Bottled solution to bay problem

Environment: An innovative method of growing sea grasses in a laboratory could replenish dwindling vegetation at Poplar Island.

April 02, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In Stephen Ailstock's galley-style lab, the grass grows in water-filled test tubes, beakers and Mason jars. Under fluorescent light, tens of thousands of plantings sprout in graceful curves, flowery bunches and straight stalks.

In controlled laboratory conditions, the Anne Arundel Community College biology professor has devised a way to grow mass quantities of the ecologically prized but scarce aquatic grasses that provide food, shelter and erosion buffers in the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, Ailstock's challenge is to move beyond his cramped lab to Poplar Island, where he and his students will try to restore the underwater meadows that once thrived near the land mass two miles out in the bay near Tilghman Island.

The Maryland Port Administration, which is restoring the nearly eroded island with dredge material from the Port of Baltimore's shipping channels, has agreed to fund Ailstock's $150,000 project to bring underwater grasses back to the area during the next four years.

State Del. C. Richard D'Amato, an Annapolis Democrat, orchestrated the pairing after visiting Ailstock's lab and convincing state transportation officials that the partnership makes sense.

"The Department of Transportation has got one of the only deep pockets in state government," D'Amato said. "They dredge the bay, they redeposit the material, they have to be concerned about the quality of the bay."

"It's a natural," he said of the partnership, which will be formally announced tomorrow at the community college. "It's an opportunity to see how we can make a difference in reconstituting areas of the bay that have lost cover because of dredging or other operations that have disrupted the natural habitat."

In a few months, Ailstock and his students will begin depositing the first batch of an estimated 30,000 underwater grass plantings in shallow waters around Poplar Island, work that will continue for the next four years. Establishing a viable colony of underwater grasses is a key element of the $340 million restoration project intended to restore habitats for a variety of wildlife, from ospreys and foxes to soft crabs and fish.

"This island had habitats for several rare and endangered species that were more or less protected, and predators that preyed on waterfowl didn't have easy access," said Frank L. Hamons, deputy director of harbor development with the Maryland Port Administration.

Work began four years go

The port began its reconstruction of Poplar Island four years ago, working with the Army Corps of Engineers and federal and state environmental agencies. Settled as a farming community for much of the past three centuries, the island lost its last permanent resident in 1929. Later, the island became a hunting and fishing destination and nature-watching site.

By the time the port started its rebuilding project, 150 years of wave and wind action, as well as rising sea level, had whittled the 1,100-acre island down to less than 3 acres. One of the first steps in the restoration project was to enclose the remaining land within a dike to prevent further erosion.

Hamons said that each year through 2009, barges will haul 2 million to 4 million cubic yards of clean sludge to reshape the island and lay the foundation for a habitat of woods and wetlands.

Port officials estimate that reconstruction of the island to its original size will be complete in approximately 12 years.

The timing of the collaboration with the port couldn't have been better for Ailstock, 48, who's regarded as one of the area's leading researchers on submerged aquatic vegetation. He works out of his lab at the college's Environmental Center, which he directs.

"His lab has really been in the forefront of trying new techniques and different species and figuring out what works best," said Peter Bergstrom, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Environmental Center has worked on numerous wetlands restoration projects for private and public agencies. For more than 20 years, Ailstock had been experimenting in the lab with techniques to develop an efficient way to grow a large supply of underwater grasses for environmental restoration work.

"I can remember we spent eight weeks just to find starting material, the plants were that scarce," Ailstock said, recalling trips to the Chesapeake to collect underwater grasses in the early 1980s.

Last year, he succeeded in growing four species of grasses that originally grew in Poplar Island waters -- wild celery, redhead grass, sago pondweed and widgeon grass.

"When the port planned this project, they went back and looked at the biological composition of the islands, so we'll be using the same types of plants historically found in and around the area," said Ailstock, who also is chairman of the college's biology department.

Vegetation curbs erosion

In addition to providing food and shelter for aquatic life, the vegetation acts as a flood buffer and absorbs energy from waves to curb shoreline erosion.

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