Friday, April 20, 2012

Following Louisiana's Restoration and Wetlands Education Trip, Smithtown Teacher Using Gulf Experience to Help Sunken Meadow Park

The New York Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant's 2012 trip to the Louisiana coast made the paper on Wednesday (April 18, 2012). Check out the article, "Smithtown teacher using Gulf experience to help Sunken Meadow Park," in the Port Times Record, one of several newspapers covering Long Island's North Shore communities under Times Beacon Record Media - see pdf of article (click here) or text version below.

Also, see our coverage in the first section of Newsday's Sunday March 18th paper - see pdf of article (click here) or text version (click here)

Smithtown teacher using Gulf experience to help Sunken Meadow Park
Port Times Record / April 18, 2012 by Elana Glowatz

Smithtown High School West science teacher Elizabeth Platt, with science teachers Coleen Grant, from Centereach High School, and Thomas Armentrout from Seattle, Wash., worked with others to plant approximately 500 trees on a restored ridge recreated from sediments that were excavated during dredging in Port Fourchon, near Grand Isle, La. Photo from Paul C. Focazio/NY Sea Grant

One of the lessons Elizabeth Platt is bringing back to her students after her trip to Louisiana is "instilling in people the need to protect what we have rather than having to restore areas."

The Smithtown High School West teacher recently visited the Gulf of Mexico with the New York State Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant, which has a local office at Stony Brook University, to learn about threats to the environment and help with restoration efforts. To mitigate plant loss from storms in Louisiana, she spent time learning about wetlands and planting certain plant species: bitter panicum, gulf bluestem, bulrush, oyster grass and Spartina patens.

Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant's Long Island Sound Study outreach coordinator, said this trip to Louisiana was different from last year in that one of the focuses was "to make more of a connection to what's happening in New York." Graham said many of the problems in the Gulf, such as wetland loss, are more extreme versions of what is happening here.

Participants, a number of them from the Island and New York City, are required to do follow-up local projects, taking in lessons learned down South.

Platt, who lives in Huntington, teaches Advanced Placement environmental science and biology at Smithtown HS West. She wants to get her students, juniors and seniors, involved in projects at Sunken Meadow State Park.

Her goal is for them to have an experience that will give them a sense of responsibility for the area: "If they have some ownership of an area, if they're the ones cleaning and taking care of it ... they'll feel more connected."

One of the ways she may get the kids involved is in helping a small population of chestnut trees at Sunken Meadow, partly by pulling invasive plants away from them.

Ariana Newell, a regional natural resource steward-biologist for the state Parks Department, said chestnut trees were once the most dominant trees in forests in this area. At Sunken Meadow State Park, roughly three out of every four trees were chestnut trees, she said.

In the early 1900s, however, a blight came through and killed many of them. There are few left — Newell estimated only a handful in Sunken Meadow — and "what we do have in state parks, we want to keep."

The state plans to protect these trees by trimming vegetation around them to prevent overcrowding, Newell said, and will possibly put up a fence "to keep people from messing with them."

Platt said she would like to help with the effort to reestablish and help the population.

However, she said budgeting is a factor, as she has already used all her field trips for the year. If Platt can't organize a field trip for her classes this semester, she said, she will work on this project in the fall. She is also an ecology club adviser, so that is another way she can work on this project with Smithtown students.

Another problem at Sunken Meadow State Park is wetlands loss, the root of which dates back to the 1950s. Newell said at that time, the creek channel was diverted using two culverts, which restricted fish passage and the tidal flow to the marshes.

She said it is unclear why the channel was diverted, although some reports suggest it was done to create a larger area waterfowl could use.

Since then, invasive phragmites — large perennial grass found in wetlands — have taken over. Newell said her group is trying to remove the culverts and restore the tidal flow, which would benefit the ecosystem and open up the marsh for fish passage.

This is a project in which Platt said she has interest.

The teacher said she talks a lot with her students about habitat destruction and what people can do to help. After the trip to Louisiana and working on solutions with the other environmentalists and educators, she said she can now bring information to the kids "about exactly what's involved in restoring and kind of how things get messed up in the first place."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In the Words of the Educators: Impressions on the Gulf Coast's wetland loss and environmental degradation

By Karen Matsumoto, Marine Science Education Coordinator, Seattle Aquarium, WA

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” ― Upton Sinclair

On April 20, 2010, off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring another 17. The resulting disaster spilled nearly 5 million barrels - approximately 200 million gallons - of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly two years later the full impacts of the spill on the Gulf ecosystem and the people who live and work there are still unknown, but they are expected to be felt over many years. In the short term, up to 80,000 square miles of the coast were closed to fishing, resulting in loss of food, jobs, and recreation. It is the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Where are we today?

