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Jun 10, 2009 2:07 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

California looking to local scientists for help restoring eelgrass to San Francisco Bay

Jun 10, 2009 2:07 PM

Scientists in California are hoping to restore San Francisco Bay’s once vast beds of eelgrass using a method of reseeding the snake-like marine fronds that was developed and first employed by a Southold biologist in Sag Harbor Cove.

Using “seed buoys” developed by Chris Pickerell, an East End native and marine plants specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Southold Marine Center, and Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria from the University of Washington’s Botanic Garden, a federally funded program has been employed in several areas where eelgrass once carpeted the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Eelgrass is a critical component of a healthy ecosystem because it provides a protective habitat to innumerable marine species like fish and shellfish in their larval stage.

The California scientists have had difficulty bringing the eelgrass back by transplanting adult fronds and were searching for a new method when Mr. Pickerell and Mr. Wyllie-Echeverria pitched their buoy system.

“It’s a very efficient and economical means of establishing grass,” Mr. Pickerell said this week. “What our method presented them was a real paradigm shift for them with regard to using seeds instead of just planting. It eliminates the need for a big planting facility, with flowing ocean water and the resources to do planting on a large scale. They actually have the perfect habitat for a large-scale program.”

The system Mr. Pickerell developed employs floating plastic buoys attached to simple mesh bags that are filled with mature flowers harvested by scuba divers from existing wild plants. As the flowers shed their seeds they are released slowly through the mesh and dispersed in a broad circular pattern by currents. Mr. Pickerell says the process has proven much more effective and far less labor-intensive than transplanting individual plants.

He first tested the buoy system in 2001 in Sag Harbor Cove, a test that proved both a success and a failure. The test area, which local baymen said was once so thick with eelgrass that it would entangle boat propellers, showed signs of resurgence at first, but when waters warmed, the fronds of grass died off. Since those initial tests, Mr. Pickerell’s team of scientists has discovered that the grass has proven much more resilient in places that are flushed with strong tides of clean, clear ocean or bay water. On the North Fork, in Long Island Sound, they have regenerated huge beds of eelgrass.

They have had more limited successes, Mr. Pickerell said, in South Fork bays.

“In Long Island Sound, we can plant year-round and we get a 90-percent survival rate,” he said. “In this area though, we can get the plants established, but in many cases we lose them anywhere from late June to early August.”

Mr. Pickerell said the problems with establishing the grass in some areas seems to be related to water temperature and, particularly, clarity. In back bays and creeks where tidal flushing is not as strong and water temperatures climb steeply in summer, the grass has struggled to rebound. Massive losses of wild eelgrass beds over a matter of a couple of years in the mid-1990s changed the makeup of the shallower waters, Mr. Pickerell guessed, allowing bottom sediment to be stirred up more easily, clouding waters and further choking off necessary sunlight to those areas of grass that remained.

“Once you lose it, you’re not getting reproduction,” he said. “You’re changing the water clarity because you’re allowing the re-suspension of sediment, that cuts out the light. And then the crabs can move in and dig up just about anything in the bottom.”

Aside from one bed that has persisted in shallow, muddy Bullhead Bay in Southampton, most of the remaining native eelgrass beds are found in areas with clear water that receive regular tidal flushing from the ocean.

Some of the healthiest eelgrass beds on the South Fork are found in small areas of western Shinnecock Bay. Mr. Pickerell’s team has successfully transplanted adult eelgrass fronds to areas adjacent the existing beds and has found the transplanted patches quickly blended into the natural beds.

But the seed buoy system has yet to be employed on a large scale in Southampton bays because of the difficulty in finding a suitable location. Mr. Pickerell said he has been working with the Southampton Town Trustees to identify a region of the bay where the system can be deployed over a wide area.

“We need a large expanse of shallow sandy bottom,” Mr. Pickerell said. “The buoys don’t work well in deep water areas or areas of high energy.”

Town Trustee Edward Warner Jr. said this week that the Trustees have identified a broad sand flat in eastern Shinnecock Bay where they think the system can be tested this summer without interfering with shellfish harvesting.

“Between Heady Creek and the east channel there is a big flat on the south side of the bay,” Mr. Warner said. “There’s not much shellfish there and there’s a big eelgrass bed offshore of it. It’s the ideal spot. The water is pretty much flushed every tide for four or five hours, it gets a really good exchange of water—that really clean ocean water that the grass seems to really flourish in.” 
Mr. Warner said the area would likely be closed to shellfish harvesting to allow the grass time to establish itself and that the Trustees are eager to see if the grass can be reestablished in eastern reaches of the bay.

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As long as outboard motor clamming is allowed, it will be a waste of time to reseed.
By kpjc (161), east quogue on Jun 6, 09 4:58 PM
I was thinking the same thing myself , kpjc. Baymen aren't supposed to use outboards to blow out steamers in the intertidal zone but this is largely ignored
in my experience. The bay constables should step up enforcement of this law.
As far as blowing razor clams out , they use outboards to blow these out in the subtidal zone and eel grass doesn't stand a chance growing there because they are constantly churning the sand.
When I was in grade school I could catch blue claw crabs during ...more
By PrivateerMatt (390), Weesuck Creek , EQ on Jun 6, 09 6:09 PM