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Gulf of Mexico Foundation
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Deputy Director Fikes reports on Gulf restoration site visits

by Ryan Fikes, GMF Deputy Director

July 2010 - I visited several restoration sites this month as part of the GMF's role as administrator of the Gulf of Mexico Community-based Restoration Program (GCRP). Many of the sites are in coastal areas close to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Though the flow of oil from the well has currently ceased with the new cap, there is no way to know the immediate effects of the spill.

Despite that, there have been startling images of oiled seabirds, marshes and beaches in the local and national media, including alarming remarks such as the “BP oil disaster may destroy more habitat than hurricanes, Katrina, Gustav and Ike combined.” With these images and statements in mind, the Gulf of Mexico Foundation continues to take an up-close and personal look at the coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in order to examine the issues and to work with our partners.

Figure 1: Map of the affected spill area with GCRP project sites plotted. Sites visited: 7001, 9004, 8005, 8006, 7003 and 9002.

Since 2001, the GCRP has implemented more than 70 habitat restoration projects around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. The GMF monitors these projects on a regular basis and conducts routine monitoring on most projects. During the first few weeks of the oil spill we tracked the NOAA spill trajectories in order to monitor our restoration projects in relation to the affected areas (Figure 1). This allows us to assist our project managers around the Gulf to determine whether they should suspend project activities or, in the case of a completed project, allow us to determine if we should conduct visits to see if the project was lost.

Monday, July 12: I flew into Mobile, Alabama, and by 1:30 pm I was with staff from the Mobile

Figure 2: Image of boom lines in Mobile Bay near Helen Wood Park in Alabama. > VIEW LARGE
Bay National Estuary Program (Brenda Lowther) and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, State Lands Division (Carl Ferraro). Together we visited Helen Wood Park, one of our GCRP projects conducting marsh restoration. In the distance there were several bands of orange boom (Figure 2), and the marsh at the site looked great, especially considering that it was very think and rich in species diversity after only being planted less than a year before. It was at this time that my hosts set the tone for my trip, and which was shared by most others; things were not looking so bad. Though state agency personnel did spend a lot

Figure 3: Area in back Biloxi Bay where private and commercial vessels open and close boom lines for passing boat traffic during an incoming tide. > VIEW LARGE
of their time conducting the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, efforts have been significant and damage has been minimal to local habitats.

Tuesday, July 13: In the morning I was on a boat with staff from Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) heading out to Deer Island, Mississippi. The journey to the site took much longer than normal, I soon found out, due to the fact that you had to pass through three to five boom barriers to cross the back bay of Biloxi (Figure 3). The project site, however, looked

Figure 4: Oyster reef restoration site (between white PVC poles in the background) on the back side of Deer Island, Mississippi. > VIEW LARGE
great! The actual restoration work here was submerged due to high tides, but should be since it is an oyster reef restoration project that doubles as a shorelines protection project for adjacent marsh habitat (Figure 4). DMR staff told me that no oil had been reported for Deer Island, but that a small amount had washed up on a nearby beach. Booms around the island were in place as a precautionary measure, so it appeared that this was another restoration site unaffected by the spill.

Wednesday, July 14: I joined four faculty members from Nicholls State University (including Dr. Allyse Ferrara and Dr. Quenton Fontenot) on their visit to Elmer’s Island, Louisiana. This area is considered one of the sites most at risk from the spill, and the efforts here were more than noticeable (Figure 5 a-d): A temporary building with air conditioning for workers; an arsenal of dump trucks, ATVs and cranes; sandbags, pom-pom booms, rock and sand by the truckload; tents every half mile marked with the corresponding cleanup “zone” number. All-in-all I would describe the effort as pretty tremendous. Everything was operating like clockwork, or so it appeared from the outside looking in. There was some evidence of oil here, as can be seen by the blackened pom-pom booms lining the beach (Figure 5d). If there were any other oil remnants along the beach, we did not see them, and if there were any, they would likely have been picked up by workers as they conducted their sweeps every 20 minutes.

Cleanup efforts on Elmer’s Island  

Figure 5a: Dump truck and crane at loading rocks for filling wash-over.

Figure 5b: ATVs and sandbag supplies

Figure 5c: Tents, which occur about every half mile, are used by workers for breaks.

Figure 5d: Pom-pom booms along shoreline. Notice that area to right appears to have oil soaked into the materials.

The GCRP project at Elmer’s Island involved installing sand fencing to build dunes that act as protection for the bay behind it. By installing the fencing and sediment tubes, along with planting dune vegetation, the project has successfully built dues at a rapid rate. In less than six months some areas have accumulated nearly one meter of sand dune. This project has been

Figure 6: Dune restoration site at Elmer’s Island showing multiple layers of sand fencing in place, which are already beginning to build dunes. > VIEW LARGE
supplemented by BP, which installed two additional rows of fencing in some locations along the beach (Figure 6). Though the dunes' main purpose is to protect the coast from storms and to prevent erosion, they could serve a third purpose in the sense that since they hold back high tides and storm surges, they could prevent oil from spilling into the marshes behind this barrier island.

Wednesday, July 15: Back in New Orleans, I made the trip across Lake Charles to the North Shore. The last stop on my tour was Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Joining me were staff from Bayou Rebirth (Colleen Morgan), St. Tammany Parish Department of Engineering (Dan Bond), and US Fish & Wildlife Service (Danny Breaux). The airboat ride to the marsh planting sites for two GCRP projects was gorgeous. This area is truly a natural beauty and a remarkable resource (Figure 7 a-b). The project managers told me that all of the students that had the fortune of coming here to volunteer are very excited to return.