After following the oil spill over the past two years and viewing a photo exhibition on the Gulf oil spill by Daniel Beltra on display at Seattle Aquarium, I was inspired to join the NYSMEA group to Louisiana to view firsthand the effects of the disaster.

Beltra comments about his work: “The fragile state of our ecosystems is a continuous thread throughout my work… My photographs show the vast scale of transformation our world is under from man-made stresses. By taking viewers to remote locations where man and nature are at odds, I hope to instill a deeper appreciation for the precarious balance we are imposing on the planet.”

Terry Tempest Williams, noted author and environmentalist writes in Orion Magazine (December 2010): “The blowout from the Macondo well has created a terminal condition: denial. We don’t want to own, much less accept, the cost of our actions. We don’t want to see, much less feel, the results of our inactions. And so, as Americans, we continue to live as though these 5 million barrels of oil spilled in the Gulf have nothing to do with us. The only skill I know how to employ in the magnitude of this political, ecological, and spiritual crisis is to share the stories that were shared with me by the people who live here. I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both.”

Our NYSMEA restoration trip to the Gulf Coast was an epiphany for me. The projects we participated in inspired hope in ecosystem restoration efforts, and the stories we shared with the people working directly with these projects gave insight into the forward momentum of efforts to restore the Gulf coast’s wetland habitat. But what caused wetland loss and environmental degradation in the first place?

The reluctance of our speakers to talk about the oil spill and its effects on the Louisiana shoreline and the oil industry in general gradually made me aware of the “elephant in the living room.” I was surprised that the effects of oil spill were not an all-consuming concern by local resource specialists or residents. The most common response I heard was, “Oh, that happened over a year and a half ago—things are fine now. Natural oil leaks happen all the time, and the ecosystem can heal itself.” I was stunned and not sure what to think.

I learned that the Gulf is home to over 13,000 active offshore oil rigs and that one of every five residents in Louisiana is employed by the petroleum industry. That was when it suddenly became clear to me that much of the populace is caught in a love-hate relationship with the oil industry, a relationship that could only be maintained by impenetrable denial. Upton Sinclair’s words rang true. But I still wondered, How can you reconcile the everyday needs of people and their livelihoods with the wholesale destruction of the environment?

Gregory Bull/AP Photo
Christian Science Monitor: In this June 24 file photo, oil workers from the Gulf Island Fabrication Yard listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during a speech in Houma, Louisiana. The Governor spoke out against the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, saying it would kill thousands of jobs.

Doing a little on-line research, I found this: “More than 50,000 wells have been drilled onshore in coastal Louisiana, accessed by 8,200 miles of canals crisscrossing the swamps, marshes, and bayous. Experts estimate that mineral extraction is directly responsible for one-third of all the coastal wetland loss and land subsidence.” (Burnett/NPR 2010) With oil and infrastructure development, including 83,000 miles of pipeline, and an “85-mile corridor of petrochemical factories, Louisiana has sacrificed much in the name of oil, including the biologically rich wetlands that nourish its seafood industry and protect its cities from storms.” (Cart/LA Times 2010)

The Los Angeles Times (September 15, 2010) also reported: “On a per-capita basis, Louisiana has the highest volume of toxic chemicals in the country. The energy infrastructure that followed the state's first gushing well in 1901 has transformed it into an industrial powerhouse, converting a stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans into chemical alley. Some residents refer to it as cancer alley."

These examples throw a harsh light on the denial we live with every day, whether in relation to the consequences of the largest oil spill in our country’s history, the extent of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, or the environmental devastation caused by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. I left Louisiana to wanting to know the full story on what is causing the environmental degradation of one of the richest coastal ecosystems on earth, and wondering how to get around the wall of denial with a message about the urgency of action.

