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Restored Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) as a Refuge for Epifaunal Biodiversity in Mid-Western Atlantic Coastal Bays

Abstract

As nearshore ecosystems are increasingly degraded by human activities, active restoration is a critical strategy in ensuring the continued provision of goods and services by coastal habitats. After being absent for nearly six decades, over 1800 ha of the foundational species eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) has been successfully re-established in the coastal bays of the mid-western Atlantic, USA, but nothing is known about the recovery of associated animal communities in this region. Here, we determine the patterns and drivers of functional recovery in epifaunal invertebrates associated with the restored eelgrass habitat from 2001 to 2013. After less than a decade, the invertebrate community in the restored bed was richer, more even, and exhibited greater variation in functional traits than a nearby reference bed. Analysis of a suite of environmental and physical variables using random forests revealed these differences were primarily due to the increasing area and density of eelgrass, a direct consequence of ongoing restoration efforts. Based on analysis of functional traits, we propose that the rapid life histories of constituent organisms may have played a key role in their successful recovery. We also speculate that diverse epifaunal communities may have contributed to the restoration success through a well-described mutualism with eelgrass. Given that restored eelgrass now make up 32 % of total seagrass cover in the mid-Atlantic coastal bays, this restoration may conserve regional biodiversity by providing new and pristine habitat, particularly given the general decline of existing eelgrass in this region.

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Acknowledgments

We foremost thank the past and current members of the VIMS SAV lab for the collection and sampling of the hundreds of benthic samples taken over the course of this survey, but especially C. Holbert, S. Sumoski, A. Johnson, and P. Trivett. We are also indebted to B. Lusk and B. Truitt of the Nature Conservancy for their assistance for the duration of the project. Funding for all faunal work and later water quality data in South Bay was provided by the grants from numerous agencies notably: the Coastal Programs of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality funded by Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended, administered by NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, the Virginia Recreational Fishing License Fund, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with funding to NOAA, Grant NA09NMF4630308, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as private grants from the Allied-Signal Foundation, Norfolk-Southern, and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment. Early South Bay water quality data were provided J. Porter and K. McGlathery at Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research project, supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. BSR-8702333-06, DEB-9211772, DEB-9411974, DEB-0080381, DEB-0621014 and DEB-1237733. Chincoteague Bay water quality data were provided by C. Wazniak at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment Division, funded by the State of Maryland. We thank C. Patrick for comments on a previous version of this manuscript. This is contribution no. 3575 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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Lefcheck, J.S., Marion, S.R. & Orth, R.J. Restored Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) as a Refuge for Epifaunal Biodiversity in Mid-Western Atlantic Coastal Bays. Estuaries and Coasts 40, 200–212 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-016-0141-x

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Keywords

  • Seagrass
  • Restoration
  • Functional traits
  • Grazers