Volunteers plant eelgrass to restore habitat in Morro Bay

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 22, 2013 

Ninety volunteers are at work this week planting as many as 12,000 bundles of eelgrass in Morro Bay.

The goal of the effort is to restore eelgrass habitat that has been dramatically reduced in recent years, said Adrienne Harris, executive director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program.

Divers gathered the eelgrass from a donor site near Coleman Park and volunteers on the beach sorted the eelgrass into small bundles. The grass was then replanted at strategic locations throughout the bay.

In 2007, there were an estimated 344 acres of eelgrass in the bay but fewer than 100 and possibly as little as 20 acres remain with much of the decline occurring in the back part of the bay. The cause of the decline is not well understood, but there are a number of possible contributing factors.

These include sedimentation and algae blooms, both of which reduce water clarity and hamper photosynthesis, said Bryant Chesney, a habitat coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Recent monitoring also indicates that a disease or pathogen may be contributing to the decline.

Eelgrass is a vital component of the bay’s ecosystem. It creates habitat for many forms of sea life and is an important food source for black brant geese that use the bay as a migratory stopping point to and from Canada.

This is the second year eelgrass has been transplanted. Last year, volunteers transplanted grass to 21 plots, 11 of which are showing new growth.

This year’s goal is to transplant 60 plots, said Kathy Rogers with Merkel & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in eelgrass restoration.

Last year was considered a pilot program and managers of the program used lessons learned from last year to decide where the new plantings should occur. “We are learning a little bit every year,” Harris said.

A large number of groups donated their time and money to make the restoration project happen. These include the Hind Foundation, the Black Brant Group, Morro Coast Audubon Society and the Santa Lucia Fly Fishers.

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