Marsh Mania

In honor of Worldwide Wetlands Day 2020, I thought I’d post an article I wrote for the EPA’s Office of Water during my time at the National Environmental Education Foundation.

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From a family visit to Galveston Bay, circa 2016

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A budding romance, a wedding, and an elementary science fair project. These are all events that sprung from a recent volunteer event in Texas, revolving around planting native marsh grasses to restore the habitats around Galveston Bay. The actions of these volunteers not only brought joy to their own lives, but also helped protect the surrounding community.

“Marshes are a transitional zone between water and land,” explains Emily Ford, volunteer programs coordinator for the Galveston Bay Foundation. They are also critical habitats for life—like fish and other seafood—in and around the bay. “About 90% of all seafood in the US begins life in a marsh or estuary, such as Galveston Bay.” While these areas are important for wildlife and the environment, they are also necessary for people. Ford sums it up by saying, “If you like to go swimming in the bay or fishing, then it’s important for you to protect the marsh.”

However, human impacts have taken a toll on the marshes surrounding Galveston Bay. “We are more connected than we realized—everything we do can impact the bay, particularly marshes,” says Ford. “Marshes would act as a buffer, but the more they shrink, the more impacts [they have] inland.” Galveston Bay historically acted as a buffer for the surrounding Houston area, but the damage to the marshes possibly added to the destruction caused by storms, such as the devastating Hurricane Harvey. This problem extends beyond the Texas coastline; as Ford puts it, “shorelines are eroding everywhere you go.”

The Galveston Bay Foundation set out to find a solution through an event called Marsh Mania. Dedicated to the restoration of the marshes surrounding Galveston Bay, volunteers from the greater Houston area spent a day planting native marsh grasses. “You can see such a difference—it’s just blossomed into this blooming, thriving [place], eroded shorelines all covered with marsh,” exclaims Ford. So far, the project has brought back 210 acres of salt marsh in 95 different locations, using the help of over 8,000 volunteers. And the volunteers have fun. Ford dives into anecdotes of couples that met at Marsh Mania events, a wedding that took place at one of the restored sites, and a boy who took his love for the marsh and turned it into his school science project. As Ford tells it, there is “a lot of heart, love, and appreciation over connecting more with Galveston Bay and understanding how they’re part of the community.” The best part? “People from any walk of life can do this…[with] trained volunteers in the marsh to help.”

“Our shorelines are always in need of help,” emphasizes Ford. You can get involved in restoration efforts of the marshes near you as part of National Estuary Week. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even meet your future spouse!

La La Land Part 2

I leap from the 30 foot high platform and grasp the trapeze as I reflect on what I’m leaving behind and jump towards my future goals.

I finish climbing the rope course, the last activity of the fellowship that includes scaling a 60 foot high tower, scrambling up swinging logs and ropes.

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Standing victorious after climbing the tower

It hasn’t been all fun and games; I’ve learned a lot of practical skills including rope-making, lashing (tying ropes together), shelter-building, and basket-weaving. One of the top five essential survival skills, coiling basket with rafia (thin leaves from the Malagasy Rafia palm) could be used to collect food and bring it long distances if stranded in the wild.

The weather has been nice and warm save for a spot of rain, though it was very cold when I visited Madison, Wisconsin for the National Science Policy Network Conference after Halloween. I learned a ton about communicating science and met lots of great people, including my new friend Danni Washington, who is the first African American female science TV show host (listen to our interview here).

Upon return, there just happened to be another science communication conference on campus. I bumped into my friend from college as I checked out the posters and hung out with her the rest of the evening until I was busted than none other than Cara Santa Maria (another science tv show host). After some flustered explaining, Jason Goldman (who is an old friend of my boss and a wildlife reporter) allowed me to stay the rest of the conference. I received lots of training in freelance pitching, storytelling, and science communication through the conference workshops. I also had fun meeting lots of fun people and C-list celebrities over meals, s’mores, and hikes. It was inspiring to meet so many passionate science communicators and a valuable experience.

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Alie Ward, a fantastic science communicator and enthusiastic speaker at SciCommCamp! I’ve been listening to her podcast, Ologies, while taking care of the animals and it’s great.

I did some horseback riding and had another adventure climbing out near Santa Clarita with a first responder who was there after the shooting. When not taking care of the fish, lizards, and farm animals, I spent time making moccasins out of deer leather. A key principle of the fellowship has been bal tashlit, which translates to “do not waste.” It was fun crafting my own shoes out of the hide of a deer and reusing all its parts.

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I spent the final day hiking with the team up to some caves hidden in the valleys. Scrambling up the rocks to look over the campus, it was easy to believe it was the largest jewish-owned property outside of Israel. The hills looked lush from all the rain, and the sandstone rocks left all sorts of grooves from water flowing. It was fun living on this beautiful property, and I will miss the gorgeous sunsets!

Algae and Coral Reefs

A creeping green presence spreads across a vibrant coral reef, engulfing the colors in a sea of green. The green menace is algae, living plants that are the base of the food chain for all life in the ocean environment. Coral reefs and algae are usually able to strike a balance; however, changing ocean conditions threaten to destabilize this relationship. Like an overbearing friend, algae can grow out of control and take over the coral reef, threatening the seafood industry and even human wellbeing. What is causing algae, a critical food source for many fish and an essential element of the ecosystem, to dominate coral reefs?

