Outer Maquoit Bay eelgrass bed with Bunganuc Rock in the background. Courtesy of Dan Devereaux

Brunswick will soon take steps to restore an important keystone species in its coastal waters through a recently awarded $223,000 grant.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine eelgrass meadows provide an important role for food production in the ocean, serve as shelter for juvenile fish and invertebrates and help protect against shoreline erosion. Eelgrass is also effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere, an important tool in fighting climate change.

Awarded through the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program, the grant requires no match and was unanimously approved by the Brunswick Town Council on Monday.

The funds will allow for the replacement of at least 20 traditional block-style moorings in Middle Bay and Maquoit Bay that are known to damage eelgrass habitat through chain drag on seafloor, according to town documents. The new moorings will be a conservation-friendly helical, screw-in mooring model that will use a tether system, eliminating impacts to the habitat.

“$220,000 for one-quarter-acre of eelgrass restoration should tell us all about the value of eelgrass and that we need to be serious moving forward protecting what we have left so we don’t have to do this in the future,” said Councilor Steve Walker at Monday’s meeting.

Brunswick has approximately 61 miles of coastline with over 50 traditional block and chain moorings located in eelgrass beds, according to town documents. Through the grant, the 20 new moorings — which will be distributed to private owners who volunteer — will be monitored through 2027 to collect data on restoration progress.

Surveys conducted in 2013 showed that about 58% of Casco Bay’s eelgrass was lost compared to a survey in 2001, according to Angela Brewer, a marine biologist with The Maine Department of Environmental Protection who oversees the mapping of eelgrass. The United States Geological Survey states that a majority of this disappearance took place between 2012 and 2013.

Research following the decline suggested the loss in Casco Bay was due to the invasive European green crab, Brewer said, and a survey five years later in 2018 showed that approximately 50% of eelgrass had rebounded.

During that time, Brunswick lost 90% of its eelgrass beds in Maquoit Bay, Middle Bay and along the New Meadows River, according to Dan Devereaux, Brunswick’s coastal resource manager.

Today, Devereaux estimated that the local eelgrass habitat has rebounded by about 65%, which he attributes in part to several cold winters in the following years that killed off the crabs.

“Maquoit and Middle Bay provide some of the biggest unfragmented eelgrass beds in the state of Maine and certainly in Casco Bay,” said Devereaux. “Eelgrass is pretty much a priceless natural resource that is finally starting to be recognized by a larger part of society as being a real critical component to our nearshore waters.”

Devereaux said the town does not place moorings in active eelgrass beds anymore, and the ones that are there today have essentially been grandfathered in. He hopes the project will show local boat owners who might be hesitant to the helical moorings that the new method is effective.

Wayland Linscott, an avid boater who has lived in the Mere Point neighborhood of Brunswick since 2014, said that he recently pulled out his mushroom-style anchor because it needed to be replaced. He said he heard about the initiative from the town and is interested. “I’m told (it) is much more environmentally-friendly,” said Linscott. “I’m all in favor of the idea.”

Nick Rathbon, a Mere Point neighborhood resident for 28 years, also said that he heard about the initiative and would be interested in participating.  He also has a mushroom-style anchor in the bay, along with a small boat, and agreed that the eelgrass is vital to the health of the bay.

According to Jeremy Bell, Maine’s climate adaptation program director for The Nature Conservancy, another historic eelgrass habitat loss occurred in Maine about 100 years ago due to a wasting disease. In addition to green grabs, current threats to the species also include runoff pollution and coastal development, Bell said.

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