Tales from the Field: The Value of Partnership

by staff members Jamie Bullock, Cade Kistler, and Hanlon Walsh

As Mobile Baykeeper board member Laura Byrne once said in an earlier blog post, sometimes all you need to do – is “say yes”. So, when Casi (our boss) texted the staff one day asking if we wanted to help our friends at The Nature Conservancy with monitoring, of course we said yes. 

Although not knowing exactly what “monitoring” would entail, we jumped at the opportunity for a day spent on the water outside the office. After all, who wouldn't?  Once we learned that waders, snacks, and a boat ride would be involved, it made the early 6 a.m. start time well worth waking up for.

The morning didn't start out quite as we hoped, however, and some of us may or may not have been regretting following the sound advice of "saying yes". A 5:30 a.m. drive to Bayou La Batre in the pouring rain and pitch black dark wasn't exactly what we had in mind for our exciting day out of the office. 

Eventually, Mother Nature began to work her magic. The skies began to clear as the sun started to rise, and the day was already looking a whole lot better. We then met Judy, Mary Kate, and Jacob from The Nature Conservancy, who would be our fearless leaders for the day. Sam, an AmeriCorps Vista with Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF), was also there to help. After loading up our gear and stepping into our waders, the seven of us hopped in the boat and began our journey for the day. 

Judy Haner of the Nature Conservancy discusses the plan of action with the team. 

Judy Haner of the Nature Conservancy discusses the plan of action with the team. 

Our destination would be Coffee Island, located directly south of Bayou La Batre in the Mississippi Sound. On the way, Judy gave us a brief background on the significance of the island and the work we would be doing. As monitors, our job was to evaluate different sections of the oyster reef created during an oyster restoration project by the Nature Conservancy back in 2010 to fight erosion. We were educated pretty quickly on the important role oysters play in our ecosystem and how their habitat is being threatened. 

Because of its proven success, the project served as a catalyst for the RESTORE 100-100 Coastal Alabama Project, a partnership formed between The Nature Conservancy, Mobile Baykeeper, ACF, and The Ocean Foundation in response to the BP Oil Disaster in 2010. The goal of the partnership was to address environmental impacts from the disaster and build 100 miles of living shoreline to protect 1,000 acres of seagrass and marsh. 

Reef restoration at Coffee Island in Portersville Bay, AL. Credit: Beth Maynor Young © 2010

Reef restoration at Coffee Island in Portersville Bay, AL.
Credit: Beth Maynor Young © 2010

As a means to study and monitor this, the general idea is that metal wire baskets filled with crushed rock and oyster shells are placed into the water surrounding the island. Ideally, new oysters will colonize these man-made oyster reefs. This will provide a semi-permanent structure that protects the fragile island shoreline from wave energy and erosion. It also creates a fertile habitat for all sorts of critters including sport-fish, oysters, and other critters and plants that are essential to the food chain in shallow bays. 

The group moves to another site to assess health of oyster reefs near Coffee Island.

The group moves to another site to assess health of oyster reefs near Coffee Island.

With clipboards, pens, rulers, pliers, and buckets in hand, we split into three teams assigned with different tasks as we circled around the island for the next few hours. We worked our way from one basket to the next, counting how many live adult oysters and oyster spats (juvenile oysters) we found in each basket. The Nature Conservancy has tried a few different methods by changing what they put in the baskets to determine what is the best material to foster oysters in these oyster reefs. We found very interesting results as we made our way around the island. 

Judy Haner of The Nature Conservancy and Mobile Baykeeper Program Coordinator Cade Kistler celebrate a successful day monitoring oyster in Portersville Bay.

Judy Haner of The Nature Conservancy and Mobile Baykeeper Program Coordinator Cade Kistler celebrate a successful day monitoring oyster in Portersville Bay.

Before we knew it, several hours had gone by and we had completed our work for the day. After a cold, dark, and rainy start to the morning, the seven of us happily stood in the Mississippi Sound in our waders, enjoying blue skies and 70-degree temperatures in the middle of December. Only in Lower Alabama! 

Not many other people get the opportunity to strap on a pair of waders, go for a boat ride, get dirty, monitor some oyster reefs, and call it a day on the job. Days like this make us thankful to be a part of such an incredible organization, and having the chance to go into the field and get hands on experience allows us to feel more connected to these natural resources that we take pride in protecting. 

It is important that we know as much as possible about what is being done to restore and protect our waterways so that we continue to educate our community. Collaborating in partnerships to protect and restore the health of Mobile Bay is an integral part of the work we do at Mobile Baykeeper; it was a great experience to join members of ACF and The Nature Conservancy to monitor these oyster reefs on Coffee Island. Personally, we couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Monday!