Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Gabion-break design protects marshes and encourages oyster reefs. Photos courtesy GTM Research Reserve.

Wetlands and other natural places along shore can minimize erosion, anchor habitat, and provide stability even in the face of fierce hurricanes. But in Northeast Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, they can be overwhelmed by storm driven waves and large boat wakes. Research at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve is bringing living and built structures together to stabilize the shore and help protect and sustain economically important habitats. 

 At six sites in the Research Reserve, the University of Florida-led team combined two lines of defence—porous wooden breakwalls and oyster catching structures—to reduce erosion at the edge of sensitive marshes and encourage oyster reef development. Known as a gabion-break, this design dissipated damaging, high-energy waves by 30 to 90 percent. The research also helped put boat wakes into perspective.

“One of the most significant results was increased awareness of just how damaging boat traffic can be on natural and built infrastructure,” says Nikki Dix, research coordinator at the GTM Reserve. “If we are going to invest in restoring important habitats like wetlands and oyster reefs, this research shows we need to protect them from boat wake so they can succeed.”

The design, previously used with success in the Netherlands, was tested and improved for application in Florida.  Research reserve staff helped to design the demonstration, build partnerships, support field work, supply technical assistance and data, and assist with written materials, workshops, and public events. The team also created an instructional video and manual to help others follow the process. Together with more than 130 volunteers, they logged more than 640 hours of project support.

“Reserves bring a lot of things needed for this type of research to the table: conservation land, monitoring data, manpower, and outreach,” says Dix. “Through monitoring, we were able to compare oyster reefs on the breakwalls to natural reefs and see how they did—and they did really well! That natural baseline data helps us understand how well oyster restoration works, and how it could be applicable to other habitats like wetlands, and far beyond the bounds of the Reserve itself.”

The GTM pilot has inspired similar installations in nearby estuaries. The design has been replicated at North Peninsula State Park by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and St. Johns River Water Management District. The commission funded monitoring at both the pilot site and the state park, which allowed comparisons of gabion-break performance in areas of different tidal and boat traffic regimes. In the future, other Reserve teams may test similar breakwalls to protect marshes restored through the thin-layer placement of sediment—an emerging technique to elevate the marsh in the face of sea level rise (SLR).

This project was supported by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, a nationally competitive science and knowledge transfer funding program that advances collaborative research to address coastal management problems important to Reserves and their communities. The Science Collaborative is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of Michigan Water Center.

Reserve Data Tracks Climate Change Threats

Reserve Data Tracks Climate Change Threats

A water quality monitoring station in one of the estuaries monitored by the North Carolina Reserve. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Reserve.

In October 2018, Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, causing $24 billion in damages and killing more than 50 people. But the dangers of the storm extended beyond the immediate wind, rain, and debris. Using data from the North Carolina Reserve, investigators tracked a tripling in infections of the deadly pathogen Vibrio vulnificus in the hurricane’s wake.

Data from the Reserve’s System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) showed that Florence’s heavy rains shifted the salinity of coastal waters into the ideal range for Vibrio, likely contributing to the spike in infection rate. Three North Carolinians died after exposure to Vibrio in the days following the storm. 

This graph shows the salinity ranges from a Reserve monitoring station near where Ron Phelps, a North Carolina man who died of Vibrio infection, was likely exposed in the days following Hurricane Florence. Credit: Elisabeth Gawthorp.

As oceans warm and storms grow harsher and more frequent, Vibrio infections are becoming increasingly common, even in areas they have never occurred before. In this article, Glenn Morris, an emerging pathogens expert at the University of Florida, calls Vibrio “an early warning system” for the kind of public-health crises that will keep arising from climate change.

Vibrio infections are quite climate sensitive,” said Morris. “Even a slight rise in temperatures can significantly boost their growth.”

Scientists call Vibriooften characterized as a “flesh-eating bacteria”a bellwether for climate change because it flourishes in warm brackish waters. V. vulnificus, the most deadly strain, kills one in every five people who contract it. Since 2007, South Carolina has seen a three-fold increase in Vibrio infections and North Carolina’s rate is 1.6 times greater. 

