Out in the York River, a group of four men were digging the foundation for a strong, Bay ecosystem with their bare fingers. Dressed in scuba gear, they moved along a submerged grid made out of rope and plastic tubing. Every 15 centimeters, along half-meter rows, they worked their fingers into the sediment and stuck in a single sprig of eelgrass, a species of underwater grass.

"This is actually the fastest way we found so far to put the plants in - finger power," Jamie Fishman, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, explained while the grass planters took a break. "It works pretty good. You just can't have 30-knot winds." Indeed. Fishman and his colleagues were actually restoring a restoration project. Only a few days before, strong east winds had gusted straight down the river, pushing water aside and uprooting dozens of plants that had taken many tedious hours to put in.

The work is labor intensive, time consuming - and costly. Restoring an acre of seagrasses can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars. And the areas restored are small. On a Baywide scale, said Bob Orth, a VIMS scientist who has been studying SAV for years, "We're dealing with a postage stamp."

Such projects may seem costly when measured in time and dollars. But increasingly, grass beds in the Bay and along the coast are being measured by their habitat value. Grass beds, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation - or SAV - are recognized as being among the most productive habitats on the planet.

For years, management agencies have paid lip service to the need for good habitat, but in the past year - at least for grasses - that has begun to turn into tangible actions. Consider:

  • The Bay Program included SAV protection in its new Blue Crab Fisheries Management Plan. It was the first time a specific habitat was singled out for protection in a fisheries plan, which usually manages fish populations by setting harvest levels. But evidence suggests habitat is also critical to sustaining populations: Juvenile blue crab density is about 30 times greater in grass beds than adjacent unvegetated areas. They also grow faster in grass beds and are less likely to be subjected to predation.

  • The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last spring adopted a Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Policy intended to spur increased SAV protection throughout the East Coast. It was the first-ever policy to protect a specific habitat adopted by the commission, a compact of East Coast states responsible for managing migratory fish species. The policy calls on states to protect existing grass beds, reduce pollution to promote comebacks and set quantifiable SAV recovery goals.

  • Under a new federal law, regional fishery councils responsible for managing "federal" species - those caught more than three miles offshore - will soon begin identifying for protection the "essential habitat" for species they manage. Many of those habitats are expected to be grass beds in the Bay and other coastal areas which are important in the early life stages for many fish. Those actions mean more emphasis than ever will be focused on grass beds in coming years. From restoration efforts - like those in the York River - to actions that protect existing beds, to tougher water pollution controls, grasses will assume a greater importance in decision making.

Evidence of this increased attention can already be seen. Virginia recently closed a major grass bed to clammers to prevent damage. Maryland has formed a task force to study a similar issue.

"That's almost directly an outgrowth of this heightened awareness of SAV as fish habitat," said Peter Bergstrom, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who chairs the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup. "They just care enough about it."

Even more significantly, the new policies recognize that protecting aquatic habitat isn't just for fisheries agencies: It's also a job for state environmental departments that manage water quality.

The blue crab plan - signed by the governors of all three Bay states - flatly says, "It is the responsibility of all executive agencies, not simply the fishery management agencies, to carry out and abide by the habitat protection and restoration provisions in the Plan." While everyone knows that reducing pollution is generally good for fish, it's hard to peg how much pollution one needs to control for, say, a striped bass: They move around too much. Grass beds don't move, but can increasingly be linked to healthy fish populations. And research also shows how much pollution they can tolerate.

Things like the blue crab plan are, in effect, setting the stage for pollution reductions geared specifically for grass bed recovery. "It makes the case more compelling for doing the things that may seem responsible and straightforward but, when it comes down to it, end up being watered down for one reason or another," said Bill Goldsborough, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who also chairs the ASMFC Habitat Committee. "This makes the link to fish habitat, and therefore to fish, more directly."

Soon - perhaps as early as next year - nutrient reductions in Bay tributaries could be set based on their ability to restore grass beds. If the goal is to restore 5,000 acres of grass in a particular river, officials may be able to translate that into specific pollution reductions that could then be divided among wastewater treatment plants, land runoff controls - perhaps even air pollution.

"We're right on the cusp of being able to make statements like that," said Richard Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Grasses once formed underwater "meadows" that covered up to 600,000 acres or more of the Bay - nearly 10 times what can be found in the Chesapeake today.

The losses are primarily the result of pollution that clouds the water: Like all plants, the grasses need sunlight for photosynthesis. On average, grasses in the Bay need about 20 percent of the sunlight that hits the surface, though the exact figure varies by species. But nutrient pollution in the Bay has increased algae production, which blocks sunlight directly as well as spurring the growth of sun-blocking organisms directly on plant leaves. Sediment runoff adds more murkiness to the water and settles on the plants.

The Bay was never crystal clear, but grasses once thrived to depths of more than 10 feet. Today, because of clouded water conditions, they are generally found only in shallower water.

Grasses were probably well on their way to decline when, in June 1972, Hurricane Agnes delivered what Orth calls the coup de grace. Heavy floods from the record storm flushed nutrients and sediments out of the watershed and darkened the Bay during the critical growing season.

