By Ethan Hunter Barnhill
Our conservation class took a trip to Sapelo Island on October 28, 2011. We took a van from CCGA at 7:15 to catch the ferry that goes over to Sapelo Island only a few times a day. Sapelo Island hosts a large number of government and academic partners that are working on multiple marine and shoreline projects. Scientists on Sapelo are involved in many projects including habitat restoration, oyster reef ecological studies, and invasive species monitoring. Our purpose on this trip was to investigate one of these projects called The Living Shoreline Project. Federal, state and academic partners are working together to provide research about the living shoreline and how beneficial it is. Researchers’ goal for the living shoreline is to provide an environmentally friendly alternative to putting up hardened materials that have traditionally been used to prevent erosion. The goal of our trip was to view and help monitor the two areas that have been restored with living shorelines on Sapelo Island.
When we first arrived, we had to ride in a van from the ferry dock to the conservatory where they are doing the testing. Most vehicles on the island have been there for a long time and our van was no exception. The age of our van made the trip a bit more exciting! The side door had no handle and the back door wouldn't shut. On the way the guides from the DNR told us about some of the native species and about the people who still live on the island. Nonetheless, we made it there alive and safe.
The first site that we viewed was the Long Tabby site. The oyster bed at this site was made of gabion baskets which consisted of chain-linked welded steel measuring 6 feet by 12 feet. These baskets were filled with a combination of bags of shell, loose shell and rock that stretch along a 230 foot area. Gabions were chosen because of the steep slope. Daniel said that they were first very skeptical about the use of gabions due to the concern about how the oyster shells started falling in the baskets causing it to have a ripple look. However the ripples have proven to be beneficial because sediment from the water has collected and only those that protrude out have really seen much growth. In addition, native species of plants have been added along the shoreline to promote a healthier and beneficial environment.
The Ashantilly site consisted of mesh bags of used oyster shells arranged in two layers along a 370-foot section of the creek bank. This area was far less steep, so it was easy to climb down to measure and get accurate readings for observation. We used a protocol we dubbed "Daniel's protocol". The first part of his protocol was to measure the oyster bed from top to bottom and place a quadrat at the top, middle, and bottom of the bed. Within each of those quadrats, we measured the number of live and dead oysters, the presence of predators and other animals, and the lengths of 30 oysters. We recorded all of the data. The next part of “Daniel's protocol” was to measure the vegetation that was planted behind the restored oyster bed. We did basically the same method as the oysters, except we measured from the oyster bed to the edge of the natural growth. Using the same concept we took three quadrats and placed them at the top, middle, and bottom. From those we counted the amount of Spartina and other native species in each. Then we measured the ten tallest Spartina and recorded their heights. Daniel pointed out that one of the major objectives was to try to get the Spartina to grow through the oyster bed and sprout back up. This would help in building a much stronger shoreline, preventing further erosion.
We decided after we completed testing that we would ride over to the beach. The beaches there felt deserted compared to those on Saint Simons Island. We had so much space to ourselves in which to have fun looking for sea shells and sand dollars. It was the perfect ending to a good trip. I believe we must have been having too much of a good time because we had lost track of time and had to rush back to the van and drive to make it to the ferry. They were about to pull away with the gates closed when we arrived to the docks. Thankfully they allowed us on!
I learned a great deal from this experience about the conservation of this special and unique environment. It is important to help conserve Sapelo and other natural habitats for future generations.