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Bay scallops

These seagrass restoration volunteers are fighting to bring these plants back in Virginia

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OYSTER, Va. (Circa) -- Just a few miles off the coast of Virginia's eastern shore, a group of 25 or so volunteers are seen floating in the vast waters. At first glance, they're difficult to spot-- their black wet suits camouflaging their presence--but every so often they'll stand up in the thigh-deep water to put handfuls of a green, hairlike material in a cross-body mesh bag.

It may not look like their doing much, but they're actually participating in one of the most successful seagrass restoration projects in the world.

"Someone described it almost like if you're touching the non-sticky side of tape, which is really cool, but then if you feel the seedlings, it reminds me of green beans," Maribel Sabino, a student at the University of Richmond, said.

Seagrass has been disappearing at a rapid rate--a football field worth every half hour since the 1980s, according to Bo Lusk, a coastal scientist at The Nature Conservancy. And while seagrass may not initially sound all that interesting, at least compared to sea turtles or other marine life, it's essential in preserving the Bay's ecosystem here in Virginia. Seagrass meadows prevent shoreline erosion while also providing a home to a diverse range of sea creatures.

"All the volunteers had to do today was swim around the grass beds, and look for flowering shoots that had seeds in them," Lusk continued. "So they had masks and snorkels on, swimming around in knee-to-thigh deeps water, grabbing handfuls of these shoots."

After spending a few hours collecting bags of seagrass, volunteers haul it onto a boat and move it onshore for further harvesting.

"These flowering shoots have seeds that are nearly completely developed, and we can collect these shoots in bags out there in the field, bring them in here to our seed caring facility, and dump them in tanks where the seeds will finish developing. They'll pop out of their seed pods, they'll settle to the bottoms of those tanks, and we can separate all the plant material out, and we're left with just seeds that we can plant back out there in new areas in the fall."

More than seventy years ago, Virginia's coastal bays looked much different. For one, they were filled with acres of seagrass and bay scallops, the marine life that nested in it. But that all changed in the early 1930s, when an outbreak of disease and substantial hurricane hit the area. A glimmer of hope, however, came in 1996, when there were reports of a small patch of seagrass in the Eastern Shore. Dr. Robert Orth from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science investigated and went on to create the seed harvesting system that the volunteers use to this day.

Bo added, "It's been great to show that if you have good water quality, good conditions, that you can do this type of marine habitat restoration work. Certainly nothing has been on this scale anywhere, this successfully, around the world."

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Since the restoration project took off in 2008, it's been greeted with resounding success. The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science planted about 500 acres of seagrass. Those seeds since since spread to cover 7,000 acres, and it's starting to bring life back to the area, particularly bay scallops.

"I think just being out in the environment and seeing the human interactions with the environment, and seeing what we're trying to do to help save it, is an amazing opportunity to help people familiarize themselves with something that they probably wouldn't ever had a chance to before," Maribel continued.

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