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Figure 7a: Heading out to the project sites via airboat. > VIEW LARGE

Figure 7b: Bayou Rebirth Executive Director Colleen Morgan and GMF Deputy Director Ryan Fikes at one of the restoration project’s planting sites. > VIEW LARGE

Fortunately these sites are far enough removed from the main bay to remain protected, though some sightings of oil along the outer marshes have been reported. As a matter of fact, we visited these outer margins and I saw my first and only glimpse of oil (other than that already soaked into a pom-pom boom). The patch, which was located on Spartina alterniflora, was only a few inches in diameter, and without my airboat captain pointing it out, I would have walked right by it

Figure 8: Oil glob found on marsh vegetation (Spartina alterniflor) at Big Branch. > VIEW LARGE
(Figure 8). By no means when I set out on this trip did I imagine that this would have been the fullest extent of oil that I would see.

I left Louisiana and traveled back to Texas with several thoughts on my mind. Many of them dealt with the extent to which my site visit hosts felt the media focused on alarmist outcomes and worst-case scenarios. The habitat that they all showed me were doing remarkably well! There were some places where oil had hit the shore, but these were few and far between, with minimal damage. At what point will our focus turn from the oil spill to the day-to-day tragedies facing the Gulf of Mexico? What about the “dead zone”, sea level rise, subsidence of our coastal zones and habitat loss due to development? For me this visit was truly eye-opening for two reasons. One: Habitats are truly resilient! The only thing that they can’t seem to handle is us. Two: We need to focus our attention on prevention of habitat loss in general. We need to start managing more effectively in order to provide a sustainable Gulf for generations to come.

GMF provides support for sea level rise conference
March 2010 - GMF staffers Ryan Fikes, Bobbi Reed, and Mikell Smith attended and provided key support for the  International Conference on Sea Level Rise (SLR) in the Gulf of Mexico held in Corpus Christi, Texas, March 1-3. GMF's Executive Director Dr. Quenton Dokken was one of many scientists and other professionals to give presentations at the conference.

Organized by Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, the conference sought to examine the phenomenon of sea-level rise in the Gulf and to consider how people and the natural environment can or will respond.

During the conference, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Habitat Conservation and Restoration Team co-facilitated a special session with the NOAA Coastal Services Center. A series of quick presentations and ten-minute panels, informally referred to as “speed dating,” touched on modeling and monitoring activities ongoing across the Gulf of Mexico coastal zone, as well as on ecological and resiliency considerations that should shape GOMA SLR efforts. This primed participants for an interactive exercise designed to elicit their knowledge through responding to five questions geared to:

  • The SLR data, tools, or models being used
  • Whether SLR modeling is accurate enough
  • Tools or models needed but not presented
  • How GOMA can help prepare for SLR
  • SLR training needs and delivery

Breakout groups rotated among flip charts, each displaying one of the questions. Facilitators stationed at each chart kept the groups focused during the rapid elicitation rounds, consolidating responses as a group prior to closing the session. Due to the diversity of stakeholders in the room, a rich set of responses was captured. The outputs from this innovative exercise have been compiled and are currently being distilled into a summary report to aid GOMA as it advances its plans for SLR assessment, preparedness, and public engagement.

GMF staff attends freshwater inflows conference
February 2010 - Two GMF staff members, Ryan Fikes and Mikell Smith, joined others from around the Gulf of Mexico to participate in a conference called "Freshwater Inflows: 2010 and Beyond" held February 8-10 in Corpus Christi, Texas. The event was hosted by Texas Parks & Wildlife, Gulf of Mexico Program and Harte Research Institute.

The conference's purpose was to highlight the importance of freshwater inflows and to identify water management questions and approaches that protect estuaries. Topics of discussion ranged from economic valuation of inflows to how states and communities are dealing with issues. Touching on the “four-legged stool” of sustainability – science, policy, economics and the social/human dimension – techniques and real-world examples dominated the discussion. Climate change, water supply, and turning the tide of ecosystem degradation were presented as the key challenges.

A presentation by George Ward of the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Research in Water Resources presented a grim prediction for Texas' surface water for estuarine inflows. According to his calculations, a five-percent reduction in rainfall could portend a 24-percent decrease in fresh water flows to the Texas coast.

Attorney Robin Kundis Craig of Florida State University, author of the book The Clean Water Act and the Constitution, told of "managing inflows by managing the Corps of Engineers" through litigation affecting Apalachicola Bay in Florida, acknowledging this is not the preferred mode of interaction.

Workshop looks at new ways to stabilize shores
February 2010 - GMF staff members Ryan Fikes, Richard Gonzales and Mikell Smith attended the "Texas Coastal Bend Living Shorelines" workshop held on February 11 in Port Aransas, Texas. The event was sponsored by Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training, a collaboration of

GMF's Ryan Fikes, center, participates in the Feb 11 'Living Shorelines' workshop in Corpus Christi.
agencies and groups aiming to deliver relevant information to key stakeholders on issues related to the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.

During the one-day event held at the Port Aransas Community Center, participants learned about new methods to protect land and ecosystems from shoreline erosion –  natural systems that provide more effective protection than conventional methods such as bulkheads or seawalls.

A panel of government representatives walked participants through the permitting process. Workshop packets included a CD containing informational resources. The next two Living Shorelines workshops will be held in Moss Point, Mississippi in March and in Apalachicola, Florida in May.

Participants addressed the need for stakeholder involvement in preventing coastal erosion. Landowners, scientists and resource managers all came together in the event. Participants learned that all those involved -- land owners, scientists and resource managers -- are stakeholders and that recognizing the equal importance of all contributions may encourage broader stakeholder involvement.

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