Competitive Dominance Pt. II

Last week, Wetland Wednesday focused on dominant species in wetlands and conditions that contribute to competition. Last week we talked a lot about plants, but animals can be dominant in wetlands as well, for example the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).

Alligators are one of the most recognizable predator species of swamp and marsh habitats, but they haven’t always been as numerous as they are now. Alligators were endangered as recently as 1987 due to human impacts, especially hunting. [1] Since their conservation proved so effective, they are no longer on the endangered species list, but instead are now “of least concern”. It is impressive to see such a strong recovery for an endangered species, and their recovery was successful for many reasons, including their lack of strong competitors. Very few animals compare in size or bite strength. As apex predators, they have essentially free reign over other species when they reach maturity, although there is some competition between individual alligators. Productivity in swamps and marshes is extremely high compared to other habitats, so there is plenty of food to go around, but they still compete with birds of prey and other large aquatic animals like alligator gar and alligator snapping turtles (those names probably aren’t coincidental…).

As we mentioned last week, dominant species are not always native. Invasive species like nutria, or coypu, often out-compete native muskrats for similar food sources and homes. Since nutria are larger than muskrats, fewer species can prey on them. [2] Invasive species like nutria can disrupt communities of native species to the point of local extinction in some cases, especially in island ecosystems. [3] Not all introduced species are invasive; some do not significantly impact their new homes. Invasive species are detrimental by definition. Nutria were originally introduced by humans, which means their dominance over native muskrats is a byproduct of human activity. Similarly, zebra mussels and apple snails were introduced by humans and out-compete native species in coastal Louisiana.

Many species face the threat of population decline due to human activity, whether directly or indirectly. In a way, nearly all species on the planet are in competition with humans for food, territory, etc. or compete against one another to survive amid human impacts like climate change. Humans have done a great job altering landscapes to become livable for us, but those landscapes aren’t always good for native species. This kind of disruption has consequences to our own safety, however. Degradation of coastal marshes in Louisiana has been a consequence of human activity, and the risk of lowered wetland protection from storms poses a threat to our settlements. Since we have invested so much in where we live, it is in our best interest to reverse some of the damage we have done to those areas. CWPPRA is dedicated to coastal restoration because it is a responsibility we owe to both the environments we have disrupted and our communities that have come to depend on these environments.

[1] http://www.endangered.org/animal/american-alligator/

[2] https://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/wildlife_damage/content/printable_version/fs_nutria10.pdf

[3] http://www.pacificinvasivesinitiative.org/site/pii/files/resources/publications/other/turning_the_tide.pdf

Featured image from http://www.louisianaherps.com/american-alligator-alligato.html

Competitive Dominance

Ecosystems around the world are in a constant state of competition as inhabitants impact each other, whether directly or indirectly. The theory of competition deals with interactions between populations within a defined range or habitat. [1] Individuals with more beneficial adaptations are more “fit” and will often out-compete others for resources like food, territory, or sunlight. Today, we will look at how one species can become dominant over its competitors in wetlands and what conditions might disrupt or completely tear down dominant species.

Some of our readers may immediately think of monoculture farming as a sort of dominance, and they would be correct. Although it is through artificial selection, crop species present some trait that Homo sapiens deems worthy of cultivating. For example, huge swaths of land in the United States have been clear-cut to make room for corn farms, cattle ranches, or even sugar cane farms. Maybe not to the same degree as artificial selection, natural selection can also produce habitats with dominant plants and animals. Coastal Louisiana’s wetlands are great examples of this. From Cypress swamps to Spartina marshes, wetlands are home to some hardy species who have adapted to harsh and variable conditions.

Wetlands go through cycles of drought and flood conditions, which can prove fatal for many species. [2] Wetland plants have adapted to survive the cycles and even exploit them. Cypress trees are a useful example because they don’t necessarily need flooded conditions to grow, they just need space and a little bit of protection when they are young. [3] Instead of becoming competitive on dry land with the thousands of other obligate dry land trees, cypress ancestors developed the ability to survive in water where few other plants competed. More information about their adaptations can be found in our second post about flood stress tolerance. In the salt marshes along our coast, smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and other graminoids (grass-like species) dominate with their salt tolerance and fast reproduction. More about how cordgrass and black mangroves dominate other coastal species can be found in our first post about salt stress tolerance.

