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Reserve Science Supports Chesapeake Bay Seagrass Recovery

Aug 15, 2018 | Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Healthy Habitats

Our Virginia reserve’s monitoring program keeps tabs on local water quality and wetlands to help understand and manage Chesapeake Bay’s habitats. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Reserve.

Chesapeake Bay’s “secret garden” is experiencing a bumper crop of seagrass, according to a recent study conducted by a team including Dr. Ken Moore, research coordinator at our Virginia Reserve. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study determined that long-term efforts to reduce polluted runoff from farms and water treatment facilities have led to a 316% increase in the Bay’s submerged aquatic vegetation—the largest such resurgence ever recorded.

Submerged vegetation, like seagrasses, provide shelter and food for fish and shellfish that support the region’s fishing and tourism economies. Like plants on land, seagreasses need light to grow. When nutrients and sediment carried by runoff make coastal waters cloudier, it puts seagrass habitats at risk. The study found that three decades of cleanup not only contributed to increases in submerged aquatic vegetation, it also enhanced biodiversity, a critical factor to sustaining the health of these habitats.

“We’ve seen remarkable water clarity improvement in many areas,” says Moore, who is also a professor of marine science at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Marine Science. “Getting to this outcome and understanding how it happened is the culmination of many years of partnership, policy, funding, science, restoration, and community action coming together.”

For more than 20 years, Moore and his colleagues at the Virginia Reserve have focused their efforts on understanding seagrass vulnerability to nutrients and a warming climate. Just as a doctor will check your vital signs during a physical, they look for indicators of the health of submerged vegetation. The reserve’s monitoring program keeps tabs on local water quality, nutrient and sediment levels, and the condition of submerged vegetation during the growing season. Together with partners around the Bay, they use this data to inform science that explores the many questions surrounding the health of these important habitats.

“Our job is to define what these habitats need to grow and to give management tools and knowledge so they are ready to take whatever actions that might be needed,” observes Moore. “It has been reassuring to see that while these systems decline quickly, they also can recover. However, as water temperatures increase, these plants will be subject to additional stress. They will require even clearer waters with more light and lower nutrient enrichment to survive and thrive. We want to be prepared to meet those needs.”

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