Community-Informed Science in Florida

Apr 13, 2023

The GTM Reserve’s science-based, community-informed approach to research is giving Florida communities tools to protect wetlands at risk.

In summer 2021, a group of land managers and scientists at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve spotted some wetland ponding behind huge piles of oyster shells. Known as rakes, these piles had been shifting over the past few decades, prompting questions from the group: How did the rakes form? How would they impact the wetlands behind them? Would restoration be necessary? What kind?

For answers, Kaitlyn Dietz, the Reserve collaboration coordinator, teamed up with Samantha Chapman, professor of biology at Villanova University, and Lisa Chambers, a biologist from the University of Central Florida. With funding from the Friends of the GTM Reserve, the team is studying the relationship between oyster rakes and wetland changes.

“There are many ways to study how people affect the environment,” says Chapman, “To determine whether these rakes are influencing wetland sustainability, we’re monitoring key metrics like vegetation growth and looking for correlations between oyster rakes and shoreline changes.“

Their collaboration is a natural evolution of years of ongoing research to address one of the region’s most critical coastal resource issues: wetland resilience. Northeastern Florida, where the Reserve is located, has some of the state’s most intact—and threatened—estuarine wetlands. 

“We’ve known from our vegetation and sediment elevation monitoring that our marsh elevation is not keeping pace with sea level rise,” says Dietz. “So we started conversations with land managers and subject matter experts about how to monitor and manage the observed changes.”

Research to support this inquiry began with “Wetfeet,” a National Science Foundation project that looked at how wetlands are responding to rising temperatures, seas, and nutrient loads. That led to “Experimenting with Elevation,” a project funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative in which Dietz and Chapman convened scientists, community representatives, regulators, and land managers to explore the effectiveness of different wetland management techniques. Together, they assessed the suitability of strategies like thin-layer sediment deposition and berm redistribution for stabilizing local shorelines, protecting habitat, and maintaining the wetland elevation relative to rising seas.

“The oyster rakes that we are focusing on now were observed during the Experimenting with Elevation workshop!” says Dietz. “Now we’ve begun gathering data to address gaps in our knowledge about the way wetlands are functioning behind them.” 

Last February, Reserve hosted a “What’s Next” workshop that challenged participants to identify priority management needs and research questions; these will help inform responses to funding opportunities and drive research efforts.

“The Reserve has a remarkable ability to bring together people with incredibly different perspectives and bring them into conversation with each other,” says Chapman. That’s very powerful when combined with the Reserve’s place-based, science-based approach to studying the exact situation of each wetland and what makes most sense for its future management.”

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ReservesGuana Tolomato Matanzas, FloridaCommunity-Informed Science in Florida