Within a species’ endemic (native) habitat, populations are limited by food availability, competition, and predation. However, species can move to non-native habitats that have plenty of food, less fit competitors, or little to no predation, in which case that species can become problematic. Invasive species are detrimental by definition and coastal Louisiana has several examples, which can be found in our invasive species article. Unfortunately, many invasive species move to new habitats with the help of humans, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose.

If you want to learn more about how human impact and other factors can change dominance structures, be on the lookout for Dominance pt. 2 next Wednesday!

[1] https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/species-interactions-and-competition-102131429

[2] https://www.worldwildlife.org/habitats/wetlands

[3] https://www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/treedetail.cfm?itemID=787

Featured Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/9428166@N03/2686432231

 

Environmental Education

This week is a big one for us in habitat conservation and restoration.  This past Saturday, we celebrated World Wetlands Day and took some time to appreciate the variety and importance of wetlands around us. In case you didn’t see it, we posted on Monday about our Friday spent with students in Houma, LA. This week is also the official start of National Green Week, a set of programs developed by the Green Education Foundation (GEF) in the United States!

Across the country, schools will be offering GEF programs between now and the end of April to foster greater environmental consciousness. Programs that are offered can be found on their website, listed in our “sources” section. Programs consist of 5 days of lessons and associated activities, and they explore multiple topics within themes such as green energy, waste reduction, and sustainable water. Our hope is that schools in our state implement similar lessons. Thanks to programs like National Green Week, we have more citizens who are conscious of human impacts on ecosystems than ever before. In Louisiana, programs like CWPPRA, BTNEP, and CRCL focus on telling the story of coastal land loss and all the potential consequences of letting it happen. Environmental awareness of topics like clean water, energy efficiency, and waste reduction has major benefits to the health of our coastal zone. For more information, feel free to check out our posts about measuring water quality and soil pollution.

The mission of environmental educational programs is to start conversations and lay a solid foundation of knowledge that students can build on. Being introduced to pressing environmental issues at early ages nurtures better stewardship and more productive attitudes when it comes to the challenges of coastal erosion, deforestation, pollution, and other issues. In Louisiana, legislators are already beginning to realize the severity of our disappearing coast and are making changes accordingly. For this, we are extremely fortunate. We are proud to work alongside CPRA and our other partners towards our mutual goal of a resilient Louisiana coastline, and we look forward to the younger generations adopting this mission.

 

Sources:

https://www.worldwetlandsday.org/

http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org/greenweek.html

Featured Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypress_Lake_(Lafayette,_Louisiana)

Regional Planning Teams

This week, CWPPRA was scheduled to hear proposals for potential projects that will compete for funding in the upcoming fiscal year. FY19 is bound to have some fierce competitors, including some projects that may not have been awarded funding in previous years. In our Dec 12, 2018 post, we outlined a bit of the project selection process and we hope to see new and innovative ideas soon. At this time, the Regional Planning Team (RPT) meetings have been postponed following the government shutdown.

To reiterate the RPT process from the December 12th post, new projects are proposed annually across the coast. If any of our readers wish to propose a project this year, watch our newsflash for rescheduled meeting times in your region. Project proposals guidelines can be found on our Newsflash announcement. After each RPT meeting, the projects from each of CWPPRA’s 4 regions are compiled by RPT members and submitted to the next phase of competition. Each Parish and CWPPRA personnel submit a ranking of important projects, which helps the Technical Committee narrow down the list to 10 of the most promising projects. These 10 projects are further evaluated by CWPPRA working groups to look at environmental impact, engineering concepts, and other important aspects of each proposal, then the Technical Committee selects 4 to recommend to the Task Force for Phase I Engineering & Design.

In December 2018, the CWPPRA Technical Committee narrowed 10 potential Phase I projects down to 4 and the list for Phase II approval to 2 projects. The Task Force was scheduled to meet January 24th, 2019 to approve the recommended projects but, since the federal government was still partially closed, some of the critical task force representatives were unable to meet that day and so that meeting will be replaced with an electronic vote.

