According to a study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sea grass is once again growing and thriving in Chesapeake Bay.
The bay is seeing its greatest growth of underwater grasses in almost half a century and conservationist are thrilled. The comeback has made the Chesapeake Bay one of the few places on Earth where long-term improvements can be linked to human efforts on a large scale. As well, the report said it is one of the pre-eminent ecological restorations to date.
“The biggest resurgence of grass ever recorded – that’s impressive,” said Chris Moore, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It’s a great indication that the changes we’re making on land are having real, quantifiable impacts.”
The decline in grasses started in the 1970s. The biggest cause of loss of the grasses are from pollution, including waste and water pollution from an increasing population living by the bay.
The dramatic loss in the seagrass led to the development of the Chesapeake Bay Program which has promoted the conservation, growth, and protection of the grasses.
Seagrasses are pivotal to a healthy marine ecosystem, they provide protection to the bay from storms, and help in the fight against climate change.
The grasses provide a nursery system to invertebrates and fish that come into the bay where most juvenile species will utilize the grasses at some point.
As well, recent research has identified the important role grasses play in fighting rising carbon emissions. Seagrass is a flowering grass-like plant that grows in shallow waters. The plant gathers carbon dissolved in the sea and buries it under the surface. The amount of carbon stored is very similar to the amounts of carbon stored in tropical forests sediments.
The big difference between the two, forests will store the carbon for roughly 60 years before releasing most of it, while seagrasses will store the carbon for thousands of years if left undisturbed.
As science explores the importance of seagrass, new research has shown that when the top layer of actively growing seagrass is disturbed by impacts such as boat anchors or heatwaves, the carbon that has collected can be quickly released.
When officials started studying the bay grasses, they quickly realized a main culprit of their demise: nutrient pollution.
Runoff from agriculture is a big factor. And as more people keep moving to the area, turning the land into flat surfaces like concrete that don’t absorb storm water exacerbate the problem.
Since the 1980s, grasses recovered by threefold to cover about 60,000 acres by 2015, according to the study. Orth said the trend’s continued since then.
Scientists monitor the plants’ presence annually, taking aerial pictures to see where the grass is and determine its density. The researchers also encountered an unexpected find, the more species are present, the better the grasses fare.
The news is extremely encouraging as seagrasses around the world have seen a sharp decline and methods used in the Chesapeake Bay can be applied to help promote the growth and protection the aquatic plant.