By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant
Over the course of four days in late February, a group of New York educators traveled to Louisiana to team up with staff from Louisiana Sea Grant and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program to rebuild tidal wetlands and maritime forest communities devastated by recent natural and man-made events.
The New York group was organized by Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant’s (NYSG) Long Island Sound Study (LISS) Outreach Coordinator and Meghan Marrero, the President of New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) in response to the oil spill that occurred last spring. But, after talking to various experts and touring the Louisiana coast, the group quickly learned that the oil spill was only one of numerous problems that face the habitats along the Louisiana coast.
“Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate,” said Mel Landry, Public Involvement Coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. “Our only chance of survival is with the support of the entire nation.”
Wetlands are an extremely important habitat as they serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for thousands of wild animals in the Gulf of Mexico region. Tidal wetlands are washing away due to the canals that have been dug for oil transportation, the floodwaters that have ripped through the area during hurricanes, and the damming and channelization of the Mississippi which used to supply sediment to replenish these vital areas.
To help rebuild wetland habitats, the group volunteered with Caitlin Reilly of Louisiana Sea Grant to plant more than 320 pots of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and propagated over 2,700 Gulf Bluestem (Schizachyrium maritimum), two native wetland plants that will be planted at various sites. “Native grasses are an important component of our coastal ecosystems. They hold together sediments and provide habitat for native wildlife.” Reilly said, “Propagating and planting grasses is an effective way of involving volunteers in an essential aspect of coastal restoration.”
The group also helped to restore a maritime forest—a crucial habitat that provides food and shelter for neotropical birds during their migration routes. Working with Landry and Matt Benoit from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program the group planted 800 salt matrimony vines (Lycium carolinianum), a native shrubbery, in what will one day be a critical part of a maritime forest on a manmade ridge created from dredged spoil.
“The efforts of these volunteers not only helped create important habitat, but also helped to educate a new set of ambassadors for the restoration of this national treasure,” said Landry.
"Although our group was only in Louisiana for a relatively short time, our goal was to learn as much as we could about the various problems affecting the Louisiana coast," said Graham. "Now that we are home, we can use the information we learned to better inform others about how they can help."
Many of the New York educators were astounded by how much of the natural landscape was altered for human needs and the effect that it was having on the surrounding habitats. “To see the fragility of the coastline first hand was depressing, but then inspirational,” said Fran Moss, one participant on the trip. “If everyone would participate in programs such as this, there is hope for restoration and the resumption of bounty.”
Marrero and Graham hope that the participants will use the trip to encourage stewardship for New York’s coastline. "NYSMEA members are eager to assist in restoration efforts, and to raise awareness back in New York that there is plenty of work to be done in the Gulf and here at home," said Marrero. "NYSMEA is making a special effort this year to involve our members in stewardship activities. There are many local citizen science activities here in New York, and our annual conference held in June will focus on these and other stewardship opportunities."
For more on the trip, see the six posts below, between February 21 - March 2, 2011, on this blog.
You can learn more about wetland loss along the Louisiana coast, visit BTNEP's Web Site or the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Program's Oil Spill Web site or NYSG's Resource page, NOAA Sea Grant's Response to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.