This latest government shutdown may have thrown a wrench into the CWPPRA process, our commitment to the coast is as strong as ever. We will continue to hear proposals, select projects, and work with our partners to construct projects that support the state of our coastline and all who live there. Watch for our Newsflash if you want to participate in our Project selection process; we look forward to helping you #ProtectOurCoast!

 

Featured image from https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2016/05/03/science/isle-de-jean-charles-resettlement-plan.html

Plankton

We talk a lot about the health of marine life in terms of fish, oysters, crabs, and other large organisms that we can observe with the naked eye, but we often look past the microorganisms that, in some cases, can be better indicators of water quality, productivity, and overall ecosystem health. [1] The microorganisms in question often fall under the umbrella term of “plankton”. Directly translated from Greek, the root word “planktos” means wandering and describes how these organisms move through ecosystems. There are many varieties of plankton, including producers (phytoplankton) and predators (zooplankton).

One key characteristic that all plankton share is that they do not move very far on their own; they rely on currents and other movement in the water column for most of their migration. While some planktonic organisms can move with a flagellum (tail made of proteins), most of the movement for all plankton comes from external forces. [2] Currents and mixing often occur in the pelagic (uppermost open water) layer because of wind, temperature variation, and a variety of other factors. Phytoplankton thrive in the shallower layers of the pelagic zone where abundant sunlight and gas exchange are available. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide at the surface allow phytoplankton to photosynthesize, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and giving off the oxygen we breathe. Phytoplankton produce about half of the oxygen in our atmosphere by some estimates, which makes them just as important as our rainforests and other terrestrial ecosystems. [3]

Plankton do not all fit into one taxonomic group; there are plankton from each kingdom. [4] Our coastal waters contain species from each, including microcrustaceans like copepods, bacteria like blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), and juvenile life stages of larger animals like oysters and fish. Jellyfish in their most recognizable form, the medusa, are technically plankton, too: they have no locomotion so they just drift. As easy, plentiful prey, plankton often form the base of marine food webs. Unfortunately, having too many phytoplankton is a very real, very dangerous issue in coastal Louisiana where excess nutrients coming down our waterways provide lots of food for phytoplankton. An overgrowth of phytoplankton can cause an algal bloom [5] and associated hypoxic or dead zone. See our post ‘Stress pt. II: Flooding and Hypoxia’ for more information on how too many producers can decrease the amount of oxygen.

CWPPRA projects help to decrease the area of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone by restoring wetlands. The more wetlands we have in our Mississippi river watershed, the more filtration of excess nutrients we have. Filtration is a major benefit of wetlands and can prevent phytoplankton from accessing these excess nutrients. Hopefully one day nutrient filtration and other pollution reducing practices will allow the gulf to return to its former glory.

 

[1] https://academic.oup.com/plankt/article/36/3/621/1503238

[2] http://www.biologyreference.com/Ph-Po/Plankton.html

[3] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/06/source-of-half-earth-s-oxygen-gets-little-credit/

[4] http://www.seafriends.org.nz/enviro/plankton/class.htm

[5] https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/effects-dead-zones-and-harmful-algal-blooms

Featured image from http://blueplanetsociety.org/2016/04/studying-phytoplankton-with-citizen/

 

Looking Back

Former President George H.W. Bush signed Public Law 101-646, Title III CWPPRA into law in 1990 to combat the national issue of coastal land loss. Over 25 years after he left office and a week after the late President’s day of mourning, this legislation is still providing protection to billions of dollars’ worth of industry, major human settlements, and beautiful ecosystems.

At 28 years of projects and counting, CWPPRA is among the longest-standing federally-funded restoration ventures in the country, as well as one of the most successful. To date, 210 projects have been authorized across Louisiana’s coastal zone to restore 100,000+ acres of wetlands. Each year of operation, CWPPRA has approved funding on multiple projects scattered across our coast. The locations of our projects can be found at https://lacoast.gov/new/About/Basins.aspx.

