Coastal Management Conservation Coral

SURFO SPECIAL: A virtual adventure in coastal restoration

Each summer, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) hosts undergraduate students from all over the country to participate in oceanographic research. These Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFOs) have not only been working with GSO scientists, but they also have spent part of their time learning how to communicate this science to the public. Although their research experience was virtual this summer, they still did a fantastic job. Read on to find out what they have been up to, and why they everyone should be as excited as they are about their work.

Matt Rigdon is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He is majoring in biology and minoring in environmental science. Under the guidance of his advisor, Dr. Cathy Johnson, Matt has spent the summer working on a project to encourage coastal restoration in the National Parks System.

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Coastlines need our help

Scientist by day, self-proclaimed travel photographer by night, I am always looking for new adventures. I love getting out and appreciating the earth and its natural ecosystems. One experience that sticks out in my mind as of late was to the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Australia. I was more excited than ever to spend the day snorkeling around the largest coral reef on the planet. My hopes were extreme, but what I found left me shocked and disappointed. What was supposed to be a giant, colorful, lively reef was actually acres of smashed and destroyed corals. While still beautiful, it angered me to think that this habitat had been so damaged by humans walking and boating all over the place. I almost felt like an imposter, like I should not be at this remote island because it was evident that this place had suffered since people first started visiting.

Here is a still image taken from the GoPro I snorkeled with on the Great Barrier reef. Some coral is still present, but there are large areas void of living corals (bottom right of this picture for example). Can you see any fish? Normally, reefs are teaming with fish, but this area seems to be quite empty, save for a few stragglers.

What I experienced in my short trip to Australia is happening around the world. Habitat degradation has become a pressing issue in many coastal and marine parks and protected areas. There are three major causes of habitat degradation: 1) Human activities (industrialization, pollution, recreation, etc.), 2) Invasive species–nonnative plants and animals can be introduced to a new area and typically don’t experience predation so they take over habitats by starving out native species and 3) Climate change has caused increased sea level rise and larger storm surges along the coast.


Due to Sea Level rise, this Alaskan coast has been eroding at a faster rate, endangering historical structures of falling into the ocean. Photo credit: National Park Service

What can we do?

So how do we combat habitat degradation? The main way that we can slow these threats is through restoration. The goal of a restoration project is to either return a habitat back to its original state before being damaged, or help it adapt so that it can withstand future problems. Numerous successful restoration projects have taken place already, but we still have a long way to go. Some of the main issues with restoration have to do with securing the time, resources, and money to make the project a reality. It can be overwhelming for a land manager to get the wheels rolling on a restoration project, and these barriers can potentially turn some managers away from doing restoration that they might deem too difficult.

Mapping Restoration in Coastal Parks

This is where my project comes into play. This summer, I worked  with Dr. Cathy Johnson and the National Park Service to create tools and resources that will help make restoration more accessible for those who are interested. I hope that through this project, we can provide Park Service officials, as well as the general public, with informative tools and examples of previous restoration projects, so that they can hit the ground running with their own work. The centerpiece of my project is a spatial database that contains current and past restoration projects taking place in coastal National Parks. Each point on the map will contain descriptive information about what kind of habitat was restored, why it needed restoration, and the process of restoration. We have also supplemented this database by creating some case study briefs. You can think of these briefs like summaries of specific restoration projects, as they contain details about why the area was degraded, techniques used, and some of the challenges faced along the way. A few of the coastal parks that we are currently working with to write these briefs include Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin), and Assateague Island National Seashore (Maryland).

Here is an example of a Cape Cod restoration project in the spatial database we created. It provides preliminary information for users to get a basic idea of the project in general, with resources linked for further detail.

With these resources, it enables park managers and others interested in a project to make informed decisions. Take this example for instance: A park manager is dealing with an area of salt marsh that has been damaged by invasive plant species. The manager can pull up our spatial database map and find salt marsh related projects. From there, he or she could click through the examples and find one that lists invasive species as the main problem. After reading about the project in the database, the manager can click on the attached file and be taken directly to either a project description or summary that contains the details on how the project was carried out. After reading up on this past project, the land manager should have a much better idea about what needs to be done to solve his or her own marsh problem.

I had the opportunity to work on this project virtually, which ended up being a unique, but worthwhile experience. Much of my work involved virtual interviews with park officials, as well as data collection from online databases. Lots of people may think that science can only be done in the field or on a workbench, but I have learned this summer that science can be done anywhere – even from my dining room table!

Why does this matter?

Restoration is extremely important, not only for habitats themselves, but for you! The National Parks system welcomes over 300 million visitors each year who use the parks for recreation. The Parks also welcome countless scientists who use the protected lands for important environmental research. With this project we hope to increase the rate and success of restoration by providing tools to those who need it. Hopefully, this means that the next time you visit a National Park, or in my case a coral reef, you will be met with natural beauty instead of the telltale signs of humans, invasive species, and climate change.

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