Author Archives: hopekelley2014

Students in the Field: Lending Hands to Living Shorelines

The next generation of conservationists are getting a head-start in environmental stewardship thanks to Project PORTS — Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools, an education and community-based oyster restoration program supported by Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

East Windsor Middle School student and families

East Windsor Middle School student and families

For three days in early April, 8th grade students of East Windsor Middle School in Broad Brook, Connecticut, along with their parents and siblings, visited Cape May, New Jersey, to participate in Project PORTS. The interactive field trip included exploration, reflection, and action both in the classroom and out in the field.

“Some students learn best by listening, others by watching and some by doing — we were able to hit all aspects of learning through reinforcement in this program,” said Jenny Paterno, Program Coordinator at Rutgers University. “With this three day program, we could really bring a diverse suite of experiences to the students.”

The adventure began at the Nature Center of Cape May, where students received a simplified introduction to estuarine ecology, oyster biology and ecological restoration. The next morning, families joined staff from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rutgers University, and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary to help install oyster reef breakwaters on Gandy’s Beach along the Delaware Bay in New Jersey. The students were able to apply some of the new knowledge gathered the day before to hands-on work in the field, and continued to build upon those new concepts throughout the day.

“The oyster reef structure will serve to slow down wave energy and reduce erosional forces while providing enhanced habitat for oysters, ribbed mussels, and a suite of other species,” said Paterno.

At the Gandy’s Beach project site, students worked together to pass oyster bags from one set of hands to the next, like an assembly line, to place them into position to form the breakwater structure. The brigade proved to be an efficient method to move the bags across the beach in an all-hands-on-deck style.

Shell brigade!

Shell brigade!

The materials used to create the shell bags are locally-sourced and New Jersey native. Project partner TNC collects clam and oyster shells from restaurants during scheduled weekly pickups in Atlantic City, and also receives donated surf clam shells from a local processing plant in Millville, New Jersey. The mollusk shells are then “cured” and distributed to schools where students construct the bags. Project PORTS works with over ten schools per year, primarily local students from Cumberland County, New Jersey.

The last stop for the East Windsor students was at the Rutgers University Aquaculture Innovation Center (AIC) in Cape May where various stations were set up for students to explore. Families learned about the culture of marine animals, tested their skill at shucking an oyster, examined oyster anatomy and viewed live oyster larvae and developing fish eggs.

In addition to learning about oysters, the students and their families were helping out with innovative coastal restoration work: building a living shoreline.  Living shorelines incorporate a variety of structural and organic materials, such as sand or aquatic vegetation, to create a natural shoreline that protects and stabilizes the coast while providing habitat for native species.

The efforts of these students are part of a larger project. In 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was awarded $880,000 from Hurricane Sandy resilience funds through Department of the Interior towards a living shoreline project at Gandy’s Beach. The project includes construction of 3,000 feet of living shoreline to restore the salt marsh and adjacent uplands. This work will improve the ability of the beach and neighboring communities to withstand future storm surges and coastal erosion, all while helping to stabilize the decreasing oyster population and enhance habitat for migratory birds, fish, and nearshore marine species.

The project is scheduled to be completed by November 8, 2016. Monitoring will continue for two years after the living shoreline is completed.

“[The project] will help stabilize approximately 3,000 feet of beach and tidal marsh shoreline,” said Katie Conrad, fish and wildlife biologist. “Ongoing monitoring will measure how well the oysters recruit on the different structures, so future restoration projects can benefit from what we have learned.”

Since the birth of the Gandy’s Beach living shoreline project in 2013, TNC and Project PORTS have involved several thousand local students in the ecological construction effort through the construction of shell bags as well as hands-on experience at the project site. To date, this reef has provided habitat for more than 20 million oysters and counting, according to Paterno. Even while only partially installed, the reefs have begun to provide habitat to young oysters.

The East Windsor Middle School students were able to embark on this stewardship adventure at Gandy’s Beach thanks to funding received from Pratt and Whitney’s Green Power Grant.

The benefits of educating future generations on environmental protection and awareness are more important now than ever. And when that education coincides with the enhancement of critical areas of coastal habitat— that’s a double victory.

