Monday, March 21, 2011

NYSMEA featured in NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program's newsletter

NYSMEA - what we strive to support, our mission, and what we provide - is on display in the New York - New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program's Spring 2011 issue of Tidal Exchange. The issue, devoted entirely to NY-NJ Harbor Estuary education, showcases a few of the many ongoing environmental education programs focusing on the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary in our unique coastal region.

As mentioned in the NYSMEA article, one of the Association's main events is its annual conference, which will be held this year on Saturday June 4, 2011 along the Brooklyn shoreline at Kingsborough Community College. The theme for this 35th annual conference is “Our Local Waterways: Resources, Restoration, and Citizen Science Activities” and will help to introduce teachers to environmental regulators and community activists to transform their lesson plans into site-based action plans for habitat restoration and environmental monitoring.

"Too often, students lack the necessary field skills needed for career opportunities in the environmental sciences," writes the article's author, Dr. Merryl Kafka, Ed.D. "This conference will present tools to address this gap, while providing a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary education, producing concrete improvements in our estuary environment."

To read the full article on NYSMEA, "Get Marinated with the New York State Marine Education Association," click here. Also, download and read the entire issue of Tidal Exchange, which is available in pdf format (see pages 12-13 in the print version for NYSMEA's article).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

News of Our Trip to Louisiana Coast Makes the Paper

The New York Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant's trip to the Louisiana coast made the paper today. Check out the article, "Stewards of the habitat: 14-member team from NYSMEA gets knee-deep in plants in the Gulf of Mexico," in The Village Times Hearld (click here).

Monday, March 7, 2011

New York Educators Help Restore Habitats off Threatened Louisiana Coast

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Maritime Forests and Barrier Islands in Port Fourchon and Grand Isle; More Oil Spill Clean-up on Elmer's Island

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Our travels in our final days found us south of New Orleans, in the region around Port Fourchon (pictured above in 1), Louisiana’s southernmost port. This sea port shows significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. With primary service markets in domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico, Fourchon has earned the tagline "The Gulf's Energy Connection" for several reasons: (a) it has over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius, (b) it's port currently services over 90% of the Gulf's deepwater oil production, and (c) this area furnishes 16-18% of the U.S. oil supply.

Just a short boat ride from the Port Fourchon Marina (2, above) is where educators from New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG) partook in an all-day volunteer activity. The group, under guidance from staff at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), docked at the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (3-5, above) for a habitat restoration planting.

It was 2001 when BTNEP, along with the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, began their partnership with other organizations to re-establish this ridge. Why? While Louisiana’s unparalleled coastal wetlands loss has dire consequences for many species of fish and wildlife, the same can be said for ridges like this one. These ridge habitats are extremely important to many animals including the millions of migrating birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring each year on their way back to their breeding grounds in the eastern United States and Canada.

And while the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge appears rather bare in a vegetative sense, thanks to volunteer efforts like this one (during which around 800 new trees were planted), "it will hopefully one day be a full maritime forest," said Mel Landry, BTNEP's Public Involvement Coordinator.

Between 1986 and 2008 alone, nearly 120,000 acres in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System have benefited from habitat projects made possible through several state and federal programs, including BTNEP. Most of these projects have focused on habitats with high rates of loss, such as the barrier islands, interior marshes, bays, and bayou shorelines of Plaquemines, Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Port Fourchon, where the maritime forest ridge in this volunteer effort is located, is on the southern tip of Louisiana's Lafourche parish.

Salt Matrimony Vine was the small tree/shrub of choice for the restoration effort, as it's a native evergreen with a high success rate in most soils that is also tolerant of salt spray and drought conditions. Other plants found on the ridge, including marsh hay, bitter panicum and Spartina patens, exhibit similar endurance qualities.

Prior to the planting, BTNEP's Plant Materials Coordinator, Matt Benoit, showed the educators how to prepare and plant the salt matrimony vine (pictured 6-8, above). After holes are drilled deep enough to support the roots, the plant's soil needs some loosening up before placing the shrub in the ground, filling in the dirt around it firmly, and adding a fertilizer tablet before patting down the dirt one final time.

The NYSMEA and NYSG educators helped drill the holes and plant the shrubs during the full day of restoration efforts on the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (pictured 9-13, above; 14-15, below).

At the end of the day, after all of the nearly 800 salt matrimony vine trees were planted, BTNEP staff brought the NYSMEA and NYSG educators back to the Port Fourchon Marina for a much needed and well-deserved reprieve (pictured 16, above).

A good example of what these educators helped work towards in Port Fourchon - a more robust and, hopefully one day, full maritime forest ridge - is what you'll see on Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish located at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout its history, Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with hurricane direct hits on average every 7.88 years.

In 1860, a 6-foot storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. More recently, 2005's Hurricane Katrina hit Grand Isle very hard, destroying or damaging homes and camps along the entire island. Katrina's surge reached 5 ft at Grand Isle, with large waves severely damaging the only bridge linking Grand Isle to the mainland.

Luckily, a news report published less than two days after Katrina hit falsely noted that the area had been completely destroyed. Had this been true, it would have been even more devestating for the the skinny, seven-mile Grand Isle, Louisiana’s biggest and only inhabited barrier island that is also the only barrier island large enough to support “chenier” or live oak forests (pictured in 17, above). The forests, back barrier marshes, and sandy beaches of Grand Isle are considered one of the premiere birding destinations in North America.