In the Words of the Educators: My Louisiana Bayou Experience

By Karen Matsumoto, Marine Science Education Coordinator, Seattle Aquarium, WA

I spent last week in Louisiana bayou country as part of a group from the New York State Marine Educators Association (NYSMEA) to learn about coastline restoration after the BP Deep Horizon oil spill in 2010, as well as after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. This was a very special opportunity to learn about Gulf Coast ecosystems and associated wetland restoration projects, as well as network with New York marine educators. The trip leader, Meghan Marrero is a colleague from my leadership experience at Midway Atoll with NOAA two years ago, and she is President of NYSMEA. I was especially excited to be part of this program, especially after Daniel Beltra’s awesome photography exhibit on the Gulf oil spill here at the Aquarium.

Along with 14 other marine educators, I participated in several plant propagation projects, tree planting, and networking with research scientists from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Louisiana Sea Grant, and Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). It was a terrific opportunity to meet people doing the “real work” on the ground in wetland restoration, and to be able to volunteer manual labor to work on these projects.

My most memorable experience was to participate in a restoration planting project on the Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge with BTNEP. We planted native trees on a newly restored natural ridge north of Port Fourchon, LA northwest of the Deep Horizon oil spill. Just getting to the island by small boat was an adventure, as we saw dolphins and many shorebirds that seemed exotic to someone from Washington!

The task of planting was not easy, as we had to drill planting holes in the compacted clay soil with gas powered augers! (pictured below) In addition to planting the seedlings of live oak, sand live oak, and hagberry, we also alternated planting treatments to check future survival against best planting practices. When the plantings on the Fourchon become mature, the ridge will act as critical habitat for neotropical migratory birds traveling to and from South America across the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi Flyway.

I was planting alongside Tom Armentrout (pictured below), one of our Citizen Science teachers from Bainbridge Island . We both realized that following unfamiliar planting protocols reminded us of how difficult it is for our Citizen Science high school students to follow instructions if they have never collected data before. It was a great “Ah ha” moment for both Tom and me. We will now strive to be more patient, clear communicators to our student scientists, and learned firsthand how difficult it is to follow “simple” instructions!

What did my experience in Louisiana teach me about wetland loss in Washington? Wetland ecosystems represent a diverse ecological system that supports multiple habitats for wildlife and functional values for the natural ecosystem and for humans. It is estimated that between 20 to 50 percent of Washington's wetlands have been lost during the past two centuries, with some urbanized areas of the Puget Sound area experiencing losses of from 70 to 100 percent. The major causes of continuing loss and degradation of wetlands are urban expansion, forestry and agricultural practices, and the invasion of exotic plants and animals. At Seattle Aquarium, we want to help students and teachers learn about the connections between wetland systems and ocean health through our “Sound to Mountains” exhibit and our education programs on salmon, watersheds, and Puget Sound ecosystems.

This blog site features more on NYSMEA's Louisiana restoration trip, including a related blog post (with pictures) on the maritime ridge work, “Educators Learn the Value of Southern Louisiana's Maritime Forest Ridges."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

LUMCON: Louisiana's University-Based Solution to its Coastal Science Concerns

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

On the final day of the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG)-led restoration and wetlands trip in southern Louisiana, our educators (pictured in (2) below) and students from Massachusetts' Brandeis University toured the facilities at LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. LUMCON was established in 1979 by an act of the Louisiana Legislature to coordinate and stimulate marine research and education in the state. The Consortium's base of operations is at the W.J. DeFelice Marine Center (pictured in (1) above) in Cocodrie, which lies within the expansive wetlands of the Mississippi River deltaic plan between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers. The Marine Center offers coastal field and laboratory space to researchers, educators, students and public groups.

"We're here to increase society's awareness of the environmental, economic and cultural value of Louisiana's coastal and marine environments," said Dr. Nancy Rabalias, LUMCON's Executive Director. LUMCON accomplishes this by (1) conducting research and education programs directly relevant to Louisiana's needs in marine science and (2) serving as a facility for all of the state's schools interested in marine research and education.

One of the many other hats Rabalias wears is as Chair of the National Sea Grant Advisory Board, which is comprised of 15 members, all with diverse backgrounds in marine affairs. This board advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Secretary of Commerce, the undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, and the director of the National Sea Grant College Program on scientific and administrative policy.

LUMCON owns and operates two research vessels - the R/V Pelican, a 115-foot University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) vessel used for oceanographic research in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Western Atlantic, and the R/V Acadiana, a 58-foot vessel used for short trips offshore and extended cruises in coastal bays, rivers and estuaries.

