Once on a Blue Dune?

Once on a Blue Dune?

Members of the ACE team apply herbicide to invasive grasses. With funding from NOAA, this team got hands-on training and experience while furthering restoration at the Mission-Aransas Reserve.

You’ve heard of painting the town red—how about dying the dunes blue? A team of enthusiastic, young land stewards did exactly that as part of a program to combat invasive plants and clean up debris from Hurricane Harvey at our Mission-Aransas Reserve in Texas.

The team is part of American Conservation Experiences(ACE), a national program that partners with organizations like Reserves to provide hands-on habitat restoration experience to young people interested in resource management. In Texas, participants used chainsaws and herbicides to combat invasive and non-native species. The herbicides incorporate a temporary blue dye that helps the crew be more precise in their applications and see which areas they’ve already treated.

“The work the ACE team is doing is something that our usual volunteers—who are often school groups—just can’t tackle,” says Katie Swanson, Stewardship Coordinator at the Mission-Aransas Reserve. “They help us do work that otherwise wouldn’t get done.”

The ACE team takes a well-earned break. Along with invasive species removal, they cleared hurricane debris and repaired trails to restore monitoring access to parts of the Reserve that were still inaccessible after Harvey.

“Invasive species are a true ecological challenge,” says ACE Gulf Coast Director Dan McLendon. “These young adults helped to rid the natural areas of these plants and restore the ecological balance.”

The ACE team’s service was supported by NOAA and funds from the settlement with BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Though the dunes within the Reserve boundaries were not directly impacted by the spill, the funds are being used to help restore and create resilient habitats along the Texas coastline.

These efforts had restored only a fraction of the Reserve’s dunes prior to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a costly and devastating event that crippled the work being done on these fragile habitats. ACE volunteers have been a vital part of the effort to restart the restoration efforts. In the process, they’ve received hands-on experience and certification.

“Through ACE, young conservation professionals get the skills, training, and experience they need to succeed, and the Reserve gets healthy, restored dunes,” says Swanson. “It’s a win-win for all involved.”

Citizens Count Crabs & We Count on Them

Citizens Count Crabs & We Count on Them

Citizen scientists reconstruct a blue crab collector. More than 60 locals supported a study that found that less than 1% of blue crab larvae make the journey from the ocean to Texas bays. Watch a video about this project. 
All media courtesy of the Mission-Aransas Reserve.

Most young adults don’t plan on moving back home, but for juvenile blue crabs in Texas, moving back to the estuaries of their parents is part of their complex life-cycle. Thanks to a collaboration between local citizens and scientists from our Mission-Aransas Reserve, we’ve set an important baseline for understanding the movements of this commercially important shellfish.

Texas blue crab populations have been on the decline since 1987 due to pressures that likely include reduced fresh water in estuaries, habitat loss, and predation. Management actions to protect blue crabs requires a better understanding of their complex life cycle and their incredible journey.

Every year, thousands of raindrop-sized larval crabs ride the currents from the Gulf of Mexico into the state’s estuaries. With tiny claws, they cling to anything they can catch hold of: seagrass, oyster reefs, bathing suits (ouch!), and most recently, collection stations designed by Reserve researchers and monitored by citizen scientists.

Thousands of blue crab larvae make the journey from the ocean into Texas estuaries every year.

“We wanted to get a picture of what the populations are doing,” says Ed Buskey, the Mission-Aransas Reserve research coordinator and professor at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. “Are there a lot of blue crabs at a certain time of the year? Are we not getting as many crabs in our bay as in the past? How many actually survive?”

To answer these questions, the team installed hog hair collection stations—named for their hairy texture but made from air conditioning filters—in the ocean off Port Aransas and throughout Aransas Bay. By counting the crabs at the stations each day, researchers hoped to track how many baby crabs were returning to the estuaries, how far they travelled, and when they did so. 

