This Thursday and Friday, trained experts from the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) will forage shoots of healthy eelgrass from marine meadows throughout the region. They will then bring them to Sag Harbor and enlist the help of dozens of volunteers to aid in the Cooperative’s 18-year-old Eelgrass Restoration Program.
On Saturday — National Estuaries Day — the Cornell Cooperative Extension along with The Peconic Land Trust and the Sag Harbor Oyster Club hope to give East End residents a hands-on experience and education in eelgrass restoration.
From 3 to 5 p.m., the organizations will gather under tents at Bay Burger just outside Sag Harbor Village for the Marine Meadows Workshop. Volunteers will be asked to weave eelgrass shoots into burlap disks that will be planted in the Peconic Estuary the next day, establishing a new, healthy eelgrass meadow which ideally will become habitat for finfish and shellfish, and enhance the overall health of the bays.
According to the CCE’s Habitat Restoration Outreach Specialist Kim Barbour, the Marine Meadows Program is a community-based, collaborative initiative developed by the Cooperative as an offshoot of its Eelgrass Restoration Program.
Eelgrass is a critical aspect of the coastal ecosystem, noted Barbour. The seagrass provides habitat for marine life, helps filter nitrogen — preventing harmful algae blooms — and even protects the shoreline from erosion.
For decades, eelgrass has been in decline — globally and locally — due to pollution, disease and disturbance. Preserving what remains of the eelgrass meadows locally, as well as restoring the eelgrass stock is at the heart of the Cooperative’s Marine Program.
“The loss of eelgrass is one of the most significant issues facing the Peconic Estuary,” said Bay Burger owner and Sag Harbor Oyster Club founder Joe Tremblay. “Eelgrass is a critical habitat for a number of threatened species, most notably bay scallops and winter flounder. Scallop populations may never be able to be rebuilt if its natural eelgrass habitat disappears. The bottom of Sag Harbor Cove was historically almost entirely covered with eelgrass, and now it is virtually non-existent there. The Peconic Estuary has lost over 90 percent of its historic eel grass meadows.”
The Marine Meadows Program was conceived last spring to involve coastal communities on Eastern Long Island and Connecticut in the CCE’s efforts, providing a method to teach residents about water quality and the necessity of eelgrass restoration. It also enables the CCE to tap into local civic groups and community organizations as a pool of volunteers willing to donate their time towards eelgrass restoration projects in the Peconic Estuary, the Shinnecock Bay and in the Long Island Sound.
According to Barbour, this will be the fifth Marine Meadows Workshop event, and the program is gaining in popularity, community groups eager to get their hands dirty in the spirit of improving water quality across the region.
The workshops would not be possible without the initiative of Cornell Cooperative Extension restoration ecologist Chris Pickerell, who created the new, more efficient method of planting eel grass beds on bay bottoms. After weaving the healthy shoots into the burlap disks above water, they are planted by scuba certified CCE Marine Program staff the next day.
“The more we can get assembled, the more restoration,” said Barbour.
The process, she added, “is elementary, but as we do this we provide an education about the species while volunteers handle the live plants. This tremendously increases the planting units we have to work with and hopefully people will walk away with a new found knowledge and enthusiasm for protecting our estuaries.”
Barbour said CCE is hoping to make the program an almost year-round aspect of their overall Eelgrass Restoration Program, and with the amount of community support the workshop has received so far, she is hopeful the organization will meet its goals.
The Marine Meadows Program, sponsored by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, The Peconic Land Trust and the Sag Harbor Oyster Club is free, and will be held Saturday from 3 to 5p.m. For more information contact Kim Barbour at 852-8660 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.