CWPPRA projects are proposed by anyone and developed in conjunction with one of our 5 federal managing agencies and Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The process of project selection is always a rigorous competition between candidate projects across Louisiana’s coast. Each proposal presents estimated ecological benefits, cost estimates, and a detailed plan for the desired project. At the beginning of each calendar year, Regional Planning Team meetings are held across the coast to hear proposals. The proposed projects are compiled into an annual Project Priority List (PPL). Upcoming proposal meetings can be found Jan 29-31, 2019 on our calendar at https://lacoast.gov/calendar/. Over the next year the CWPPRA Technical Committee and Task Force narrow the list of candidate projects. In December, the Technical Committee recommends their top 4 projects to the Task Force. The Task Force finally votes in January on the 4 projects they will fund for Phase I Engineering and Design. This annual cycle will complete its 28th round in late January 2019.

CWPPRA is excited about wrapping up PPL 28 next month and starting on PPL 29! Be on the lookout for announcements about projects chosen for funding at the January 24th Task Force meeting. We look forward to continuing our efforts to #ProtectOurCoast!

 

Featured image from https://projects.propublica.org/louisiana/

Soil Pollution

Today is World Soils Day, time to talk about soil pollution and wetlands! Soil pollution is often referred to as “invisible” because, although pollution can be detected through testing, it is much more difficult to see with the naked eye. Some of the biggest players in soil pollution today are improper waste management, agricultural runoff, and industrial processes. You may not think you are directly impacted by soil pollution, but you are.

Polluted soil in agricultural fields is arguably the most direct impact to humans because the pollutants are taken into the crop, whether it is a plant or animal, and make it into our food stream. [1] Pollutants in soils are also less hospitable to plant recruits, which is terrible news for coastal Louisiana. Our coastal wetlands provide us with many things that we rely on, and we cannot afford to lose our wetlands to preventable pollution. When soils do not incorporate healthy plant roots, they are much more susceptible to erosion. When moving sediments around, CWPPRA wants to make sure that plants can re-establish effectively, so they want healthy soils. [2]

Areas with unsustainable levels of pollution are spreading, and non-point source pollution, which includes road and agricultural runoff, is very hard to track and very hard to remedy. Pollutants are not easily scrubbed from soils on a mass scale and so they follow the flow of water. Runoff travels through watersheds just like clean water and makes its way into our coastal wetlands with damaging consequences. Coastal wetlands are resilient ecosystems, but they have limits. We cannot overburden them with harmful, carefree attitudes towards pollution. Our coast deserves to be protected. Our coast deserves to be respected.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/bioaccumulationbiomagnificationeffects.pdf

[2] https://www.lacoast.gov/crms/crms_public_data/publications/CRMS_FactSheet_Web.pdf

Featured image from https://soilsmatter.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/are-wetlands-really-the-earths-kidneys/

Sustainable Fisheries

Some of you may remember the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” and perhaps the famous quote “If you build it, he will come.” Meant as motivation to build a baseball diamond in a corn field, the line encourages dreaming big and following your passion. It can also apply directly to environmental protection and restoration. CWPPRA builds wetlands, and ecologically diverse communities come. They may take a long time, but they will come. Creating a resilient environment requires hard work, and the environment will return on investment many times over.

Biodiversity has a massive positive effect on the productivity of a system, [2] and we in Louisiana have some of the most productive wetland ecosystems in the United States. Coastal fisheries today produce about 40% of the world’s wild-caught seafood, according to the WWF, [1] and wild-caught fish rely heavily on a healthy ecosystem to produce populations large enough to harvest.  Unfortunately, many fish communities are over- exploited and have a lot of bycatch, causing  species declines and shifts in the health of the community. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Sustainable fishing is an achievable goal.

By using our bountiful resources and productive wetlands, we can cultivate thriving ecosystems that don’t need much maintenance at all. A perfect model would require no feed, no destructive fishing methods like trawling or wasteful bycatch, and it would have numerous benefits to wetland health such as better nutrient capture, pollutant filtration, food production, biodiversity, and even improved resilience. [3]  Such a complex problem cannot be solved overnight, but focusing on the health of our fisheries will drive them to be more sustainable, and sustainable fisheries will keep our critical $2.4B seafood industry alive. Our coastal zone is a great asset that provides us with plentiful resources, and we have a responsibility to use those resources, such as the fisheries, in a sustainable manner. Programs like CWPPRA emphasize the benefits of sustainability on a large scale and seek to apply those practices in their restoration projects.