The Reserve team knew they were going to need a lot of help to make it work. Fortunately, more than 60 citizen scientists volunteered more than 2,000 hours of service to collect and process the hundreds of samples involved in the project.

“I had never heard of a blue crab before, but learning how the effects of tide, temperature, season defined their population was fascinating and startling,” says Francie Henderson, who volunteered with the project. “My part in it was gratifying, and I was glad to help. I would definitely participate as a citizen scientist again.”

Reserve Scientist Tracy Weatherall counting samples in the lab.

Reserve scientists Tracy Weatherall, Lindsay Scheef, and Ed Buskey recently published the results of the study in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. They found that less than 1% of the larvae released into the ocean make their way back into the bays. They also found seasonal patterns to the larval crab’s movements. The return of the commercial blue crab species, Callinectes sapidus, peaked in the fall, and another common species known as the lesser blue crab, Callinectes similis, peaked in the winter.

Incredible journey: Blue crab larvae travelled on currents up the estuary, but their numbers were highest at the mouth.

I’ve always had a strong interest in nature and science, but ended up pursuing a career developing computer software applications,” says Chris Muckey, another citizen scientist volunteer. “This project allowed me to rekindle that interest. I took away a better understanding of the complexity of the food chain. Even the smallest crab larvae can impact the survival of endangered species like the Whooping Crane.”

Nurdles no match for Texas NERRd Power

Nurdles no match for Texas NERRd Power

Beach lovers of all ages have joined the Nurdle Patrol. Watch Parker Tunnell explain how to help. Photos and video courtesy Mission-Aransas Reserve.

Pop quiz: what’s a nurdle? Sounds cute, right? Like the season’s hottest toy? In reality, these lentil-sized plastic pellets used in manufacturing are shaping up to be a big problem in our oceans, where they often absorb pollutants before being snapped up by marine animals and seabirds.

Last October, hundreds of thousands of nurdles started washing up near our Mission-Aransas Reserve and on beaches along the Texas coast. Their origin is a mystery, but not for long. A Reserve-led team of citizen scientists of all ages have rolled up their sleeves to help.

Once they hit the ocean, nurdles do not go away, they break up into smaller and smaller plastic particles that are mistaken for prey by many marine creatures and enter the food chain.

“Twenty-five people have signed up to help us monitor their favorite beaches,” says Jace Tunnell, manager of the Mission-Aransas Reserve, who has been monitoring the pellets since he first spotted them in late September. “We’ve created a process that anyone can follow to help us understand the magnitude of the problem and where it’s coming from.”

Beachcombers from Galveston to South Padre Island are collecting information about the nurdles they spot and sending it, along with a photo, to the Reserve. Mare Kobie from Port Isabel is an avid beach-goer who is no stranger to volunteering her time to protect local sea life. So it was natural for her to step up to help.

“When I found the first one [nurdle] and saw next to it was another and another, it made me sad,” Kobie said. “I just love the sea turtles so if this helps one sea turtle not get a nurdle in their belly, I will be happy.”

Tiny nurdles blend all too well into coastal environments and are a primary contributor to marine debris world wide. Reserves around the counrty work with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to investigate and prevent adverse impacts of debris.

Tunnell’s latest count shows nearly 300,000 nurdles per kilometer in some beach areas. Because of their small size, the plastic pellets are difficult to clean up. The Reserve, which is part of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, has been monitoring the area’s animals, including the region’s much beloved green turtles, but so far, they have not seen any impact.

“It’s still early to assess,” says Tunnell. “But, unfortunately, we know the end game. It’s just a matter of time before they end up in the food chain. Maybe the release of the nurdles was unintentional, but somebody needs to be held accountable and somebody needs to clean them up.”

Tunnell has created a Facebook group for their local “Nurdle Patrol” and initiated a Gulf-wide effort to look at the nurdles’ distribution and abundance. He is engaging Reserves in Mississippi,  Alabama, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as scientists in Mexico, Cuba, and the United Kingdom. Nurdles, it appears, really get around.

