SEBASTIAN INLET, Fla. — Scientists transplanted tufts of seagrass along an otherwise bald Indian River Lagoon bottom in hopes of growing back the once-lush fish habitat that algae blooms doomed.
No one knows whether the $110,000 experiment will work or whether the cloudy waters that smothered seagrass during the past few years will return to do so again.
But researchers hope the grass transplants teach them the best ways to grow back a vital nursery habitat for fish and crabs, as well as the manatees’ favorite meal.
“This used to be — as far as you could see — grass,” Adam Gelber, a senior scientist with Atkins North America.
At the inlet, their environmental consulting firm is planting seagrass harvested in Vero Beach. That effort is part of a larger project that could transplant grass at up to 30 sites in the lagoon — but likely fewer — occupying about 1 acre of lagoon bottom. The project ranges from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to Titusville, to Vero Beach.
Each acre of seagrass supports about 10,000 fish and $5,000 to $10,000 in economic activity in the lagoon region, according to St. Johns River Water Management District.
Transplants are just one way biologists hope to restore some 74 square miles of seagrass lost since 2009.
The scientists harvest the seagrass with hand tools only and manually install the grass at the recipient study sites.
They use shoal grass, because it’s among the fastest growers.
They place metal “manatee cages” over many of the transplants to keep ravenous seacows from chomping the experiment bare. But at least one manatee was quick to find this week’s plantings among the inlet’s shoals. After Atkins consultants planted the first tufts of grass, they returned later that day and found evidence a seacow had made a snack of their work.
“That night, we came back to look at it and it was already bitten down,” said Don Deis, a senior scientist with Atkins.
The St. Johns River Water Management District’s planned cost for the larger, three-year transplant project is $85,000. The Sebastian Inlet District chipped in about another $25,000.
Similar grass transplants in recent years have shown success along the inlet’s interior.
Donor sites where seagrass will be harvested include just off Pine Island on Merritt Island, just north of A. Max Brewer Memorial Parkway in Titusville and near Vero Beach.
Grass harvested from the donor sites grows back quickly.
Consultants from Atkins North America Inc. lay out the grid work for transplanting sea grass near Sebastian Inlet. Leslie Manzello, senior scientist with Atkins, assembles the grid.×
Consultants from Atkins North America Inc. prep the Indian River Lagoon near Sebastian Inlet for sea grass transplants. Leslie Manzello, senior scientist with Atkins, preps the area for the transplants.×