conducting a long-term project with other institutions, particularly the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to restore eelgrass to Hog Island, Gargathy and Magothy bays.
Eelgrass is a submerged marine grass common to temperate waters worldwide. It once flourished as vast meadows in Virginia's seaside bays, but began dying off in the late 1920s and early 1930s due to a pathogen. In 1933, a hurricane completely wiped out the extensive grass beds. In the years since, the bay bottoms have been muddy and barren, ending a once thriving scalloping and fishing industry. Without the grasses, mud from the sea bottom is continually stirred up by wind and current and storms, reducing water clarity and inhibiting the growth of grasses and the marine life they support.
Researchers are working to restore the grasses by planting seeds and studying the conditions that optimize growth. So far, they are having measurable success, with thousands of acres of grass taking root and spreading out into lush underwater meadows. These grasses are important because they stabilize sea bottom sediment, improve water clarity, and serve as habitat for an assortment of creatures, including scallops, crabs, shrimp, mollusks and fish.
"Although we generally know the minimum light requirements for seagrass to grow, we don't know how this may vary from place to place depending on the water quality and sediment conditions. Knowing this will help us refine our tools for selecting the best places to plant grass and monitor its progress," McGlathery said.
The grant will be used to fund a graduate student who will monitor field conditions and build mathematical models of light availability in the three Eastern Shore seaside bays.
More than 40 proposals were submitted from several institutions for projects to further scientific knowledge of Virginia's coastal and marine environments. The 12 projects selected for funding came from a variety of Virginia's institutions of higher learning, including U.Va., the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University. Other collaborators include the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Southern Illinois University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
U.Va.'s Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center is the home base for a National Science Foundation-supported Long-Term Ecological Research project, conducted by U.Va. environmental scientists. The state-of-the-art facility is located on 42 acres in the town of Oyster, about 15 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It includes more than 9,400 square feet of dry and wet lab space, a 5,800-square foot residence building that can accommodate 30 people, and a dock for its small fleet of shallow water research vessels. The center supports a variety of research activities in the coastal bays, salt marshes and barrier islands of Virginia's Eastern Shore.
— By Fariss Samarrai