Louisiana’s wetlands are being lost at an alarming rate—approximately one football field of wetlands is lost every 38 minutes 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. If these rates continue, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands will disappear by 2040, and the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas.
Similar concerns over wetland loss are mirrored in New York wetlands such as Jamaica Bay, a 39-square-mile estuary that includes portions of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island's Nassau County. During the "State of the Bay: Past, Present and Future—Revisited" symposium, a New York Sea Grant (NYSG) co-sponsored event held at Brooklyn College this past fall, scientists discussed restoration plans for the bay's salt marshes, which are being lost at a rate of 44 acres per year.
To learn about wetland loss in Louisiana and how it relates to the habitat loss occurring in New York, a group of fourteen educators traveled to Louisiana for five days late last month to rebuild habitats devastated by recent natural and man-made events. The group was organized and led by Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant’s Long Island Sound Study (LISS) Outreach Coordinator and Meghan Marrero, the President of New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and faculty at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY.
In addition to providing crucial resources to the nation, wetlands are extremely important in an ecological sense as they serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for thousands of native animals. "Healthy wetlands support our fisheries, our industry, and our communities,” said Mel Landry, Marine Habitat Resource Specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center. “By restoring habitat, we are preserving an engine of job-creation and economic growth.”
To rebuild wetland habitats in Louisiana, the group of educators volunteered at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center in Galliano where they planted more than 1,700 gulf bluestem plants, harvested seeds, and prepped planting materials. They also worked with Louisiana Sea Grant at the Wetland Plant Center in New Orleans to pot native wetland vegetation which will be planted at various wetlands around Southern Louisiana.
Working with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, the group planted nearly 500 live oak, sand oak, and hackberry trees on a restored ridge re-created from dredged sediments that were excavated during dredging in Port Fourchon. With this and future plantings, this ridge will one day become a mature maritime forest—a crucial habitat that provides food and shelter for birds during their migration routes.
While they worked, participants learned from local experts about the natural history of Louisiana’s wetlands and the natural and man-made processes that affect them today. Marrero and Graham hope that this trip will motivate these educators to protect and restore their New York coastline.
Similar to Louisiana, New York struggles with many of the topics that the educators learned about during their restoration trip. Marrero and Graham taught the group about wetland loss and current restoration projects in Jamaica Bay and Long Island Sound, and other issues such as problems with hypoxia, or a level of low dissolved oxygen, that occurs in both the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound. They provided science-based information, highlighting much of the research that has been funded by NYSG and LISS.
“Our expectation is that these educators will see how the environmental problems effecting Louisiana are also very real here, at home, and will use what they have learned during this trip to become stewards of our New York coastline,” said Graham.
As part of the follow-up to the trip, each participant will lead a restoration project of their own over the next few months in their New York neighborhoods. Educators will involve community members and their students in invasive species removal, beach cleanups, plantings, and other projects with local environmental groups.
The group also hopes to educate others about habitat loss and other environmental problems by giving presentations to their classes and community groups and by encouraging people to visit this blog, which tells of their adventures, lessons learned, and inspirational experiences during and after the trip. Additional blog posts documenting the trip will be added throughout this month.
“NYSMEA’s goal is for our members to be stewards of the marine environment, and to ‘pay it forward’,” said Marrero, “Our students and the public will benefit from what we’ve learned in Louisiana, and engage in stewardship projects closer to home, where the environment also needs our help.”
To learn more about wetland loss along the Louisiana coast, visit www.btnep.org or gulfseagrant.tamu.edu/oilspill/index.htm.