The R/V Pelican (a model of which is pictured in (3) below) was named in honor of the Louisiana state symbol, the brown pelican, as well as two earlier vessels of the same name. In addition to these research vessels, LUMCON also has a fleet of small boats for use by researchers and educators in nearshore waters.

LUMCON's marine education program raises awareness about coastal Louisiana through programs tailored for K-12, university, teacher and public audiences. K-12 students engage in field and laboratory activities. The youngest of these "scientists-in-training" help identify species first-hand and draw them on LUMCON's "Wall of Organisms," as pictured in (4) - (5) below. University students can earn credit at Louisiana colleges for courses and internships completed at LUMCON. Teachers can take part in programs to better understand the scientific process, learn marine and coastal science and gain confidence in active learning methods. As for the general public, groups of 10 or more people can request a guided tour and may also schedule an educational cruise or overnight activity session.

The Consortium's educators highlight the research conducted by its scientists and relate the importance of their work toward developing a better understanding of the environment. About a half dozen resident marine scientists and their research teams focus on themes such as: river/ocean interactions, coastal productivity, processes influencing coastal change, human and industrial environmental impacts, and living resources. Some "hot topics" include harmful algal blooms and the influence of oil and gas platforms on the expansion of corals in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

LUMCON's environmental monitoring system (see related research posters (6) - (7) below) collects and provides real-time and long-term environmental data to a broad community of scientists, educators and the public. Stations at the Marine Center, off-shore, and in local bays, estuaries and the Mississippi River record wind speed and direction, precipitation, water height, air and water temperature, salinity, oxygen, nutrients and other data. LUMCON posts current environmental data at This Web site also displays current weather conditions at the Marine Center as recorded through two cameras located in the observation tower.

In addition to providing stellar views of the natural environment surrounding LUMCON's facilities (see pictures (8) - (10) below), the observation tower serves as an educational outpost, filled with informative panels on everything from Louisiana's changing wetlands, salt marshes and industries to its cultural influences and resident and migratory species. Also featured is a history of the Marine Center, which once suffered from water levels of almost seven feet due to storm surge associated with 1992's Hurricane Andrew. Even though the eye of Andrew hit landfall in a sparsely settled area just west of Cocodrie, storm damages reached a total of $2.5 billion, with widespread destruction in the area's Terrebonne parish.

Another issue being addressed at LUMCON is hypoxia, or low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water (see related map in (11) below). It's an issue that our educators were reminded is rather common, also occurring in parts of Long Island Sound (LIS) and other waters back home in New York (as illustrated in (12) - (13) below).

During the summer, surface water heats up and forms a distinct layer "floating" over the bottom water, which is denser due to greater salinity and cooler temperatures. The layers lead to a sharp density gradient that restricts the oxygen-rich surface waters from mixing with bottom waters. At the same time, nutrients, particularly nitrogen, fuel the overgrowth of planktonic algae. As the algae and the microscopic animals that feed on the algae die and sink to the bottom, they are consumed by bacteria, which also take up oxygen in the process. A significant loss of oxygen in the bottom waters results in hypoxia, a condition that impairs the feeding, growth and reproduction of aquatic life.

For more information on hypoxia in Long Island Sound, check out these resources: "LIS Water Quality: Hypoxia" and "LIS Environmental Indicators: Frequency of Hypoxia"

One of LUMCON's current researchers is Alex Kolker (pictured at right in (14) below), a coastal geologist focusing on wetlands loss. Kolker is a former Sea Grant scholar who once worked under Stony Brook University marine geologist Steven Goodbred and fellow investigator Kirk Cochran. Kolker presented his findings on the disappearing marshes of New York City's Jamaica Bay at a March 2004 symposium (see NYSG's Summer 2004 story, "Are Marshes Losing Ground?").

Last October, a NYSG co-sponsored follow-up symposium, "State of the Bay: Past, Present and Future—Revisited," was held at Brooklyn College. There was much discussion amongst scientists in attendance at this event about what could be done to restore the bay's salt marshes, which are being lost at a rate of 44 acres per year. For more, see NYSG's related news item, "NYSG partners with the National Park Service and other organizations to revisit Jamaica Bay's restoration issues" (click here).