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Sep 21, 2011 9:40 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Scientists Ask Citizens To Help Them Restore Important Marine Plants

Sep 21, 2011 10:28 AM

The Cornell Cooperative Extension is asking for help from some local residents in ongoing efforts to restore once vast beds of marine vegetation in the Peconic Estuary.

On Saturday, Cornell and the Peconic Land Trust are inviting members of the public to help assemble eelgrass plantings, which will be transplanted into areas of the Peconics chosen by Cornell scientists as areas where the grasses are likely to survive and sprout new fronds. The event will be held in the parking lot of Bay Burger restaurant in Sag Harbor from 3 to 5 p.m.

The project, known as the Marine Meadows Project, enlists volunteers to help weave fronds of living eelgrass harvested from healthy beds in Long Island Sound, into small discs of burlap, speeding up the transplanting process for divers from Cornell’s marine science facility in Southold.

“It’s basically like knitting eelgrass,” said Kim Barbou, a habitat restoration specialist at Cornell. “It’s a method that has been working real well. It saves the divers a lot of effort and allows them to plant a lot more. And the burlap discs help the eelgrass anchor to the bottom while they get established. Each event, we’ll put together 200 discs—that’s thousands of shoots of eelgrass.”

Scientists from Cornell have been working for nearly a decade to reestablish decimated eelgrass beds with transplants from areas where the ecologically important plants still thrive. Eelgrass, whose skinny green fronds can grow up to 3 feet long, was once ubiquitous on the bottoms of East End bays but has largely disappeared from the Peconics and South Shore bays in the last two decades. It is critical for the ecosystem for a variety of reasons, primarily as habitat for juvenile shellfish and other marine life.

Program leader Chris Pickerell said Cornell’s scientists have discovered that water clarity in most of the Peconics west of Shelter Island is too poor to allow eelgrass to survive, probably because of high algae levels. Some isolated beds of eelgrass have managed to survive, most notably in Bull Head Bay, though they too continue to dwindle.

By working in areas where water is cool and receives good flushing, Cornell has been able to establish new beds of eelgrass that have begun to expand naturally.

“The good news is that we’ve really honed in on our site selection methodologies,” Mr. Pickerell said. “We have meadows that we established that are on the scale of multiple acres. And now, using the citizen volunteers allows us to expand our efforts.”

Ms. Barbour said that in addition to Saturday’s workshop, the group is planning additional eelgrass planting events this fall with students from Southampton High School and the Hampton Bays Civic Association.

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