Environment

Volunteers work to restore Morro Bay's vital eelgrass beds

Tommy Valencia, center, loads up his boat with bundles of eelgrass, which he and other divers will replanted in various locations around Morro Bay in 2014. A new Cal Poly study shows water quality conditions in some parts of the Morro Bay estuary could be the driving factor in preventing eelgrass recovery.
Tommy Valencia, center, loads up his boat with bundles of eelgrass, which he and other divers will replanted in various locations around Morro Bay in 2014. A new Cal Poly study shows water quality conditions in some parts of the Morro Bay estuary could be the driving factor in preventing eelgrass recovery. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Eelgrass isn’t much to look at. Big tubs of the sea grass, looking like piles of shredded green vegetables, sit on tables at the Morro Bay State Park Marina waiting to be tied into bundles for replanting.

Looks can be deceiving. Eelgrass forms the one of the world’s most productive ecosystems.

In bays and estuaries like Morro Bay, the long, ribbon-like leaves of eelgrass shelter and nurture a variety of sea life, everything from juvenile rockfish to invertebrates. It is also a vital food source for black brant geese during their annual migrations.

But Morro Bay’s eelgrass beds are facing a crisis. Eelgrass beds have declined from 344 acres in 2007 to 10 acres in 2013.

This crisis has sparked a remarkable restoration effort by the Morro Bay National Estuary Program. Over the past three years, hundreds of shore-side workers and scuba divers have volunteered to harvest and replant thousands of bundles of eelgrass throughout the estuary.

“We are on track to meet, and possibly exceed, the goal of processing and planting 8,000 units of eelgrass,” said Kathryn Winfrey, the program’s communications director.

The process consists of divers harvesting eelgrass from healthy beds near the mouth of the bay. Only about 3 percent of the bed is harvested.

Onshore volunteers tie five or six plants into bundles. Divers then replant the bundles in suitable areas.

Volunteers tying bundles of eelgrass Wednesday morning said they were motivated to help out of a desire to see the estuary thrive and out of respect for the work the National Estuary Program does.

“The sponsor of the program is my main reason for wanting to volunteer,” said Kristen Nelson of San Luis Obispo.

The goal is to re-establish eelgrass throughout the bay, particularly in shallower back-bay areas where eelgrass has been particularly hard-hit. Initial monitoring indicates that the effort is working with nearly half of the transplanted eelgrass beds taking root.

“Once we give them a chance to take root, we are seeing them really take off,” said Jen Nix, the program’s restoration projects manager.

The recovery program itself has also seen steady growth. In 2012 when the program first began, it consisted of a handful of volunteers around a table. This year, nearly 200 people volunteered with six to eight divers working at any time.

The National Estuary Program is also developing a new monthly volunteer monitoring program. This will allow the group to measure the success of the recovery program without the expense of hiring a survey aircraft, said Adrienne Harris, the estuary program’s executive director.

Reasons for the demise of the eelgrass remain a mystery. Sedimentation and algae blooms — both of which inhibit photosynthesis — and disease are possible causes.

“We have some gut feelings,” Nix said. “There is probably some combination of factors that are happening with no single cause.”

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