The ditch remediation technique is used on these newly mowed and filled salt marsh ditches in the Great Marsh. Two bailing twines on stakes keep the rolled hay in the ditch.

Helping nature heal itself at the Great Marsh

Agriculture has played an important role in the history of coastal Massachusetts and the land has marks to show for it. Some of these marks come in the form of man-made ditches that crisscross the landscape — including marshland.

Ditching done for salt hay farming or mosquito control also disrupted natural processes that otherwise maintain marsh hydrology and elevation.

The ditch remediation technique is used on these newly mowed and filled salt marsh ditches in the Great Marsh. Two bailing twines on stakes keep the rolled hay in the ditch.

The ditch remediation technique is used on these newly mowed and filled salt marsh ditches in the Great Marsh. Two bailing twines on stakes keep the rolled hay in the ditch. Credit: Burdick, Peter, Moore, Adamowicz and Wilson

David Burdick, University of New Hampshire Associate Research Professor in Coastal Ecology and Restoration, says ditches allow excessive draining and ultimately cause the marsh surface to sink. The peat — soil-like material consisting of partly decomposed vegetable matter — between these trenches oxidizes and carbon is released into the atmosphere, making the marsh more vulnerable to impacts from storms and sea-level rise.

That’s why Burdick and other partners are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help raise the floor of several man-made ditches using an innovative technique called ditch remediation. The technique, piloted in 2008 at Rachel Carson and Parker River National Wildlife Refuges, is now being applied at multiple refuges with ongoing Hurricane Sandy resilience projects.

One of four sites treated as part of Sandy funding. Vegetation is cut in green areas, and rolled into ditches shown in red. To ensure sufficient drainage, not all ditches are filled.

One of four salt marsh ditch sites is treated as part of a project supported by Hurricane Sandy resilience funding. Vegetation is cut in green areas, and rolled into ditches shown in red. To ensure sufficient drainage, not all ditches are filled. Credit: Burdick, Peter, Moore, Adamowicz and Wilson

In fall 2014, four ditch areas within the Great Marsh were chosen for remediation. The process involves cutting vegetation from higher marsh areas, raking it into the low ditches and holding the grasses in place with twine. Nancy Pau, Wildlife Biologist at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, says this process will help peat to grow within the ditches to the point where vegetation can get established and allow the whole system to begin to store more carbon.

Pau says the remediation process will raise the elevation of the ditches to approach the level with the marsh surface. “The goal is to get the entire marsh surface to elevations that allow the marsh peat to rebuild,” she says. “We are basically helping the marsh ‘heal’ these ditches faster.”

Treatment for the 2015 season is now completed at Parker River, part of a broader effort to restore Massachusetts’ Great Marsh, one of the largest tidal marshes on the Atlantic Coast.

“The goal of the project is to increase resilience to climate change by removing man-made stressors associated with salt marsh ditching,” says Susan Adamowicz, the Salt Marsh Land Management Research and Demonstration Biologist with the Service and expert in marsh ecology. “Over time, as sediment builds up and plants begin to grow, the ditches should disappear.”

Accumulation of sediment and marsh grass, or Spartina alterniflora, colonization in a remediated ditch in summer 2015 (less than 1 year from initial treatment).

Accumulation of sediment and marsh grass, or Spartina alterniflora, colonized in a remediated ditch in summer 2015 (less than 1 year from initial treatment). Credit: Burdick, Peter, Moore, Adamowicz and Wilson

Burdick says the remediation process adds anywhere between 5-10 centimeters of elevation to the ditch floor with each growing season. Measurements before treatment showed the ditches to be 75 centimeters (2.5 feet) deep, which is low compared to where the marsh surface once stood. The goal elevation is zero centimeters, which will match the natural platform of the marsh.

“We expect several years of treatment will be required to see regrowth of marsh grass,” Burdick says. He hopes to see another 10 centimeters of elevation rise in treated ditches after this season’s work and complete re-vegetation of the shallower ditches.

While the progress may be small, Burdick says he and his team are encouraged by the outcome of the first year’s effort, showing increased elevations of 5-20 centimeters on treated ditches in just 6 months.