“Last week, Jasper Hamlet, a project officer for FIDRA, emailed me about a nurdle spill in October 2017 around Durban, South Africa,” says Tunnell. “Based on models, his colleagues predicted the nurdles spilled in South Africa would be in Brazil in around 387 to 562 days from October 10, 2017. He was curious to know if our nurdles are similar to the Durban spill because the ocean currents could have brought them all the way to the Gulf. The majority do not look the same; however, I’d love to send him a bag of nurdles to compare!”


Interested in joining the Nurdle Patrol or learning more? Contact Jace Tunnell.

Ready to Talk Some Trash?

Ready to Talk Some Trash?

Our Mission-Aransas Reserve in Texas is leading a campaign to highlight problems caused by marine debris and inspire local mariners to become part of the solution. Through a combination of billboards, marina signage, public service announcements, community outreach, and social media, the campaign is educating Port Aransas anglers and boaters about the impact that marine debris, including fishing line, has on wildlife and the environment.

The $72,000 campaign is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is supported by organizations including the Coastal Conservation Association-Texas, Surfrider Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, Texas Sea Grant, and the Padre Island National Seashore.

“So many partners are working on this issue and we wanted to get these folks together to brainstorm ways to reach thousands of people about the problem. This project brought us together so we could really target our messaging,” says Jace Tunnell, manager of the reserve. “Given the number of folks reached in this campaign, everyone benefited from working as a team.”

Worldwide, more than 200 species of marine life have been harmed by debris. Animals may inadvertently eat debris or, in the case of monofilament fishing line, they can become entangled in it, injured, or even killed. According to the Texas General Land Office, more than 500 tons of trash is removed from Texas beaches each year. This can have significant impact on the state’s tourism and recreation.

The team created an educational video for the campaign that has been viewed more than 40,000 times and recently launched a public service announcement.

Advancing the Science: NERRS Research

Advancing the Science: NERRS Research

Thanks to Miriam Sutton for this photo of the Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve.

The January 2018 edition of Estuaries and Coasts highlighted NERRS research with a special section: “The National Estuarine Research Reserve System: An Integrated Network of Research and Monitoring Sites Supporting Coastal Zone Management.”

The seven articles in this special section paint a compelling picture of the breadth and importance of reserve research, from the effects of hypoxia on fish growth and oyster survival in California to the relationship between shrimp and water quality and weather in South Carolina.

Congratulations to guest editors Mike Kennish (New Jersey’s Jacques Cousteau Reserve) and Ed Buskey (Texas’ Mission-Aransas Reserve) and to all the reserve authors whose research is highlighted in this edition of the journal and collectively, shows the value of our national system. You do us proud.

Funds & Love from Maine to Puerto Rico & Texas

Funds & Love from Maine to Puerto Rico & Texas

Post Harvey damage in Texas. Photo courtesy of Jace Tunnell.
There is something about family and friends—when you get knocked down they are there to help lift you back up. That’s just what Wells Reserve is doing for two members of our NERRS family. The nonprofit partner of our Wells reserve in Maine, the Laudholm Trust, is sending $1,500 to help our Texas and Puerto Rico reserves recover and rebuild. They collected the funds from ticket proceeds from the recent Laudholm Nature Crafts Festival. More than 4,000 visitors attended the festival, with perfect weather spurring record revenues for the 30th annual fundraising event.

“These are one-time, emergency relief donations sent in response to the unprecedented and powerful storms that directly hit our sister reserves,” said Jessica Gribbon Joyce, chair of the Laudholm Trust board. “The 29 estuarine reserves across the country are a tight-knit family, so we were heartbroken to see the devastation in Texas and Puerto Rico. We wanted to help our friends and colleagues get back to full capacity as soon as possible.”

Our NERRS family is resilient and strong, and with help from friends like these, we have no doubt our reserves will recover and rebuild to be stronger than ever.

ReservesMission-Aransas, Texas