Project Report:
Securing Protection for Eelgrass Beds: Overcoming Economic Imbalances through Submerged Land Leases in Frenchman’s Bay and the Gulf of Maine
Boats at the Mt. Dessert Island Biological Lab
Boats used by researchers at the Mt. Dessert Island Biological Laboratory. Photo taken by Barrett Walker during site visit.

- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


Eelgrass beds in the subtidal zone along the Atlantic coastline provide vital but undervalued ecosystem services, yet their coverage has declined precipitously over the past twenty years. In areas with good water quality, this decline may be due primarily to dragging by commercial mussel harvesters. Working collaboratively with local community groups and a commercial mussel grower, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Bar Harbor, Maine, has been restoring an eelgrass bed in a pilot project over the past three years while conducting scientific research on restoration techniques and the ecological value of eelgrass. MDIBL is now partnering with The Nature Conservancy to create a model for establishing conservation agreements based on a process that explores and develops market-based solutions in collaboration with local fishing communities and regulatory agencies.


During the week of July 12, 2010 thirty-one volunteers helped scientists and students at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) transplant eelgrass into two new sites in Frenchman Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Those sites, off Thomas Island and in Berry Cove, were identified during the stakeholder meeting held at MDIBL in March. Restoration at these sites is an expansion of an earlier effort to restore eelgrass at Hadley Point in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Eelgrass restoration at Hadley Point has proven successful; recent studies show eelgrass coverage at the 14-acre Hadley Point site has increased from less than 1% in 2007 to over 20% in 2010, with plants now growing in thick and vigorous beds.

A total of 128 acres has now been set aside for eelgrass restoration in Frenchman Bay through voluntary marine conservation agreements. Participants at the March 30, 2010 stakeholder meeting identified Thomas Island and Berry Cove as priority areas for restoration after reviewing data from coastal surveys dating back to 1996, when both regions showed abundant eelgrass growth. In 2009, those areas were bare, due most likely to dragging by mussel harvesters.

After Frenchman Bay stakeholders targeted the two regions for eelgrass restoration, Lee Hudson of the Maine Mussel Harvesters Association, who participated in the meeting, consulted with other mussel harvesters to define areas where they would agree not to drag. The mussel draggers’ offer to stay clear of 128 acres represents a nearly ten-fold increase in the number of protected acres in Frenchmen Bay. Seventy of those acres are at Berry Cove in Lamoine on the north side of the Bay; forty-four are off Thomas Island, owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust; and fourteen constitute the original restoration site at Hadley Cove.

MDIBL continues to partner with The Nature Conservancy in evaluating and supporting conservation measures in Frenchman Bay. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust is a new partner in the eelgrass restoration effort, providing staff time, use of boats, and working collaboratively on new grant opportunities.

The first stakeholder meeting for upper Frenchman Bay was held at MDIBL on March 30, 2010. Representatives from sixteen organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Acadia National Park, the Maine Mussel Harvesters Association, The Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and the Lamoine Conservation Commission, as well as commercial fishermen, shorefront property owners, and town officials discussed the current status of the upper bay in order to begin a process that will hopefully sustain marine resources and conserve marine habitat for future generations. Fishermen received a stipend for attending to compensate them for time lost on the water.

Participants reviewed the current status of water quality, marine resources including commercial species such as mussels and lobsters, and eelgrass habitat in the upper Bay. Geoff Smith of The Nature Conservancy, which partners with MDIBL on the eelgrass restoration project, gave an overview of marine conservation agreements and the process of creating a Conservation Action Plan. Working together, the stakeholders identified priority areas in upper Frenchman Bay for future research and conservation.

To date, eelgrass restoration in Frenchman Bay has been achieved with an informal marine conservation agreement between MDIBL and its collaborators and the shellfish harvesting community, particularly mussel draggers who could potentially uproot newly established eelgrass when they harvest mussels from shallow subtidal areas. Participants at the Stakeholder Meeting felt this was the most desirable model to follow.