According to Burdick and other project leaders, Hurricane Sandy recovery funding will support continued monitoring of growth and elevation through 2016. New funding sources will be sought beyond then to determine how long it takes for the deeper ditches to completely fill in with newly created peat and whether the remediation process has the ability to raise overall marsh elevation to pre-ditched levels.

To learn more, visit the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge website.

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Randy Dettmers

A few undergraduate semesters spent writing code in dark and dreary basements provided enough evidence for Randy Dettmers that computer science was not the career path he was destined to follow. This valuable lesson paired with his general interests in biology and conservation blossomed into a career revolving around the protection of wildlife species, where his interests were able to take flight.

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

Dr. Randy Dettmers introduces a local high school student to bird conservation techniques at Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Today Dettmers is a senior wildlife biologist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focusing on neotropical migrants, songbirds, and raptors. He’s been with the Service since 1999, and has spent all 16 of those years with the Migratory Bird program.

As the designated landbird biologist, Dettmers’ job is to follow population trends of landbirds. He tracks which species are declining most rapidly and heading toward the point where they may need to be considered for endangered species listing.

“My job is to identify the species that are headed in the wrong direction and try to develop management plans to get those species heading in a better direction,” he says. Dettmers also fosters relationships with the Service’s various conservation partners, federal and state agencies, and NGOs. These groups help implement management activities to supplement those developed by the Service.

Randy Dettmers conducting a Bicknell's Thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Dettmers conducts a Bicknell’s thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Credit: USFWS

Currently much of Dettmers time has been focused on the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that breeds in the mountains of New England and Eastern Canada and migrates to the Dominican Republic and Haiti during the winter months. Significant deforestation in the Caribbean has severely limited the wintering habitat available to this species. Studies have documented Bicknell’s thrush population declines of 7% in the White Mountains of New Hampshire from 1993-2000 and 15% in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from 2002-2009.

“In the Dominican Republic, the estimates tell us that they have about 10 percent of the forest cover that they did historically, and even less than that on the Haiti side of the island.”

While parts of the Bicknell’s thrush habitat in New England and Canada currently remain protected through national forests and state parks, Dettmers’ has been working with the Dominican government to expand that progress in the southern portion of the bird’s range.

“We’ve developed a conservation plan that addresses continuing to protect a lot of Bicknell thrush habitat and the breeding ground,” he says.

credit Chris Elphick

Scientists track a Nelson’s sparrow and a saltmarsh sparrow at Barn Island in Conn., part of the Hurricane Sandy-funded tidal marsh bird resilience research project.  Credit: Chris Elphick/Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

In addition to his work with the Migratory Bird program, Dettmers also serves as the project officer for a $1.5 million Hurricane Sandy-funded project involving the Service’s Migratory Bird and Refuges programs, as well as five universities across the Northeast. The project goal is to monitor the response of birds that breed in salt marshes that have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Project partners also monitor the birds’ response to the coastal resilience work being done across the region, especially on national wildlife refuges.

“The project is looking at how both the abundance and reproductive success of saltmarsh birds changed from before to after Sandy, and is in the process of tracking how birds respond to the coastal resilience work being implemented in saltmarshes,” Dettmers says.

In between managing projects that conserve neotropical bird populations, Randy finds time to lead demonstrations in bird banding techniques. A recent bird education mission took Dettmers to Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Here, he led a trip for nine local high school girls, teaching bird banding and mist netting techniques with fellow wildlife biologist, Mitch Hartley.

Students help dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Dettmers teaches students how to dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

“We look for opportunities to give demonstrations of how we go about catching birds and banding them, and how we use the information to understand their life history and the things that are affecting the populations,” says Dettmers. He says he believes it’s a worthy experience for a child or high school student to see a bird up close, in the palm of their hand. And through his research and expertise, he has made this experience possible for many curious young scientists.

In his 16 years as wildlife biologist, Dettmers has applied his knowledge of wildlife and conservation to make a difference for many bird species.

“I get to focus on trying to identify species with populations that are declining, and for most of them, we still have time to do something about their decline before they get to the point of maybe becoming an endangered species.” – Dr. Randy Dettmers