Beds throughout the Bay disappeared in the following years, hitting a low of about 39,000 acres in 1984. Grasses recovered to a recent high of 73,000 acres in 1993, but have fallen back slightly in recent years. Acreage in 1996 was 63,452.

The rapid demise of SAV is an indication of just how polluted the Bay was. After all, grasses are highly effective at improving local water quality. Pollution had gotten so out-of-control that the grasses were overwhelmed.

Healthy grass beds can remove nitrogen - one of the main pollutants in the Bay - by creating soil environments conducive to denitrification, a process that turns the nutrient into an inert gas. SAV also soak up nutrients for growth, keeping them away from bloom-forming algae. Some of those nutrients are ultimately buried in the sediment, which in effect, removes them from the Bay.

They also filter particles out of the water, reduce shoreline erosion by buffering wave action, and pump oxygen - critical for aquatic life - into the water and soil. On sunny days in dense grass beds, when photosynthesis is at its peak, oxygen from the plants will bubble to the surface.

These lush beds are important - at some point in their life - for a host of common fish species: croaker, red drum, menhaden, spot, spotted sea trout, eel, black sea bass, tautog, bluefish, summer flounder, striped bass and more. "For these species and their prey, healthy SAV beds form the basis for healthy stocks, successful fisheries and long-term sustainability," stated one of the reports that served as the scientific basis for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Policy.

The beds provide shelter for juvenile crabs and fish. They are also a biological factory that churns out huge amounts of tiny organisms that serve as fish food. Studies show that such production is far greater in SAV beds than in surrounding areas. Grass beds have more kinds of organisms - and more of them - because they have lots more to offer: roots, leaves, diverse soil conditions and more oxygen.

"It's just like a forest," said Ken Moore, a VIMS scientist who has studied the grasses for years. "It provides structure, habitat and food for organisms. So you would expect there to be many more habitat niches."

Despite the recent recognition of their value, the total amount of grasses in the Chesapeake have remained nearly level for most of the last five years.

It appears unlikely that the Bay Program will meet its "interim" restoration goal of 114,000 acres of grass anytime soon, much less more aggressive restoration goals that are being developed.

Bergstrom said grasses in most of the Bay have held their own or increased in the last decade. But that is offset by beds around mid-Bay islands - Smith, Bloodsworth and others - that have disappeared rapidly since 1992.

"Unless that decline can be turned around, no, we're not going to meet the goal," Bergstrom said. "If those areas had continued to increase after '92, we would be well on our way to our goal."

Water quality monitoring has shown poor conditions in those areas, Bergstrom said.

"The overarching issue that dictates how much grass recovers, whether we can attain that goal, is going to be the water quality issue," Orth said. While conditions in some rivers have improved, it is still only borderline of minimum acceptable conditions in many places. And that may not be good enough to bring grasses back in barren areas.

"You have to have, to some degree, water quality for recovery that is superior to that necessary for the maintenance of existing beds," Moore said. That's because of the ability of thick grass beds to improve local water quality. Plants trying to grow in an unvegetated area do not have that advantage.

"When you look at data in some of these places where SAV is starting to come back, it kind of looks like you need several years of good water quality just to get them going," said Tom Parham, of the Maryland DNR's Resource Assessment Service.

A number of factors affect "good water quality" for grasses, such as the amount of nutrients, algae and sediment. But the bottom line is - like all other plants - they need sunlight. "Without light, they can't do anything," said Batiuk, of the EPA's Bay Program Office.

All the other factors affect the amount of sunlight the plants get. An intensive effort is under way to establish the sunlight needs for each species of Bay grass.

When established, that figure will be a de facto water quality standard for grasses, based on water clarity, for specific regions of the Bay. When that number is met, grasses should be able to grow. With that information in hand, Batiuk said, people will be able to identify areas that are unsuitable for grasses, determine what factors are causing it to miss the mark - is it too much algae? too much sediment? - and "write a prescription" for clearing the water, Batiuk said.

In the past, Bay pollution control efforts sought to improve low oxygen, or "anoxic," conditions in its deepest waters. That's mainly because it was the issue best understood when cleanup goals were set in 1987.

But with grasses - and perhaps other habitats in the future - officials now can set water quality goals based on their ability to increase SAV acreage. That, in turn, should mean more crabs, fish and other resources. And, results would also be more tangible to the public than oxygen levels on the bottom of the Bay - an area as remote as the moon to most people. "SAV puts it into terms that you can defend a lot more than an 'anoxic volume day' or a general improvement in water quality," Batiuk said. "You can start to talk about things that people should be able to see."

Increasingly, the public is seeing the connection between grasses and things they value - such as soft crabs, which thrive in SAV. People who years ago wanted to destroy "nuisance" grass beds are now volunteering to help restore them.

"I'm amazed that so many people know what submerged aquatic vegetation means, and not just referring to it as seaweed and that kind of thing," said Bill Street, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "There is a growing awareness."

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay was swamped with volunteers to participate in an SAV planting project last spring in the St. Mary's River in Maryland - even though participants had to be certified divers, provide their own gear and arrange their own transportation. "We were overwhelmed," said Glenn Page, the Alliance's watershed restoration program director. "We had to turn people away."

