By Janet Krenn
No triple-digit heat advisory keeps Alia Al-Haj from her research. On a scorching morning in July, she and her team loaded up a Carolina skiff full of light sensors and equipment to take sediment cores and cast off toward Magothy Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The University of Virginia graduate student and Virginia Sea Grant Fellow is gathering data on light, nutrient, and oxygen levels in the water column and sediments at three coastal bays along the Eastern Shore: Magothy, Gargothy, and Hog Island. This is the background data she needs before phase two: studying how environmental factors will affect the recovery of an important plant in Virginia’s coastal bays: seagrass.
Seagrass carpeted Virginia’s coastal bays until the 1930s. Then a combination of disease and storms completely destroyed the underwater meadows. Without seagrass habitat, many native fish and shellfish species suffered. The bay scallop, for example, once the target of a million pound a year fishery, became virtually extinct.
Today—thanks to a huge planting effort by researchers, state agencies, and volunteers—seagrass meadows cover 17 km2 of the coastal bays along the Eastern Shore. Although the bay scallop hasn’t recovered, watermen, researchers, and others are finally getting a glimpse of some scallops after a near-60-year absence.
Despite these good omens, if there’s one lesson from the 1930s, it’s that changes in the environment could still jeopardize the seagrass success story, and researchers can already see changes coming on the horizon. Sea level is rising, and as it does, it will be harder for bottom-dwelling grasses to get the light they need. Water temperatures are warming and that could stress and kill plants. Then there’s the question of nutrient levels changing.
“Right now we don’t see much nitrogen or phosphorus from local agriculture or sewage treatment coming into these bays, but what will happen to seagrass if there’s a change in the population on the Eastern Shore?” wonders Al-Haj
In the fall, she’ll plant seagrass shoots in the bare Magothy and Gargothy Bays and compare how well seagrasses survive there to the already restored Hog Island Bay. When she’s done, results of her work will enable restoration crews to choose planting sites that have the best probability for success today and into the future.
As Al-Haj puts it: “We’re doing all of this restoration. We want long-term success.”
View More Photos from Virginia Sea Grant’s Trip Out to Magothy with Alia