Outfitted in scuba gear, Glenn Page was exploring the bottom of the St. Mary's River, a waterway that 350 years ago served as the entry point for Maryland's first colonists.
But Page, submerged in about 3 feet of water, wasn't looking for relics that dated to colonial times. He was looking for something left a few days earlier - grasses.
A week before, Page, watershed restoration program director with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and a team of scientists and resource managers had dug up eelgrass from a bed on the Virginia side of the Potomac. They brought about 200 plants to the St. Mary's, where underwater grasses have almost vanished.
Now Page wanted to find out whether there was anything to show for three days of work.
"They're here!" Page shouted as he popped out of the water clutching a handful of eelgrass. "It's all looking good!"
He brought the plants to a boat for measurement. They had not only survived, some had grown as much as 3 inches in a single week. "We weren't sure they were even going to be there, let alone grow," Page said.
It was the first step in what could be a lengthy effort aimed at bringing large grass beds back to the St. Mary's. The successful demonstration this fall helps to clear the way for Page and a group of volunteers to do a larger transplant in the river next year.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is funding the project, hopes to learn whether volunteers can help with the labor-intensive job of transplanting grass. In addition, the NMFS hopes that the use of local volunteers will instill a sense of "ownership" among the participants so they will take actions to protect the grasses from degradation in the future.
"It's taking the issue of volunteer involvement to the 'nth' degree," Page said.
Bay grasses - known as submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV - are considered to be one of the best indicators of water quality in the Chesapeake. Like all plants, they require sunlight to survive, so they need clean, clear water.
Healthy grass beds are also a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. Large beds filter sediment from the water and absorb nutrients. They provide habitat and nursery areas for blue crabs and juvenile fish. They are important sources of food for waterfowl.
Once grasses filled shallow portions of the Bay in waters up to 6 feet deep. Some estimate the Chesapeake once held 600,000 or more acres of grasses.
In recent decades, though, pollution has overwhelmed the beds. Sediment, along with algae blooms caused by excessive amounts of nutrients, clouded the water. The nutrients also spurred the growth of sun-blocking organisms that live on the blades of the grasses.
As a result, the grass cover in the Bay dropped to an all-time low of 38,000 acres in 1984, though that has rebounded to about 60,000 acres in the last decade. Still, many areas where water quality appears to have improved enough to support grass beds - such as the St. Mary's - have not seen the plants return.
A likely reason is that there is no "propagule availability" - remnant seeds, roots or bits of plants that can stimulate the growth of new beds. Waiting for plants to return on their own could take years, even decades. As a result, there is a growing interest by people who have seen water quality improve in their local streams and rivers to restore grass beds.
Attempts at underwater grass restoration have a mixed track record, and on the whole, more attempts fail than succeed. "There are really very few cases of long-term significant restoration programs around the world," said Bob Orth, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who is conducting the most extensive research in the Chesapeake on SAV restoration.
Orth is trying to learn what factors affect the success of grass restoration efforts. In many cases, he has seen what appeared to be healthy transplanted beds die out for no apparent reason. "Restoration is still a very, very difficult task," he said. "And if they survive, it's probably going to have to be consistently good water quality that keeps these plants alive."
What has been learned on the St. Mary's may provide information not only about the extent to which citizens can help, but also what type of policies and guidelines may be needed.
A major concern is that people not begin digging up healthy grass beds to move plants into areas where their odds of survival are poor, said Peter Bergstrom, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and chairman of the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup, which is charged with managing, protecting and restoring grass beds around the Bay.
"Quite a few of the members of the SAV Workgroup didn't want to encourage anybody to do it, ever, just for that reason," Bergstrom said. "There is a worry that you might actually cause a decline in the area."
But if grasses can be restored in suitable areas, where water quality requirements for the plants are met and maintained, Bergstrom said such activities may help the Bay Program's "interim" goal of restoring 114,000 acres of grasses - a goal they hope to meet by 2005.
No one thinks it's practical to plant 50,000 acres of grass to meet that goal, but if there are areas where the only thing preventing grass recovery is the lack of propagules, restoration activities could get some rivers to the point where Mother Nature can take over, Bergstrom said.
"What transplanting does is give you a method of getting it in there and giving it a head start, so to speak," said Ryan Davis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire, who provided technical assistance on the St. Mary's project.
Davis, who has been working on a 7.2-acre restoration project in the Piscataqua River on the Maine-New Hampshire border, has found that successfully transplanted beds can rapidly increase in density. Perhaps even more important to local residents, they rapidly attract fish and shellfish.
"What we've found found up here is that there is almost a direct increase with the fish use of these habitats as the density of the grass beds increase," Davis said. "So as opposed to just going out and vegetating these areas, you're also getting an increase in invertebrate and fish populations, which are things more commercially apparent to humans.
"The difference between the first year and the second year was just incredible in the number of fish that are present," Davis said.
By contrast, the St. Mary's project is modest: four 1-meter square plots divided among two parts of the river. But with the help of volunteers, Page hopes to do a much larger transplant in the St. Mary's next fall.
Trying to do sizable transplants of underwater grasses with professional biologists could be prohibitively expensive; but if volunteers can do the job, projects of several acres may become practical. It is one of the things NMFS would like to learn from the $30,000 project.
"A lot of this restoration work, frankly, is just manual labor," noted Lee Crockett, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service stationed in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office. "How much of that can you expect a volunteer to do?"
If it is feasible, the NMFS is interested in using the project as a model for similar efforts around the country. But the problems are significant. Getting liability insurance to cover volunteers who sometimes need to use scuba gear is difficult. "Scuba is a huge red flag to insurance agencies," Page said. To get around that, Page is working with dive clubs to get volunteers.
While there are big hurdles, proponents also see major benefits of using volunteers on such projects. The most important is fostering a sense of stewardship.
"If there are proposals to build a dock through an SAV bed or to dredge it or something like that, you have a cadre of people who have a better appreciation for why that bed is important," Crockett said. "That's sort of an intangible that you buy with these projects."
The area around the St. Mary's River is expected to have rapid growth in coming years as the force stationed at the nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station expands. How that development takes place may dramatically affect the amount of sediment and nutrient runoff that enters the river and, ultimately, the survival of the grasses.
"Growth is going to explode down there," Page said. "What we're trying to do is give people an opportunity to galvanize around an issue and connect into the growth process, and to try to do it wisely."
To do that, Page is also working to build a local group of volunteers who, on an ongoing basis, will sample water near the transplanted beds at least twice a month to see if the water quality requirements are being met.
"Ultimately, who's left with the project?" Page asked. "It's the community, it's the local volunteers. If there isn't anything done to have them take over and adopt the project, it's kind of a wasted effort. But if you have them involved in the process, and to some degree have them take ownership, they begin to take responsibility for the long-term maintenance and monitoring of the project, and therefore you've created a much greater energy to continue on."
Shortly after the experimental transplanting took place, Page conducted an introductory session in water quality monitoring at St. Mary's College for interested local residents.
Some of the people who came to the workshop were too young to remember grasses in the river. Others remember a river filled with it. "As a kid, we used to see seaweed, as we called it, all over the place," said Nick Parker, a local resident. "In the '30s, the grasses were so thick you had to cut your way through them to get boats with outboards up to the docks."
When the grasses were first wiped out of the river, most people didn't recognize the close link between a healthy grass population and a healthy Bay. Just how well people have learned that connection may determine whether the grasses planted in the St. Mary's survive - and flourish in the future.