 

[1] http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/oceans/solutions/sustainable_fisheries/

[2] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/314/5800/787

[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_barber_how_i_fell_in_love_with_a_fish?language=en

Featured image from https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-deepwater-aquaculture-avoid-the-pitfalls-of-coastal-fish-farms

 

 

Thankful for Wetlands

When celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, be sure to think about all of the ways wetlands provide for you and yours. Whether you enjoy the serene experience of watching a sunset through bald cypress trees, catching redfish in the marsh with your family, or simply love a good shrimp po-boy, Louisiana wetlands provide a huge number of services to millions of people daily.

In addition to protecting our cities from storm surge, wetlands of all kinds host tremendous species diversity, are highly productive, and allow for many types of recreation. Louisiana provides seafood nationwide. All of our most profitable species use wetlands for some part of their life cycle. [1] For example, shrimp spawn in estuaries, crawfish spend their whole semi-aquatic lives in freshwater wetlands, and oysters occupy coastlines while providing some wave attenuation and water filtration. CWPPRA and our partners see oysters as an alternative method to protect our some parts of our coast with artificial reefs that can also be harvested, making them a highly sustainable food source. Some foods we receive from wetlands aside from seafood include turtles and ducks in some cases, rice (a staple in many cultures worldwide), and a wide array of other plants for their tubers or berries.

Beyond the food, though, wetland benefits include flood protection to our major cultural hubs and carbon sequestration. Sequestering carbon makes wetlands wildly productive and an ally in the fight against global climate change. [2] CWPPRA was written into law in 1990 to help preserve these bountiful ecosystems so they can continue to thrive and benefit people in Louisiana and beyond. This holiday season, even if you are not eating any seafood during your feasts, you are benefitting from wetlands, so say a thank you for all of those natural areas that give us so much.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-02/documents/economicbenefits.pdf

[2] https://imedea.uib-csic.es/master/cambioglobal/Modulo_V_cod101611/Coastal%20sinks%20(seagrasses_mangroves_saltmarshes)/Bibliography_coastal/Chmura%20et%20al%202006.pdf

 

America Recycles And So Do We

Recycling is a great practice at home, but it reaches far beyond taking materials out of the waste stream. Tomorrow, November 15th, is designated as America Recycles Day, so today’s Wetland Wednesday is hopeful about the future of sustainability.

New materials require exploration and processing that can be destructive to ecosystems. Plastics, some of the most common materials in the product stream today, are largely recyclable. As a crude oil byproduct, producing new usable plastics requires a lot of energy. The same goes for many other recyclable materials. Paper products, various metals, and glass all take a lot of energy to produce, then they quickly find their way into landfills instead of being reused. Landfills produce a wide array of chemicals that often leach into the ground due to poor containment practices, and they can contaminate watersheds. Once those chemicals get into a watershed, they can significantly decrease the health of wetlands across huge swaths of land over time. To further the polluting effects, drilling for oil to meet a growing desire for fossil fuels is one of the most detrimental practices to wetlands. More than 5 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana wetlands continued to lose ground due to the spill’s impact. [1]

Recycling is not a perfect alternative to single-use plastics, and there are other ways to reduce our consumption of resources. For example, mitigating loss of byproducts by finding new and inventive applications can greatly reduce consequences. Large-scale food manufacturing leaves plenty of byproduct as leftover plant material that can be used as livestock feed, potentially as biofuels, or fertilizer. In the meat industry, byproducts are often further processed and commercialized to maximize the use of all parts of animals. CWPPRA and our partners have changed some practices in recent years to be more efficient when using resources, for example beneficial use of dredged material (yes, we recycled our header image). Mandatory dredging of shipping and navigational channels produces a bounty of sediment that was lost in the past, but we can now use that material in restoration projects. This exciting new practice has already been implemented in a few CWPPRA projects to restore marshland and nourish pre-existing wetlands.

Our coast faces many human-caused threats, and its future depends, in part, on practices becoming more sustainable. By using new technologies to better use resources, CWPPRA hopes that Louisiana’s natural splendor and resilience can continue to benefit future generations.

[1] https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70178409