When he was a boy, James Iman used to curse the underwater grasses that clogged the shallow creeks around his Fort Howard home. The wavy green plants grew so thick on the surface they would trap unwary boaters and snag fishing lines.
But 25 years ago, the bay grasses virtually disappeared from Shallow and North Point creeks in eastern Baltimore County. So did many of the blue crabs and fish that used to hide in the shaggy aquatic carpet.
Now wiser at 43, Iman has become something of a Johnny Appleseed of bay grasses. For the past few years, the waterman and boat builder has been transplanting the feathery green sprigs he finds floating elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay and scattering seeds on the murky waters near home in hopes of bringing back the vegetation -- and the fish.
One sunny day last week, Iman dipped a garden rake into Shallow Creek and pulled up clumps of Eurasian watermilfoil from the silty bottom, where he figures he has planted perhaps two acres' worth of the grass. The wispy, fan-shaped fronds were brown, but Iman predicted the patch would be lush again by June.
"It's just exciting, you know, to see the results," he said, sitting in the wooden skiff he uses for his planting. "When the grass was not here, you did not see one sunfish, not one. The grass came back, the sunfish are back."
Overhead, a fish-eating osprey soared as a pair of blue herons skimmed across the cove by North Point State Park.
Iman's apparent success has inspired scientists working to restore the bay, who say the grasses are crucial to the effort. Maryland officials hope to recruit an army of volunteers like him to plant in barren creeks and rivers.
"We're just trying to give a boost to Mother Nature," said Robert Magnien, director of tidewater ecosystem assessment at the Department of Natural Resources.
Underwater grasses -- known to scientists as "submerged aquatic vegetation" -- are vital organs in the bay ecosystem. They produce oxygen and help clear the water by filtering out sediment and absorbing nutrients.
Nutrients from sewage plants and farm and suburban runoff are the bay's major pollution problem, fouling the water with huge algae blooms.
Grass beds serve as nurseries and havens for fish and crabs. The leaves and shoots also are food for waterfowl and some fish.
Aquatic vegetation once flourished throughout the shallow Chesapeake. But it dwindled precipitously in the late 1960s and '70s, a decline experts now blame on the bay's worsening water quality because of an oversupply of nutrients.
Quite a comeback
The underwater plants have made a comeback since the mid-1980s, when federal and state governments throughout the region began working to reduce nutrient pollution. Grasses spread from 49,100 acres of bottom in 1984 to 73,100 acres in 1993. They declined again for the next two years -- perhaps because unusually heavy rains and snows washed more nutrients into the bay.
Last week, though, scientists announced that the grasses had made a slight recovery last year, spreading by 6 percent baywide and by 13 percent in Maryland.
Though more than halfway to a goal of 114,000 acres by 2005, officials say the grass restoration effort could use a jump-start. Water quality has improved enough in many areas of the bay to support aquatic vegetation, but it may take years or decades to come back on its own. Grasses typically spread when seeds or shoots are carried by currents or waterfowl to another spot.
"I think nature does a good job," Iman said. "but there's things we can do. Basically, all I did was transport [the grass] instead of waiting for tide or a duck."
Scientists in Virginia have had some success restoring beds of long-lost eelgrass in the lower bay, but the work is laborious. It requires scuba gear to put plugs of individual plants by hand in chest-deep water.
"It's really not that much different from gardening," observed Robert J. Orth, a biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has directed the effort.
Iman, though, says he hasn't had to get his face wet. He "harvested" clumps of grass caught on the crab pots he sets each summer near Kent Island on the Eastern Shore. He took home in a covered basket what most watermen toss back overboard.
After unloading his crab catch, Iman says, he transplanted the milfoil by spreading it on Shallow Creek's surface and pushing it into the mucky bottom with a boat hook. The plants took root or grew new ones from the stems, he said.
He said he also has started smaller patches of another grass, redhead, simply by casting handfuls of seeds off his pier. The oval-leaved plants even took hold in Old Road Bay in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel Corp., where biologists say the water quality is no better than marginal.
"The water clarity [in the grass bed] was unbelievable," Iman said. "You could see down 2 to 3 feet, crystal clear. We had species of fish -- yellow perch, sunfish -- and we could see crabs swimming through the grasses finding places to shed."