The North Carolina Reserve has been collecting standardized water quality and climate data on the coast since 2002. “The investigators approached us because we had some of the best data in the area,” said Byron Toothman, a monitoring technician at the Reserve. “The value of our data is that it stretches across many geographic regions, and it’s consistent in the way it is collected, processed, and handled.”

To assess public health risks driven by the impacts of climate change, high-quality, long-term environmental data is essential.The Reserve’s data not only supports science and research, but also natural resource management. The University of North Carolina Wilmington, for example, depends heavily on Reserve expertise for the management of their shellfish research hatchery life support system.

A sediment elevation table (SET) tracks the elevation of a marsh in the face of climate change-driven sea level rise.

The Reserve’s science and monitoring is complemented by a robust Coastal Training Program that provides tools, training, education, and support for local communities. Since Hurricane Florence, they have provided training on climate resilience for almost 400 local professionals, including real estate agents, marine contractors, engineers, and land managers. 

“The North Carolina Reserve seeks and values partnerships with organizations and communities in our local watersheds,” says Whitney Jenkins, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “By providing resources and training opportunities to improve coastal resilience to climate change impacts, we further the NCNERR’s mission while also meeting local needs.”


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Volunteers Protect Kelp in Puget Sound

Volunteers Protect Kelp in Puget Sound

Photos courtesy Island County Marine Resources Committee, Ron Beier.

The kelp beds of Puget Sound provide critical habitat and food for the foodweb that supports Endangered Southern Resident Orcas, and Washington depends on these whales to bring an estimated $65 million each year to the state’s tourism industry. The kelp beds, in turn, rely on responsible land and water management. And the land and water managers? They depend on data collected by a crack team of kayak-based citizen scientists!

“The reciprocal nature of our research and monitoring done through community science partnerships provides a powerful means of expanding our data collection capacity and communicating the story it tells,” says Padilla Bay Reserve GIS lead Suzanne Shull.

In 2020, the Padilla Bay Reserve and the Northwest Straits Commission (NWSC) helped more than 40 volunteers survey bull kelp canopy via kayak in the Northwest Straits region. These paddles contributed to a long-term data set that is painting a picture of how local bull kelp distribution in the Sound varies from year to year. Together, they surveyed 22 different bull kelp beds, documenting 416 acres of bull kelp forest.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources and county planners use this data to better understand bull kelp’s abundance and stressors. It is also helping them design strategies to preserve thriving kelp beds long into the future, as envisioned by the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan.

Through the NWSC partnership, Shull was able to process and share the volunteers’ kelp data with decision makers and the public. “Suzanne’s expertise is something we do not have the capacity to support, if we were not able to borrow a fraction of her time from the Reserve,” says Dana Oster, NWSC’s marine program manager. “She spearheaded our web-based mapping tool over ten years ago as a way to share and archive the data collected by our volunteers alongside other state marine datasets.”

“The beauty of programs like these is that not only are they cost effective ways to collect much-needed data, but they also connect members of the local community to their marine environment,” says Oster. “Not to mention the benefits of connection to nature and the exercise they get from all that paddling!”

Within the NWSC, there are seven Marine Resources Committees (MRCs) made up of community members who advise county commissioners on marine resources matters. The Reserve and the Skagit County MRC partner to provide coordination and curricula for the Salish Sea Stewards and Kids on the Beach, programs that started with a community need to improve place-based, marine science education for adults and middle schoolers.

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Coastal Resilience Briefing: April 8, 2021

Coastal Resilience Briefing: April 8, 2021

Join NERRA president Keith Laakkonen on Tuesday, April 8th from 2:00-2:30 EST for a virtual briefing on coastal resilience.

The briefing is co-sponsored by NERRA and other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) partners, including the Coastal States Organization (CSO), the Integrated Ocean Observing System Association (IOOSA), the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation (NMSF) and the Sea Grant Association. Together, these organizations work to provide tailored data and science, planning and management resources, education and outreach, and protection of lands and waters to comprehensively support coastal community resilience.

In addition to Mr. Laakkonen, speakers will include James Chang from the office of Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI); Tara Owens, coastal processes extension specialist with Hawaii Sea Grant; and Steve Couture, administrator for the New Hampshire Coastal Program.

