The International Marine Conservation Congress was held late last month at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. — about 1,000 ocean scientists, advocates and educators from all corners of Planet Ocean gathering to share research and new ideas on improving ocean conservation and management.
And the big news out of the congress? That the news about oceans isn’t all bad.
The news about marine life in the MSM and on the Internet is relentlessly bad. But news flash after news flash of sensational gloomy headlines can lead to a sort of gloom-fatigue, inaction…and something Planet Ocean really can’t afford — apathy.
So it was altogether right and fitting that the first full day of the congress was devoted to a 26-session program called: “Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation.” Here’s some very brief summaries of a few of the presentations that lifted my spirits:
World’s Largest Seagrass Restoration: About 70 years ago, a disease wiped out most of the eelgrass on the U.S. East Coast. Eelgrass is lovely stuff for ecosystems, providing essential food and shelter for many species (including seahorses, blue crabs, bay scallops and diverse fishes) and a nursery for the world’s most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley.
The lower eastern shore of Virginia is the largest section of intact ocean wilderness on the East Coast and the water quality is still great — but eelgrass has never come back in this region until Dr. Robert Orth of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (the Johnny Appleseed of eelgrass) developed effective re-seeding methods.
With funding from the Virginia Coastal Program and NOAA and ample labor, field logistics and volunteer coordination by The Nature Conservancy, 25 million eelgrass seeds have been collected and sown to produce 207 acres of new eelgrass area in the last four years. With the power of the ocean’s tides and the sun, those 207 acres have rapidly expanded to underwater meadows that cover more than 2,400 acres!
A new way to acknowledge funding support for restoration has also been pioneered: eco-graffiti. The aerial photo below shows a seagrass “tag” spanning a total length greater than three football fields. Each letter was made by throwing 50,000 seeds out of a boat. In a year or two these spots will likely be lush underwater meadows.
This season’s seed collection is just getting started and we are ramping up: 100 volunteer recreational divers and snorkelers to collect 10 million eelgrass seeds are needed. For more information, please contact Barry Truitt at the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.
Clam Return in Long Island’s Great South Bay: Carl LoBue from the Conservancy’s Long Island program presented another phenomenal success story about bringing back clam populations in Great South Bay.
Great South Bay once produced more than one-half the clams eaten in the United States, but overharvesting reduced clam populations to trace levels. The loss of the water filtration provided by thousands of acres of clams led to out-of-balance plankton populations with serious impacts to seagrass and other species. In 2004, the Conservancy acquired 13,000 acres of underwater land in Great South Bay and has worked closely with local communities to develop thoughtful and adaptive clam restoration strategies. It’s working!
Carl and company intercepted clams harvested from nearby estuaries that were on the way to market, purchased them, and relocated over 3 million of them onto the 13,400 acres of submerged lands owned by the Conservancy. The adult clams were placed into a network of carefully selected “spawner sanctuaries” covering approximately 50 acres. A critical interim measure of success for reclamation of the bay was to increase juvenile clam density from near-zero to five juvenile clams per square meter.
Carl’s presentation unveiled the latest survey results: 5,000 acres met or exceeded the interim target density, and about 320 million baby clams are estimated to have settled on Conservancy property as well as adjacent public property. Each adult clam can filter up to one gallon of water per day…one female clam can release up to 6.3 million eggs each year.
So what’s going to happen next? Suffice to say that about 3 million parent clams helped make over 300 million babies and Great South Bay is on track to being great again. And some bonus good news: Preliminary indications from the Sound this spring suggest that without harvest pressure (and at high-enough densities), clams may be more resilient to algal blooms and predation than they previously have been given credit for.
Oyster Quilts: The Conservancy’s Ann Birch heard the call for oyster restoration action before it became front-page news and has put volunteers to work saving oysters in Florida using a unique restoration approach: oyster quilts.
Powerboat wakes in the Indian River Lagoon at Cape Canaveral National Seashore were turning formerly healthy oyster reefs into barren islands that blocked water circulation to adjacent mangrove ecosystems. Dr. Linda Walter of the University of Central Florida developed a novel way to restore oysters using extensive quilts made of thousands of square mats, each embroidered with 36 oyster shells. The oyster quilts are rapidly colonized by baby oysters and quickly form new stable reefs.
The Conservancy is helping to take Linda’s method to scales that matter in partnership with NOAA’s Community Based Restoration Program and others. Ann thought she might be able to get about 300 volunteers…but last week she reported that more than 10,000 volunteers have helped so far!
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle: Finally, Dr. Larry Crowder reported good news about the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, often referred to as the world’s most endangered sea turtle. He told stories of how the persistent efforts of incredibly committed and patient individuals fighting dismal odds have really paid off, with better protection at the only area in the world where they spawn and a turtle head start program. Their population is now thought to be growing at a whopping 12 percent a year! This species is known to use Virginia seagrass habitat as a nursery area. Come on up turtles, your nursery is ready!
What binds all these stories together? Good science, community support, human ingenuity, persistence…and hope.
When all of these elements are aligned, success follows an exponential growth curve.
(Image 1: Seahorse discovered during seagrass restoration project. Credit: Jay Odell/TNC. Image 2: Eco-graffiti of seagrass planted off Virginia coast. Credit: Bryan Watts/Center for Conservation Biology.)