Seeds of change

State, community college join forces on underwater grass restoration

PINEY POINT - All the way at nearly the southernmost tip of Maryland, Anne Arundel Community College students are scattered about in the waist-high St. Mary’s River.

They bend over again and again, filling bright orange laundry baskets with their prize: seed-bearing widgeon grass.
Tom Parham, who is overseeing the grass collection effort for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, acknowledges the task is “not the most glamorous” work.

But it’s vital work if there’s any hope of reaching the 2010 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goal of having 185,000 acres of underwater grasses thriving in the bay.

The orange baskets — 40 in all — are piled high with tiny seeds of change for the bay’s future.

Vital role

Widgeon grass is one of several underwater grass species found in the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists call them “submerged aquatic vegetation” or SAV.

Along with eelgrass, redhead grass, sago pondweed and others, widgeon grass provides a vital role in the delicate bay ecosystem.
The grasses slow down wave action that can scour away shorelines. As the water flows past, the grasses trap sediments floating in the water, leading to better clarity.

J. Henson — The Capital

Mike Norman, a technical specialist at AACC, harvests the tops of widgeon grass plants. The seeds will be used to repopulate other areas of the bay.

And they are great spots for crabs, fish and other marine life to live. Scientists estimate that juvenile crabs are 30 times more abundant in underwater grass beds than in other areas.

But like almost anything that’s good in the bay, underwater grasses are threatened by man’s imprint on the bay.
The primary problem is too much sediment, or floating dirt, that clouds the water. That means light can’t reach the grasses, thwarting their growth.

There were once 200,000 acres of grasses in the bay, but that dropped to only 38,000 acres by the mid-1980s. In a 2005 survey, scientists counted 78,260 acres — which is far short of the 2010 goal of 185,000 acres.

The state of Maryland is attempting to boost its grass restoration efforts in hopes of meeting the goals.

For many years, the state has been transplanting eelgrass from vibrant beds in Tangier Sound off of the Lower Eastern Shore.
But eelgrass lives only in saltier parts of the southern bay, and now the state is moving to restore other species that live in fresher waters.

This is where the widgeon grass in the orange baskets comes in.

Collecting seeds

“What we’re trying to do is jumpstart the process,” Mr. Parham explains as the seed collection crew gets ready to go to work.
The idea is to collect seeds and plant them in places in the bay that are conducive to the survival of widgeon grass, sago pondweed and redhead grass.

Mr. Parham calls these places “garden spots.” They’re the kind of places where grasses might eventually rebound on their own because water quality is improving. Having people putting the seeds in those garden spots speeds things up, he says.

There are two ways to get the seeds for the planting in garden spots.

One method that’s not totally proven on the lower salinity species is to use a harvester. The harvester is a boat that moves over the grass beds, mechanically chopping off the tops of plants.

It works well with eelgrass, but is still in the experimental stage for the other species.

The other way is tried-and-true manual labor, where people pluck seed-bearing sections from the grasses.

“It gets tiring when you have to collect 40 or 50 baskets,” says 19-year-old Jack Hayes, an AACC student on the collection team.

But the work does have an upside: after enjoying work in the field, Mr. Hayes has settled on environmental science as a probable major.

Low-tech ideas

After the collection in the river, the community college takes over the next step in the grass restoration process.

The baskets are carried back to the AACC Environmental Center at the college’s Arnold campus.

The plants are laid out in giant plastic containers in the lab dry out a bit, allowing the seeds to loosen from the stalks. It’s a process called after-ripening.

After that, it’s into the “turbulator.”

The turbulator is a giant tank filled with water. Several PVC pipes shoot air into the water to jostle the plants and loosen the seeds.
As the water is drained from the tank, a mesh bag on the drainpipe catches the seeds.

The whole thing is powered by three utility wet/dry vacuums.

“It’s a low-tech idea, but it works well,” says Mr. Norman.

AACC student Bruce Lenderking, a retired engineer from Pasadena who took environmental science course, invented the device.

Before the turbulator, the college used an old wringer washer machine to loosen seeds. The turbulator can handle 10 times more grasses than the old washer, said Dr. Stephen Ailstock, director of the AACC Environmental Center.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” he says. “It works great.”

The seeds ultimately get stored in saltwater in the lab, where they are kept at optimal temperatures to replicate the bay’s winter, and to spur germination in the spring.

Dr. Ailstock and his AACC team have been experimenting to find just the right storage conditions.

They’re also figuring out the best places, times and conditions for planting the seeds. For example, a recent experiment evaluated how deep in the bay floor seeds can be planted.

Eventually, the seeds collected in the St. Mary’s River will be planted in other spots in the bay, including Eastern Bay off of Kent Island.
The plantings will include a mix of seeds that tolerate various temperatures and salinities. In a way, scientists are hedging their bets that at least one species will grow, given that conditions can vary from year to year based on the weather.

Other grass restoration efforts have involved already-grown plants. But that’s labor intensive and inefficient at covering large areas. In some ways, its similar to a backyard gardener who might buy vegetable plants from a nursery, compared to a farmer who would sow seeds across the fields.

In this case, DNR and the college are taking “a very agricultural-type approach,” Dr. Ailstock says.

Collaborative work

The AACC-DNR collaboration takes advantages of each partner’s expertise, both sides say.

The DNR has extensive monitoring networks that spit out data used in picking the garden spots for planting. And the DNR has its experience with eelgrass transplantation.

AACC has a ready labor force of students, and labs to do the seed extraction and research on storage and planting.
Mr. Parham of DNR says AACC’s discoveries into how the plants work has been invaluable, and hopefully will lead to success with the plantings in the field.

“They’ve done fantastic work that’s never really been done before,” he says.

That work also has given practical field experience to a corps of undergraduate students — something that the college takes pride in.
“It’s good training for our students,” Dr. Ailstock says. “It’s wonderful for our students to put on down on their resumes that they’ve done environmental projects.”

And if it all works, the ultimate beneficiary could be the Chesapeake Bay — and the crabs and fish and boaters and swimmers that will benefit from more grasses and cleaner water.

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pwood@capitalgazette.com

(Revised August 2007)