Register here.

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The Big Picture of Marsh Resilience

The Big Picture of Marsh Resilience

Tidal marshes at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. Photo courtesy Walter Jalbert.

Squeezed between rising seas and landward development, many of our nation’s tidal marshes are in danger of disappearing. Deciding how to protect them requires the ability to conduct “apples to apples’’ comparisons of marsh condition across broad landscapes. A new study out of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is meeting that need by using geographic information system (GIS) data to provide a first-ever assessment of marsh resilience at multiple geographic scales.

“There are many reasons to protect tidal marshes and everyone wants to invest their resources where they can do the most good,” says Rachel Stevens, co-lead of the study and stewardship coordinator at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “This assessment can help us understand what drives not just one marsh’s ability to survive, but all the marshes in a particular geographic area. Research and monitoring design, selecting the right restoration approach, deciding which lands to protect to allow migration—all of this depends on being able to see the big picture of marsh resilience.”

The team analyzed tidal marsh resilience—the ability to persist in place or migrate to another location—as rates of sea level rise accelerate. Different factors influence resilience, and the study looked at 13 GIS-based measures of current marsh conditions, vulnerability to sea level rise, and capacity to adapt in the future. Region by region, they found marshes in the Southeast to be the most resilient and those in the Northeast the least.

Southeast marshes like those in North Carolina (left) are the most resilient, while those in Rhode Island are among the least.  Photos courtesy Tara Rudo and the Narragansett Bay Reserve.

 In every region, the study identified undeveloped lands with the capacity to support healthy tidal marshes as they migrate landward in the future. Only 53% of these lands have already been protected by fee or easement. 

“Healthy marshes contribute to community resilience,” says Rebecca Roth, director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). “As the climate changes, we need science-based tools like these to support marsh conservation efforts around the country. This work is more important than ever as we push to conserve 30% of the world’s lands and waters by 2030.” 

Marsh conservation opportunities by region.

Understanding resilience at the landscape scale helps natural resource managers determine which marshes need help and the kind of help they need. For example, highly resilient marshes that are likely to persist in place are strong candidates for protection. Marshes that are vulnerable to sea level rise but in good condition with a high adaptation potential, might be appropriate for restoration. Those in poor condition with nowhere to migrate as sea levels rise may be too expensive to save. Scientists also can use the analysis to help target fieldwork and monitoring and strengthen experimental design. 

The relative resilience of Maine’s marshes from high (green) to low (red), including those within Maine’s Wells Reserve. Comparisons like these can help scientists and policy makers understand the broader relevance of the Reserve’s marsh science and monitoring work.

“With state and local budgets stretched thin by the pandemic, it’s important to make sure that every dollar invested in coastal resource management and science counts,” says Roth. “When you combine on the ground knowledge, a strong national network, and expertise from a federal partner like NOAA, you can deliver tools like these that not only help efforts to protect beloved salt marshes, they make the coasts a better place to live and work. It’s what the NERRS was created to do.”

Monitoring wetland response to accelerating sea level rise is an evolving focus of the NERRS System-wide Monitoring Program. Photo courtesy of Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve.

The study provides a strong foundation for states and communities to create targeted tools that meet local priorities. To make this study more actionable for New Hampshire, for example, the team used high-resolution land cover data from NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) and locally relevant metrics, like the presence of invasive species, to develop parcel scale tools. 

“With these tools, we can compare the feasibility and the likelihood of success of specific restoration and conservation projects,” says Cory Riley, manager of New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “They are informing a more comprehensive marsh management plan for Great Bay, ordinance language for local communities, and a new tidal wetland reporting methodology for New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.”

Resilient Fisheries, Resilient Alaska

Resilient Fisheries, Resilient Alaska

At the Kachemak Bay Reserve, Alaskan fishermen and their families discover how landscape impacts on salmon affect their livelihood.

Seafood directly engages more workers than any other industry in Alaska, employing on average 56,800 people each year. As in many natural resource dependent industries, fisheries jobs are threatened by the impacts of climate change. When the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, it underscored the need for Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve to help these businesses build their current and future resilience, not only in the face of climate change, but other disasters.

