Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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."

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