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Program to replenish eelgrass in New England invigorates food chain and educates students

A student holds an eelgrass plant.
A student holds an eelgrass plant.
Photo courtesy / Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant

A project led by MIT Sea Grant to bring a special plant back to Boston-area harbors is also giving students in Massachusetts and Rhode Island a hands-on education in the importance of healthy marine ecosystems.

Eelgrass--a delicate, flowering marine plant--is a primary source of food for many plants and animals, as well as a critical nursery and shelter for shellfish and finfish. It also filters pollutants from the water column, is a key component of the nutrient cycle and guards against shoreline erosion by quelling wave energy. In short, eelgrass is extraordinarily useful in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.

Once abundant in New England waters, this species of plant was largely wiped out in the region in the 1930s due to a wasting disease. For decades, coastal development and pollution made the restoration of these grasses all but impossible. However, improved water quality in Massachusetts' coastal waters is now giving eelgrass a second chance. And this, in turn, has given middle and high school students the chance to get involved with bringing eelgrass back.

Since 2004, MIT Sea Grant has been engaging public school students in hands-on learning, with classes growing eelgrass in recirculating aquaculture systems. Developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, the eelgrass curriculum teaches students not only about the history and importance of eelgrass, but also includes biology and ecology, graphing data, and water quality testing.

The eelgrass restoration project is also supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the city of Gloucester.

Last summer a team including scientists, educators and students spent a full day rescuing some 6,000 eelgrass plants from Gloucester Harbor, where dredging had begun to make way for a new 550-foot stormwater outfall pipe.

The plants were gathered by divers from about 18 feet down in the harbor. Volunteers then separated them into individual shoots that were planted in several locations in Boston Harbor, at a depth of roughly 15 feet. The density and size of the eelgrass beds are monitored twice a year.

In a second effort last fall, another 6,000 shoots were gathered by divers and separated by students.

In an experiment to test different methods of storing and growing eelgrass, roughly half of the plants gathered in the fall are being housed in a 1,000-gallon tank at Gloucester's Maritime Heritage Center, where MIT Sea Grant has its marine finfish hatchery. The tank is stocked with sea stars, crabs, lobsters and fish, thereby recreating the plants' natural ecosystem and keeping algae in check.

The other plants were woven into a floating raft made of coconut fibers, now wintering underwater on a pier near the hatchery. Essentially a mattress of eelgrass, this method of maintaining and growing eelgrass is a new one, says Brandy Wilbur, MIT Sea Grant education coordinator and aquaculture specialist.

The researchers will continue to collect data through the winter to document the survival and growth of the eelgrass. Come spring, the plan is to transplant the eelgrass back into Gloucester Harbor and/or the Annisquam River.

For now, the eelgrass in transition offers visitors to the hatchery a chance to learn about the importance of healthy marine ecosystems. And students at Minuteman Regional High, Essex Agriculture High School, Rockport High School, Swampscott Middle School, Odyssey High School in South Boston, Wellesley's Dana Hall and The Gordon School in East Providence, R.I., are all experimenting with different methods of raising eelgrass, which can then potentially be reseeded in local waters.

Regardless of how many plants make it through the winter, says Wilbur, "this project has already been extremely successful because of all the collaboration and outreach. "

For more information, or if your classroom is interested in participating, please visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2007 (download PDF).

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