Volunteers for the project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, appear to have done a good job, too. Page said about 90 percent of the plants - about a quarter acre was planted - survived to the fall, and were rapidly expanding.

The largest restoration project in the Bay, by far, is the one being done by VIMS.

It is also the most scientifically rigorous project and may - in effect - lay the foundation for future restoration efforts. Scientists are studying everything from how to take grasses for transplant from existing beds without harming them, to how rapidly new beds are colonized by aquatic organisms.

In 1996, scientists planted 32, 2-by-2 meter plots in different parts of the Bay to see where they would grow. In the past two years, they have planted much larger plots in five of those areas. Each of those larger plantings includes three, 10-by-10 meter grids and three, 20-by-20 meter grids.

The grids are subdivided into 2-by-2 meter squares - with plants being placed in every other square - in the hope that they will grow into the blank space. It's an incredibly time-consuming task: planting a single location can take days. If the weather turns bad before plants take hold, all the labor can be lost.

A key issue is how large and small tracts survive and reproduce. In general, bigger is better, but also more expensive. Answering such questions is critical: While a typical coastal wetland may cost $2,000 to $3,000 an acre to restore, grass beds cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"With these intensive sites, we're going to find out how we need to transplant in the future," Fishman said.

The VIMS project is funded by the Virginia Marine Resource's Commis-sion's Saltwater Recreational Fishing License, which is interested in SAV because it provides critical habitat for speckled trout, a popular sport species.

Because of the time and cost involved, large-scale grass plantings aren't seen as the way to attain the 114,000 acre goal for SAV to the Bay, much less restore the historical 600,000 acres.

But grasses have been gone so long in so many places that there is no longer a seed source to trigger a new population even if the area achieves the needed water quality. If transplanting techniques can be perfected, restoration efforts could help "jump start" the SAV return in some places.

The VIMS project is also showing that aquatic life quickly responds to transplanted grass beds.

"Small patches of seagrasses attract large numbers of animals, even newly planted patches," said Orth, who is principle investigator for the project along with Ken Moore and Jacques van Montfrans, also of VIMS. "That's one thing that has been amazing us - how rapidly they're colonizing these areas and how high their densities are."

On one steaming, hot day last summer, Fishman and his colleagues were testing a site transplanted in the James River the previous fall for the ultimate signs of success - whether anything was living in it.

Using big, specially designed vacuums, they were able to suck everything from the bottom - except the plants - to see what was being attracted to the new grass bed. The samples showed young blue crabs, shrimp, little fish and a variety of other small organisms squirming around.

"This," Fishman said, "is the goal. Why do people care about sea grasses? They want to catch more fish."

Disappearing Ducks & Declining SAV

The loss of grass beds in the Bay have been closely linked to the decline in the number of many wintering ducks on the Chesapeake. Grasses are an important source of high-energy food for the waterfowl and can sustain the birds during tough winter weather.

In the 1950s, the Bay was visited by about a quarter of a million canvasback ducks each winter, but that had declined to about 50,000 in recent years. While the loss of summer habitat elsewhere has played a role, so has the loss of SAV in the Bay. In fact, canvasbacks in the Bay have switched from a diet that consisted primarily of grasses to one based on clams.

But clams are not as good a food as SAV. "During the winter when carbohydrates and fats are most important, wild celery [a type of SAV] has that in good amounts while clams are mostly protein," said Dennis Jorde, a biologist with the National Biological Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Wintering redhead ducks on the Bay have also declined from about 70,000 in the 1950s, representing about 40 percent of the Atlantic Flyway population, to about 2,000 redheads - about 2 percent of the Flyway's population. The redheads have moved to other coastal areas where grasses are more abundant.

Redheads could not switch to clams because the design of their body is not as conducive to pulling clams out of the substrate.

The population of black ducks has declined from about 200,000 in the 1950s to about 30,000 in recent years. The decline appears to be closely related with the loss of SAV on their Bay wintering grounds. Restoration of Bay grass beds would likely help existing Ches-apeake duck populations build over time, but it is unlikely to lure birds here from other areas, Jorde said.

"They're someplace else because the conditions are good there, and the birds probably are not going to leave," Jorde said.

"What probably would happen is that the birds that do come to the Chesapeake will start to survive better and produce better and bring more young back, and then eventually you see the population build."

Bay Program's SAV Restoration Goal

The Bay Program has established a three-tiered framework for the restoration of grasses in the Chesapeake. Restoration goals are based in large part on water depth: As pollution is reduced and water gets clearer, plants should be able to survive in deeper areas. Only the Tier I area has been adopted as an official goal so far.

The three tiers are:

  • Tier I goal - The establishment of grasses in all areas of historic distribution since 1971. This is a total of 114,000 acres, and in 1993, the Bay Program set this as an "interim" restoration goal which it hopes to achieve by 2005.

  • Tier II target - The establishment of SAV in potential habitats to a depth of 1 meter in the Bay. Exact acreage has not been established for Tier II, but it will be soon.

  • Tier III target- The establishment of SAV in potential habitats to a depth of two meters. This would be about 600,000 acres.