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The endangered hawksbill sea turtle on a healthy coral reef

Nutrient pollution can tip the scales in favor of algae and cause the plants to overcome the reefs. Nutrients, while also important for the environment, can be harmful in large amounts. In a feeding frenzy, the algae consume excess nutrients, such as nitrogen, and continue to grow until they completely cover the coral reef. This situation is more likely to happen to coral reefs that are close to developed areas, like the corals in Florida, since nutrient pollution from agriculture and urban environments can make its way into these waterways.

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A black tipped reef shark on a healthy coral reef

Algae-covered coral reefs are a problem because the excess of algae makes these reefs less biodiverse, meaning there aren’t as many types of fish and other wildlife. These reefs are also more susceptible to pathogens, making them less resistant to disease than healthy reefs. This means less available seafood to feed the 1 billion people worldwide that depend on food from coral reefs and to support multi-billion dollar fishing industries. Furthermore, the increase in nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients in waterways, also known as eutrophication, is harmful to human health. The spikes in algal growth caused by eutrophication can lead to harmful algal blooms, which can cause human illness.

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A startled octopus, morphing from camouflage to red. The surrounding reef has very little live coral.

Nutrient pollution that ends up in the sea travels down rivers and waterways stemming from communities like the ones near you. This also means that nutrient pollution can be reduced at the source. Communities are rallying to reduce nutrient pollution, from stream cleanups to volunteering to monitor water. You can help reduce nutrient pollution around your home by:

  • not dumping paint, oil, debris, or other household chemicals into street gutters or storm drains;
  • limiting fertilizer use, which can lead to the buildup of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ocean;
  • and using phosphate-free cleaners, detergents, and soaps to avoid contributing to nutrient pollution.
    • Check out this Safer Choice search engine from EPA to make environmentally friendly shopping easier!

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Plastic Spells Trouble for Sea Turtles

Sea turtles swim throughout the open ocean, grazing on algae and other foods. Some sea turtles, such as the leatherback sea turtle, like to snack on jellyfish, and have thick skin to protect their mouths from jellyfish stingers.

However, pieces of plastic floating in the ocean can resemble jellyfish, especially from the perspective of a hungry sea turtle. Sea turtles can accidentally consume plastic debris, causing health problems and even death.

Sea turtles can become entangled in other marine debris, like plastic six pack rings and fishing lines, preventing them from being able to swim or eat. Pollution on beaches can even trap sea turtle hatchlings, stopping them in their tracks on their way to the sea.

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The endangered hawksbill sea turtle!

Plastic pollution most often comes from inland sources and is carried by rivers to the sea, where currents carry them out to remote areas of the ocean. Other wildlife are affected by ocean pollution as well, from birds to whales, which also accidentally consume plastic. Even marine invertebrates, the main food source for many other forms of marine wildlife, are harmed by consuming marine debris, affecting the whole marine ecosystem.

Plastic pollution isn’t just bad news for wildlife and oceans; it can also harm people! Plastics that are consumed by the seafood people eat can cause an array of health problems, and pollution caused by discarded fishing nets that entangle sea turtles can even have a negative impact on the economy. Helping prevent plastic pollution not only helps wildlife but also can help you and your family.

Ocean trash originates from inland areas near you, which means that it can also be reduced at the source. Here is what you can do to help reduce ocean plastic pollution and help the sea turtles:

  • try to avoid using plastic straws, which can end up in the ocean and can be responsible for causing harm to wildlife;
  • bring re-useable bags with you to grocery stores to avoid using plastic bags, which can contribute to marine debris;
  • and find out other tips here.

 

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Wetlands and Your Health

Looking at a wetland, buzzing with mosquitoes and filled with muddy water and thick vegetation, it can be hard to imagine how this swamp could be good for your health. However, wetland health is intricately linked to human health through the ecosystem services that these habitats provide.

Wetlands maintain a steady supply of clean water, filtering the groundwater that many Americans depend upon to survive. Water flow slows as it passes through wetlands, allowing pollutants to be trapped in the soils and consumed by the microorganisms that live there. Wetland plants absorb the excess nutrients, cleaning the water and preventing dangerous nutrient build-ups that can cause harmful algal blooms.

In addition to cleaning water, wetlands are a source of medicine. Leeches, blood-sucking animals that live in wetlands, were often used in traditional European medicine for their bloodletting abilities. While these animals are no longer commonly used in medicine, they are still the main source of a major anticoagulant (Hirudin) used in healthcare to thin blood and reduce the risk of blood clots.

Natural chemical defenses against predators, pathogens, fungi, and bacteria give wetland plants and animals unique properties. Occasionally, these defenses have medical applications, just like those of the leech. The extremely harsh conditions of wetlands, especially ones located at high altitudes or high temperatures, fuel these adaptations among the life that lives there. For example, Thermus aquaticus, a bacteria tolerant to the hot thermal pools of Yellowstone, has a derivative that can also tolerate the intense heats of a biomedical practice called PCR (Polymerase Chain Analysis). This critical biotechnology, used for detecting genetic disorders and other diseases, can run effectively thanks to research conducted on these wetland bacteria.

