Eelgrass meadows—underwater fields of flowing, ribbony marine plants—teem with life, including crabs, fish, and shellfish that find shelter and food there. Rooted in silt and mud, these stretches of seagrass do more than promote marine ecosystem health and support fisheries production: they also help attenuate storm and wave damage to coastal communities, and they contribute to carbon sequestration. But eelgrass has been disappearing in recent years, due to human causes such as poor management of waste, which leads to algae growth that suffocates the seagrass. Rising temperatures have exacerbated damage to the mid-Atlantic’s eelgrass meadows, where 1-5ºC above normal summertime temperatures can be fatal to seagrass.
CBI facilitators partnered with The Nature Conservancy and others to design and facilitate a 2022 Eelgrass Restoration Workshop, a series of virtual discussions created to consider a wide expanse of possibilities, moving beyond the limits typically imposed by institutional siloes and past practice. Discussions with nearly 40 scientists, practitioners, managers, and stakeholders addressed the precarity of eelgrass, the most common seagrass along the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. The workshop explored methods used elsewhere to improve species resiliency, to identify options for improving eelgrass resiliency to thermal stressors. Scientists who have worked with coral restoration, reforestation, and oyster resiliency clarified the urgency and need for organizational focus in such efforts. Workshop participants then spent two days discussing possible strategies to support a sustainable future for eelgrass, with a particular focus on assisted gene flow/genetic diversity; selective breeding/hybridization; microbiome manipulation; environmental hardening of seeds by exposing them to higher temperatures before planting in the wild; and modifying existing conditions.
By exploring efforts to improve species resiliency elsewhere, the workshop participants identified several promising pathways for protecting eelgrass habitats. These include the potential coordination of data and funds across a wide geographical area. The workshop also outlined studies that could identify resilient populations and best practices for managing eelgrass seeds. Additionally, efforts to broaden interest took an important step forward when ideas from the workshop were shared at the August 2022 World Seagrass Conference & International Seagrass Biology Workshop held in Annapolis, Maryland. To continue making progress on this issue, workshop participants hope to create a steering committee for this coordination, which will draw from diverse skills and sectors, with expertise in science, government regulations, and fundraising.