In the 1930s, a debilitating disease swept through the eastern seaboard of the United States, wiping out vast expanses of eelgrass.
Although they cover less than 0.2% of the ocean, algae provide vital habitat for marine life, stimulate commercial fishing, help purify water, protect coasts, and even trap and store microplastics.
Where Virginia’s coastal bays were lined with this species of seagrass, they suddenly turned barren.
This changed in the late 1990s with the discovery of a few small patches of seagrass in the bay, the existence of which proved that conditions could once again support plants.
So Robert Orth, who was a marine biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) until his retirement this year, began with small-scale experiments, digging up adult seagrass beds from other areas and transplanting them to the bay. .
While the herbaria survived, the process was not evolutionary. After all, restoring thousands of acres through transplanting would have been a huge logistical challenge.
But Orth had an idea.
“We said, well, why don’t we try to start a restoration program using seeds? “
In 2001, he began an effort to physically rebuild the ocean ecosystem, seed by seed. From a moving boat, he and his team scattered seeds across four bays: South, Cobb, Spider Crab, and Hog Island. The seeds survived, becoming plants which in turn produced their own seeds. From there, Orth said, “Nature kind of took over.”
Over the past 20 years, supported by an army of volunteers, the project team has sown nearly 75 million seeds.
About 9,000 acres of coastal bays are now covered with eelgrass, which has improved water quality, increased marine biodiversity and helped mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon.
The project, said Carlos Duarte, a seagrass expert and professor of marine science at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, “is a game-changer.”
And today, restoration projects around the world are looking to Virginia for lessons.
Laura Paddison writes for Reasons to Be Cheerful, a nonprofit editorial project that strives to serve as a tonic in these tumultuous times. This story is part of Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues. It originally appeared here.