“The COVID-19 crisis hit hard and taught us many things about the importance of emergency preparedness and resilience,” says Coowe Walker, manager of the Reserve. “We know that even as we recover from the pandemic, there will be other challenges, many driven by climate change. By helping fisheries-dependent businesses build resilience now, we all can better weather these challenges and keep Alaskan communities healthy and thriving.”

Salmon spend their juvenile phase in small upland streams, including those conserved and protected by the Reserve.

Fish Need Land Too!

Alaska’s salmon—a $744 million harvest in 2020—are caught at sea, but they begin their lives in small upland streams, some only a foot wide. Juvenile salmon can spend three years in these habitats, where they are vulnerable to the impacts of development and other human activities. For many fishermen who rely on a healthy fishery for their livelihood, this was a threat they didn’t see coming.

“We realized many fishermen had never seen a baby salmon before,” says Walker. “Most had no idea their industry depends on what we do as individuals on the landscape.”

In response, the Reserve partnered with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to launch Fish Need Land Too—a field-based program that helps fishermen and other community members understand the impact of land use on salmon, the most valuable catch in Alaskan waters. 

Through this program, the team has provided how many fishermen—including members of the Alaska Fishermen’s Network, United Fishermen, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association—with an up close look at juvenile salmon in their natural habitat. Guided by the same Reserve naturalists who monitor and study these streams, these trips are an opportunity to hear about the latest science on the health of the fishery and how conservation can protect salmon at a critical point in their life cycle.

Members of the North Pacific Fisheries Association were so inspired by their experience  that they purchased conservation land to protect salmon spawning streams.

“Because Alaska has little regulation, much of the resilience work is driven by grassroots action,” says Walker. “That’s what our programs inspire. We see fishermen say to their kids, ‘this is your future, you’re going to catch this in a few years.’ As a Reserve we want to be here to support these families, and the salmon, long into the future.”

The Reserve coordinates a network of volunteers who monitor shellfish for toxins.

Keeping Tabs on HABs

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS) are an increasing concern in Alaska, and the state saw its first paralytic shellfish poisoning fatality in more than a decade last year. The impacts of HABs on shellfish threaten public health and Alaska’s economy, which includes an estimated $12.8 million in output related to the annual commercial and wild shellfish harvest. 

The Kachemak Bay Reserve initiated an ongoing HABs community monitoring  program that is helping citizens, businesses, and the state respond to the challenge. When the flow of imported food to Alaska became restricted due to the pandemic, the Reserve joined with the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the Alaska Ocean Observing System to form the statewide Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network. This collaboration is helping to understand and track HABs and their impacts on a harvest that yields 36 million pounds of wild food annually.  

The Reserve also works with local shellfish growers, tribes, and resource managers to support phytoplankton monitoring, shellfish sampling, workshops, risk communication training, public service announcements, and weekly monitoring reports

Understanding Risk, Preparing for the Future

Harmful algal blooms, ocean acidification, increasing water temperatures—the impacts of climate change are reshaping Alaska’s coasts at a speed that makes it hard for the state’s many fisheries-dependent businesses to adapt. Yet in a recent CNBC survey, only eight percent of local business owners considered the environment critical to their bottomline.Thanks to the Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Fisheries Resilience Index project, awareness of these risks, and what to do to prepare for them, is growing.

“At least 40 percent of small businesses never open their doors again following a natural disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” observes Walker. “Fishermen, processing plants, restaurants, aquaculture farms—when these businesses suffer so do the surrounding communities. This project is about strengthening local fishery-related businesses so they can continue to buoy communities in the face of natural disasters.”

This need rose to the top in a series of climate resilience workshops hosted by the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program in 2016 and 2017.  These conversations underscored how important it is for fisheries-dependent businesses to have the tools to understand and plan for the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

Through the Fisheries Resilience Index, businesses conduct a self-assessment focused on locally-specific issues and relevant science. This process helps them predict whether they are prepared to maintain operations during and after disasters.  

Originally developed by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, this process was adapted for Alaska communities through a grant from the NERRS Science Collaborative. It was adapted for Alaska based through a series of focus groups with industry leaders, resource managers, business owners, non-profits, and resilience experts, and shared through workshops and trainings. 

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