I love thinking of ocean creatures as superheroes — barnacles that have stronger natural cement than anything humans have created for the marine environment, seals that can hold their breath for 40 minutes and … eelgrass? While not exactly a creature, eelgrass definitely qualifies.

Eelgrass, pictured here in Brunswick’s Maquoit Bay, mitigates erosion, removes greenhouse gases from its environment and acts as a spawning habitat for shellfish. Photo contributed by Dan Devereaux

A dedicated group of scientists, artists, philosophers and thought leaders are about to learn much more about their importance to Casco Bay. Called Team Zostera, this team has taken on the responsibility of being Casco Bay’s “seagrass stewards.” Team Zostera, named after Zostera marina, the local eelgrass species, recognizes that healthy seagrass meadows are central for healthy fisheries, adding oxygen, trapping particles like microplastics, contributing to shoreline protection, capturing carbon and filtering by removing bacteria and viruses from coastal waters.

The launch of Team Zostera has been carefully planned over the past year culminating in a week-long “Casco Bay Bioregional Learning Journey” held last week. This event was designed to learn about the systems that influence the health of seagrass meadows in Casco Bay. Organized by Collaborative for Bioregional Action Learning and Transformation, the leaders invited a wide range of perspectives, professions, ages, ethnicities, disciplines and sectors, both local and global, to celebrate the launch of the initiative. COBALT is led by Glenn Page, CEO of SustainaMetrix and a restoration ecologist who served as the founding director of conservation at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and has returned to his roots in Casco Bay.

The five-day Bioregional Learning Journey began at Southern Maine Community College with a presentation by Dwayne Tomah, Passamaquoddy language keeper, and special words of wisdom by Chief Hugh Akagi, chief of the Peskotouhkati (Passamaquoddy) Nation at Skutik, in what is now St. Stephen New Brunswick, Canada. The packed itinerary included field trips to Wolfe’s Neck Demonstration Farm, Bristol Seafood to see their value-added seafood facility, Sea Meadows Foundation site on the Cousins River, the Osher Map library and a wide range of aquaculture projects. The event started with a “Taste of the Bioregion” that featured a menu prepared by renowned Chef Barton Seaver, with each course served following a transect from the top of Mount Washington to the seagrass meadows of Casco Bay. The journey celebrated the “intersection of food systems, wastewater treatment, and the current health and future trajectory of seagrass meadows in Casco Bay.”

The year that led up to the launch of Team Zostera featured detailed consultations and deep collaboration with the Friends of Casco Bay, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and local officials like the City of Portland’s Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman as well as the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership that has convened the “eelgrass consortium.” Team Zostera recognizes that for seagrass meadows to be a potential “blue” solution to the climate and fisheries challenge we face in Casco Bay, the seagrass meadows must be healthy, and we actually know very little about their health.

Also called a seagrass, eelgrass is actually a flowering plant supported by a diverse range of pollinators and seed dispersers such as fish and crustaceans. Healthy seagrass meadows have many claims to fame in the ecosystem world including producing copious amounts of oxygen for the water, creating a broad network of roots that stabilize the substrate on the seafloor and along the coast, and creating a forest of hiding places that forms a nursery for ocean animals.

The key is that eelgrass is foundational to the ability of the Gulf of Maine to provide healthy, local seafood options. A recent article in the journal Science (published the same day as the launch of Team Zostera) entitled, “The planetary role of seagrass conservation,” highlights the mission of team Zostera by stating, “Without strong partnerships between communities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector, seagrass conservation and restoration will not work effectively.”

One of the Learning Journey participants, the UNFCCC Climate Champion, Lead for Food and Agricultural Systems summed it up by saying, “The Casco Bay Learning Journey was an amazing expedition into the complex interfaces between ocean and land food systems. This was an immersive experience that connected all of us to the power and importance of seagrass, not only as a climate solution, but as a holistic intervention with potential benefits that go far and beyond climate solutions. The bioregional learning journey was very complete from the perspective of ‘understanding’ with amazing food and vistas, camaraderie, and even stand-up comedy at the New England Ocean Cluster! One of the most transformative hands-on learning experiences I have ever experienced — real bioregional depth — BRAVO!”

If you are interested in learning more about Team Zostera and their efforts, including opportunities to participate in citizen science projects, you can visit the website at cobaltlearningjourney.com/casco-bay-learning-journey/. It’s a fresh perspective on the interconnectedness of an approach to a bigger issue that can involve people across disciplines working together.

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