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Eelgrass Restoration in Upper Newport Bay

“Without strong public support for seagrasses and the uncharismatic but highly productive animals they shelter, conservation efforts will continue to lag behind those of other key coastal ecosystems” (Orth et al. 2006).

History Of The Project

Orange County Coastkeeper partnered with Rick Ware, President and Senior Marine Biologist of Coastal Resources Management, Inc., and the Department of Fish and Wildlife staff at the Back Bay Science Center in Newport Beach to undertake an innovative eelgrass restoration project, the largest in Upper Newport Bay.

The project was originally conceived to fulfill a need for more research and data on effective restoration and management methods for eelgrass in Upper Newport Bay, which had declined in the upper bay due to poor water quality and other factors.

Between 2008 and 2011, Coastkeeper received funding from both the City of Newport Beach, the California Coastal Commission, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education grant program to implement an eelgrass education and research program at the Back Bay Science Center in partnership with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Through the project, over 3,000 students and community members throughout Orange County have participated in hands-on eelgrass and wetland activities at the Science Center. The goal of the educational project is not only to increase public awareness of the importance of eelgrass in the bay, but also to involve our students in local environmental issues and get them excited about science and concepts taught in the classroom.

The first phase of the four-year restoration project began in early summer 2012, and has been made possible through funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center’s Community-Based Restoration Program and the State Coastal Conservancy.

Each summer since 2012, Coastkeeper has been joined by hardworking volunteers to bring back more eelgrass to Upper Newport Bay. In total we have planted 300 square meters (0.3 acres) of eelgrass and, with a bit of help from mother nature, we now have nearly one acre of eelgrass in Upper Newport Bay.

New Restoration Project: Living Shorelines

Restoration Methods

One of our primary goals of this project is to evaluate the success and cost-effectiveness of three different methods of eelgrass restoration — the bundling method, TERFS (Transplanting Eelgrass Remotely with FrameS) and BuDS (Buoy-Deployed Seeding). These methods have been used extensively and with varying amounts of success on both the East Coast and in Puget Sound.

The Bundling Method

Eelgrass collected by divers from nearby natural “donor” beds is separated into bundles of 10-12 shoots of eelgrass by hand and held together with biodegradable hemp string and a tongue depressor, which acts as an anchor to keep the bundle in the sediment once planted.

This process takes place on land and is largely accomplished by our many dedicated volunteers who love to get muddy. The bundles are transported to the restoration site on boards and gently transplanted into the soft bay sediment by our staff and volunteer scientific divers. This method has been used very successfully in Newport Bay for many years to establish new beds.

Transplanting Eelgrass Remotely with Frames (TERFS)

This method was developed by Dr. Frederick Short at the University of New Hampshire. The idea involves tying eelgrass to sturdy frames on land, which can then be easily lowered either by divers or from a boat into the restoration area. The frames are ideal for reducing erosion around transplants and anchoring the grass into the sediment until it can take root, particularly in areas with stronger current, such as that in our restoration site.

Buoy-Deployed Seeding (BuDS)

This method was originally designed and successfully implemented by Chris Pickerell through Cornell University and

Rather than removing entire eelgrass plants from donor beds, only the flowering portions of an eelgrass plant are removed and placed by land-based volunteers into mesh bags. These bags are then tied to a buoy on the surface of the water, which is anchored to the seafloor using concrete blocks. The bags act as a vessel to disperse seeds into the water column, which drop to the seafloor and develop into new plants! This method typically requires one year to see significant results.

The intent of using these different methods is not only to evaluate the success and cost-effectiveness of each, but also to develop methods that can be safely and easily undertaken by the community. It is an effort to involve concerned local citizens in the preservation of this vital natural resource and we hope to see success with each method!

Long Term Goals

  • Establish sustainable eelgrass habitat in Upper Newport Bay
  • Evaluate success of multiple restoration methods
  • Develop site-selection and success criteria for future restoration projects
  • Develop a sustainable community eelgrass restoration education and
  • Continue outreach program at the Back Bay Science Center

Expected Benefits

Ecological Benefits

  • Increase diversity and abundance of species native to Newport Bay estuary
  • Restore critical ecosystem services

Economic Benefits

  • Restore the value of Upper Newport Bay as a recreational and commercial fishery habitat
  • Restore the monetary value of eelgrass habitat based on ecosystem services provided

Social and Educational Benefits

  • Increase educational opportunities and public awareness of the importance eelgrass