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Rebuilding from the Seabed Floor

Posted on 09 November 2012

Kimberly Barbour, a habitat outreach specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor. Barbour’s work at CCE has focused largely on eelgrass restoration, including plans for a restoration planting program in Sag Harbor waters.

by Emily J. Weitz

The impacts of Hurricane Sandy have shaken residents on Long Island, and humans aren’t the only ones losing their habitat.

Over the past century, eelgrass in the Peconic Estuary has diminished dramatically. While it may seem minor compared to people losing their homes, eelgrass is a plant system essential to maintaining local ecology – an economic driver and directly tied to life on the East End. Rebuilding the eelgrass beds is a project the Cornell Cooperative Extension has been working on in conjunction with its aquaculture program, and recently the organization has teamed up with the South Fork Natural History Museum (SOFO) for a benefit aimed at a massive reseeding effort of eelgrass in Sag Harbor.

A fundraiser, complete with a raw bar showcasing the very shellfish that need eelgrass to survive, will take place at SOFO next Saturday, November 17.

“In a healthy, robust eelgrass meadow,” says Kimberly Barbour, Habitat Restoration Outreach Specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program, “the roots should be strong enough to help with erosion control. Ideally, if we had extensive eelgrass meadows, it could help with storm activities and erosion. Eelgrass is important to marine habitat and also to our habitat. It’s part of the puzzle.”

Once upon a time, the Peconic Estuary had extensive eelgrass meadows. These meadows, which thrive in cool waters up to 20 feet deep, serve as nurseries for some of our favorite shellfish, like clams and scallops. They also serve as a foraging ground for larger fin-fish like flounder and striped bass.

While issues like global warming and water quality have certainly presented challenges for thriving eelgrass beds, according to Barbour, the biggest attack on eelgrass occurred in the 1930s and scientists are still puzzled as to what exactly occurred.

“They were decimated, and we’re still not sure what caused it,” says Barbour. “Eelgrass is very slow to recover naturally.”

Then in the 1980s, said Barbour, a bad brown tide limited the light source to the eelgrass, and many more plants died out.

“Even though eelgrass does produce seeds,” says Barbour, “the chance of the seeds coming through the water without being disturbed makes it unlikely that it can ever come back on its own.”

That’s where the Cornell Cooperative Extension comes in.

“We have several boats and a whole field team devoted to going out and doing restoration planting,” says Barbour.

They have established test sites in four areas between Sag Harbor and Shelter Island (see map), and will assess the success of each before deciding on which two sites to seed. That’s when they call on everyone, young and old, to come and help with the process.

Getting the public involved is crucial for raising the awareness of the importance of eelgrass, said Barbour. Because of the sheer numbers of plants that need to be planted, getting volunteers to help with the labor is also essential to the program’s success. But how to get people involved was a big question, because eelgrass, unlike beach grass, is entirely underwater.

“All the planting has to be done underwater,” says Barbour. “This is completely submerged aquatic vegetation. So we developed a method, utilizing burlap discs, that allows everyone to get involved.”

The burlap circles, each have twenty holes.

“We go to healthy meadows,” says Barbour, “and harvest a couple thousand shoots of eelgrass by hand. Then we bring it back to our facility and organize people to come and participate.”

Each burlap disc holds ten plants, and volunteers arrange the shoots in the burlap to put together what they call a planting unit. At each workshop, they process about 5000 plants or 500 burlap discs.

“The more we can plant, the better,” says Barbour. “It’s more than our seven staff members could possibly do, and people find it really therapeutic. It’s a monotonous, simple way to work hands-on with an aquatic plant you might not even have seen before.”

These workshops, conducted at the research facility in Southold, and at places like Bay Burger in Sag Harbor and at SOFO in Bridgehampton, will take place next spring and then again in the fall, and immediately after the planting units are assembled, staff will take them out to the selected beds and seed them.

“We are trying to build a substantial habitat where there was nothing,” says Barbour, “and the hope is it will bring more finfish and shellfish right here.”

This restoration project is not cheap. The number of hours it takes staff members, the boat trips, the SCUBA gear – it all costs money.

“The event on November 17 will be our first event,” says Barbour, “and we’ve had a lot of support from Save Sag Harbor, SOFO, and local business like Bay Burger, Channing Daughters, and Montauk Brewing Company. But we are hoping to expand that message and get more involvement. The conditions for eelgrass in the Sag Harbor area are good, and there are still some natural meadows. We are trying to expand on what is already there to rebuild these habitats.”

Tickets and sponsorship are still available for the “Save Our Seagrass” fundraiser on November 17 at SOFO. For more information, contact Kimberly Barbour at or call 631-921-0302.



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