Stakeholders decided that Berry Cove in Lamoine and the area between Hadley Point and Thomas Island in Bar Harbor were the most important areas for future eelgrass restoration. A representative of the Maine Mussel Harvesters Association agreed to discuss those areas with the other harvesters to determine boundaries for protected areas.

Two working groups, one focused on conservation action planning and one on eelgrass, are following up on issues identified at the meeting, and a smaller stakeholder meeting is planned for the fall of 2010. The eelgrass working group has decided to move forward with permitting for new restoration activities at Thomas Island and Berry Cove. Discussions with mussel harvesters are ongoing and productive.

The March stakeholder meeting was supported by the Alex C. Walker Foundation, Maine Coastal Program, Maine Sea Grant, and MDIBL.


Economic activity has led to the degradation of eelgrass beds in the Gulf of Maine and resulted in economic imbalances. One species is being harvested and sold at the expense of the important but undervalued ecosystem services eelgrass provides, including serving as a nursery area for several commercially valuable fisheries, feeding water fowl, and improving water quality. MDIBL will investigate the nature of this imbalance through scientific research into the ecological role of eelgrass. Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, we will also investigate the role of current marine policies in perpetuating these economic imbalances. In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, policy makers, other marine non-profits and the fishing community, we will seek an equitable means of protecting habitat for research and conservation purposes. Market-based solutions are an effective way to create the necessary buy-in from those who use a resource, and such solutions will be explored and developed to the fullest extent possible.


This project is potentially national in scope. For three years, MDIBL has conducted a small pilot project to restore eelgrass in collaboration with local groups in Frenchman Bay. Now we are also partnering with The Nature Conservancy to find effective, potentially market-based strategies to protect habitat for conservation and research, and the project has gained a regional scope. As the project develops, we will partner with other marine non-profits in the Gulf of Maine who can also benefit from our collaborative approach to securing conservation agreements. Because marine policy is rife with economic imbalances, this project will also serve as a national model for establishing conservation agreements through collaborative, scientific, and market-based solutions.

Information Dissemination

The Stakeholder meeting received coverage in the local newspapers, and a summary of the meeting was distributed to all participants. An information kiosk is being constructed at Hadley Point, where local residents and visitors will see it. (Hadley Point offers public boat access.) Myers Aquarium, a public facility at MDIBL, includes an eelgrass tank and exhibits. A new grant will enable Dr. Disney to continue working with Lamoine residents this summer, mapping eelgrass beds in Frenchman Bay, and another new grant will create a "Young Environmental Leaders" course at MDIBL this summer for motivated students from Dr. Disney's work in local middle schools during the 2009-10 school year.

Amount Approved
$15,000.00 on 11/16/2009 (Check sent: 12/15/2009)

  Related Organizations
MDI Biological Laboratory  

Lush underwater meadows of eelgrass once covered the shallow subtidal zones of estuaries and bays in the Atlantic from North Carolina to Greenland.

Hudson and Smith
Lee Hudson of the Maine Mussel Harvesters Association and Geoff Smith of The Nature Conservancy talk at the Stakeholder Meeting.

Preparing to transplant eelgrass using wooden staples, one of two tranplantation methods employed.

Eelgrass on grids
Grids loaded with eelgrass waiting to be placed on the bay bottom

Bare Bottom and New Transplants
Stakes mark newly transplanted eelgrass on otherwise bare ground off Thomas Island.

Four in water
Volunteers and MDIBL summer interns transplanting eelgrass off Thomas Island.


Boats at the Mt. Dessert Island Biological Lab
Hudson and Smith
Eelgrass on grids
Bare Bottom and New Transplants
Four in water

159 Old Bar Harbor Road
Bar Harbor , ME 04609

After driving onto Mt. Desert Island, bear left to stay on Route 3. Drive about 4 miles, then turn left onto Old Bar Harbor Road at sign for the Lab. Turn left again onto Biol Lab Road and continue straight to parking area.

(207) 288-9880 ext 125


Dr. Jane Disney
Eelgrass Project Co-Manager
Judy Sproule
Deputy Director of Development, Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory

Posted 9/28/2009 6:52 PM
Updated   8/11/2010 5:09 PM

  • Nonprofit

Subtidal zone research in a fishing community.

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