In the spring, a redmulberry tree with ripe fruits (pictured in 18-19, above) may be filled with a kaleidoscope of migrating birds, including blood-red Summer Tanagers, velvety-red Scarlet Tanagers, orange Baltimore Orioles, burnt-orange Orchard Orioles,deep-blue Indigo Buntings, and multi-hued Painted Buntings.

"It's the diversity of habitat that makes this place so rich and unique," said BTNEP's Landry. In addition to live oak, this mature maritime forest (pictured in 20, below) is home to a variety of other plant species, including wax myrtle, black mangroves, native palm (palmeto, pictured in 21, below), and an array of salt tolerant grasses (22).

One of three types of mangrove plants that grow in the United States, black mangroves encompass a large community in both the Grand Isle and Port Fourchon areas. This community is at the northernmost edge of the black mangrove’s natural geographic range, so, because of cold stress, it only reaches shrub-size.

Overall this area's wetlands, including the mangroves, help to protect Louisiana's ports and infrastructure. They serve a vital purpose, both as physical habitat and nursery grounds for a wide variety of marine organisms as well as storm buffers by reducing wind and wave action in shallow shoreline areas. But, over the years, their presence in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System (BTES) has declined, mostly due to subsidence, a complex process in which marsh sediments compact and sink under their own weight. Historically, annual floods over the banks of the Mississippi River provided freshwater and sediment inputs to BTES marshes and kept them above water. But, the levees that have been constructed to protect shoreline communities from these floods are also preventing water and sediment from reaching BTES marshes.

Over time, the process of subsidence drowns coastal marshes, causing chemical changes in wetland soils which, eventually, kill marsh vegetation. Without plant roots to hold it together, marsh soil breaks us and is carried away by wave action. The end result? Marsh is converted to open water. This additional volume of water causes an increase in the tidal prism, forcing passes to enlarge and reducing the lengths of barrier islands such as Grand Isle, which protect interior marshes from wave action and hurricanes.

BTNEP suggests that one of the most effective ways to supplement the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System is via a pipeline delivery that would go over the levees and pump in the sediment needed to replenish and build up BTES's wetlands.

It is volunteer and education efforts such as the one on display between staff of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and the Long Island Sound Study (pictured in 23, below) - two of the U.S.'s 28 estuaries deemed critically in peril and nationally significant - that make programs like these a success and the ideas therein thrive.

For more on the region, check out Louisiana Sea Grant's "Grand Isle Diaries," a sound scape that documents Grand Isle’s rich history and culture, as well as its environmental importance.

As a result of April 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Elmer’s Island is currently closed to public fishing and recreation. Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge (EIWR), owned and maintained by the state of Louisiana, is a 230-acre tract of barrier beachfront located directly across Caminada Pass from Grand Isle on the southwestern tip of Jefferson Parish.

Following clearance from state police officials (who are on premises and constantly patrolling to be assured the area remains locked down during this period of testing) and under the supervision of Julia Lightener, Fisheries Biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and EIWR Manager, we were able to see some of the reasons for the closure.

Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge is where egrets and herons visit, terns, gulls and pelicans nest and plovers will winter. In it's sands you'll see ghost crabs scurrying about (pictured in 28, above), as well as beach grasses such as bitter panicum, Spartina patens and "Ghost Rider" purple bluestem, a native warm-season, perennial bunch grass well adapted to the deep South (pictured in 24-26, above).

Also in the sands of EIWR, though, are broken up tar balls, an incredibly degraded state of oil that has washed ashore (pictured in 29-31, below).

Crews are out on the beaches, raking up the tar balls (32). There are also machines nicknamed "sandbonis" that remove the top half-inch of the sand and sifts out possible tar and oil (33).

According to a recent report by Daily Comet, one of the area's news sources, LDWF Secretary Robert Barham, said there’s “new oil” showing up on its beaches, including tar balls and a submerged mat” of crude. Federal law gives the state final say over when an area is determined “cleaned,” Barham said. “In that regard, I have some security,” Barham said. “But BP has sent some subtle messages that it wants to take the position that nature should takes its course at this point and that they have basically cleaned everything up. They think they’re on the backside of this. But we’re going to hold them accountable.”

Mike Utsler, COO of British Petroleum’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, told Daily Comet that the seasonal low tide of winter was expected to reveal tar mats near shore and tar balls are still washing up in “limited areas” across the coast. Utsler, who has hosted Facebook question sessions and is serving as the public face for BP’s clean up, contends BP’s efforts won’t stop when a beach is cleaned.

“BP is going to be in the communities of the Gulf Coast for the long-term, and part of our continuing job will be to closely monitor the shoreline for any signs of tarred material,” he said. “We have specially trained reconnaissance teams that patrol the shoreline looking for any signs of tar balls, and if we find any, we will still have locally based response teams and equipment ready to rapidly clean the area.” Initially, he said BP’s goal was to have all of the Gulf Coast’s “amenity beaches” cleaned up in time for spring break.

For updates on the status of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, visit it's LDWF Web page.