Some fungi, bacteria, and algae from wetlands also have medical applications in the form of antibiotics. For example, one type of soil bacteria (Streptomyces sp.) found in wetlands is used to produce two-thirds of the world’s antibiotics that are derived from a natural source. Some bacteria can also break down toxic metals and clean water supplies. Imagine all the possible medical applications of some of these wetland microorganisms that have yet to be discovered!

Help ensure a clean water supply and source of medicine for your health by protecting wetlands.

You can:

  • Volunteer with wetland monitoring projects to help your local wetlands and public health.
  • Contribute to healthy wetlands and healthy communities by helping to keep source water clean.
  • Support public lands by visiting one of these wetlands to see the source of many medical advancements

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Bird is the Word

Whooping cranes are big birds, about the size of a large child. They also have large migrations, flying from the great plains of Canada all the way down to central Texas, where they spend the winter. Even for birds with a wingspan as large as 7.5 feet across, that distance is substantial. Flying through the Great Plains of North America, the birds need to take breaks for some rest and relaxation.

That’s where wetlands come in. Wetlands are like an oasis in the plains, providing a source of water, food, and protection for the birds. They also serve as a major breeding grounds for the whooping cranes, which fly to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada from their wintering grounds in Texas.

However, a recent study shows that the migration path is narrowing, which suggests a loss of available wetland “pit stops” for the birds. The birds can adjust their flying route to some degree, but they need wetlands to refuel. Many other migratory birds, or those which fly great distances between seasons, also depend on wetlands. These birds are important to the environment, serving as indicators for habitat health like a canary in a coal mine. Their presence is a signal of a thriving wetland, and the disappearance of these birds can mean that the wetlands are in trouble. Many migratory birds, like the whooping crane, are endangered, meaning that they are in danger of going extinct throughout most of their range.

Wetlands aren’t just essential for the birds; they also support the economy. The diversity of birds and other wildlife that depend on wetlands attract wildlife enthusiasts and other people engaged in recreational activities, which make up multi-billion dollar industries. Outdoor recreation alone contributes $887 billion to the US economy and supports 7.6 million American jobs!

You don’t need to fly large distances to visit a wetland—there are wetlands across the US that you can visit on a short road trip. Just like a migratory bird, you can take a pit stop at a wetland and see the habitats that are important to wildlife recovery. If you aren’t able to make it out to a wetland, find out more about what you can do in your community to help protect wetlands and the migratory birds that depend on them.

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Moving Across the World

These past two weeks have been a whirlwind. From moving to a new city, overcoming jetlag, finding an affordable place to live, and starting a PhD program, I have barely had a chance to breath! But now things have calmed down, I would like to reflect on my transition to Sydney.

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Taking a chance to breathe on the spectacular coastal beach walk!

Firstly, I forgot about all of the differences between Australia and the US. In my jet-lagged stupor I struggled with basic tasks, such as crossing the street and opening the doors. Using gas ovens, hand-washing dishes, and drying clothes on a clothesline were some of the differences I had to re-learn. Not to mention all the different slang words I had to remember!

 

At my office at the University of New South Wales there is a lot of construction going on, so everyone else is also somewhat disoriented. So far people have been very friendly and hospitable, and I think my advisor and I will get along well. Though I did feel overwhelmed at first with all the readings and tasks I had to accomplish, I am excited for all the possibilities for my thesis and cool technology I will learn to use before my first field expedition next month, where I will see what possible questions about animal re-introductions can be studied.
I also found a great place to live in Coogee beach after an arduous house hunting process that involved lots of disappointment, false hopes, and many long walks over the steep hills of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. At least I got to see lots of pretty birds along the way, like rainbow lorikeets and galas. And after a particularly disappointing day, I found myself smiling along the beautiful coastal walk from Maroubra beach on the way back to Coogee. It was a strange feeling to be nostalgic while also experiencing something new, as I was reunited with all my favorite birds, including the fairy wren and honey-eaters.

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A Superb Fairy Wren, taken exactly three years ago when I first traveled to Sydney!

Uni, as they call university here, is off to a great start! With lots of readings, paperwork, and proposals to catch up on—I find the days flying by, with only brief breaks for lunch at the delicious, cheap restaurants they have near campus. The office is quite distracting with all the construction going on around the area and my building, so I like to take my readings down to the beach when I can! The office culture is very laid back, with people coming and going as they please; I need to take a break from the strict American work ethic. The office culture is very friendly, and they have lots of tea breaks with the best of Australia’s snacks!

Sydney is everything I could’ve hoped for and more: hip areas with street art on the walls, alleyways filled with Asian food vendors, and festivals on the beach to celebrate the wind with performances and food booths from all over Oceania. I love doing the coastal walk along the beaches as much as I can; it just makes me so happy to see the beautiful turquoise waters splashing over the rocky cliffs, with beautiful birds flying about.

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Rainbow lorikeet spray-art, part of Sydney’s fringe festival