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BARRIER ISLANDS: HABITATS AND THE MARINE DEBRIS THAT THREATENS THEM by Jason Moeller, Outreach and Homeschool Educator

I have always been fascinated by the myriads of ecosystems that call our oceans home. So, it's easy to see that, when I was offered a place on a fishing vessel to study and clean up barrier islands, I jumped at the chance! After completing a fishing trawl earlier in the day, the research vessel Caretta headed towards Petit Bois Island for a beach cleanup. Petit Bois is French for “little woods,” which alludes to a small wooded section found on the eastern end of the island.


*NOAA ship Caretta in front of Petit Bois Island. Photo credit RyanHawk.com*

Petit Bois is a six-mile long barrier island, which is, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a long, narrow offshore deposit of sand or sediment that runs parallel to the coast. Barrier islands are separated from the mainland by a shallow of body of water, such as a sound, bay, or lagoon. Scientists have debated how barrier islands form for quite some time, and if you are interested in learning more about their formation, check out this great article on the NOAA website!

Barrier islands play two very important roles in the Southeastern United States:

  1. They help protect the mainland from storm and wave damage by acting as a natural buffer.
  2. They play host to several habitats that provide a safe space for various species of animals.

Typical barrier islands contain at least four separate habitats: beaches, dunes, mudflats, and salt marshes. Beach habitats, or beaches, consist of sand deposits left by the waves and are home to animals that are able to survive long periods of exposure to salt water and drying air. A beach is the most dynamic habitat type due to its location along the shoreline where the flow of water constantly shifts its shape and composition.


*Classic Beach Habitat on Petit Bois Island. Photo credit Mark Silverman*

Dune habitats form when wind carries and deposits sand into mounds or hills beyond the tidal zone. This habitat supports several different kinds of species, including migratory birds that use this habitat for nesting.  Coastal plants serve as anchors for the dunes and are sources of shelter and food to the other species that call this zone home.

 
*On the Dunes at Petit Bois Island. Photo credit RyanHawk.com*
 *Crab on the dunes. Photo credit Trevor Hance.*

The third kind of habitat is the mudflat. Mudflats, also known as tidal flats, form when storms push sediments through the dune system creating a contained wetland.  These habitats are usually located in the tidal zone where sediments and debris can constantly collect and wash away with each passing tide.


*Mudflat on Petit Bois Island. Photo credit Mark Silverman*

Finally, salt marshes occur away from the ocean where grasses and other hearty plants trap tidal sediments and salt water. Salt marshes are one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth!  Because these habitats can support so many species of animals, the small island of Petit Bois holds a tremendous amount of life. In salt marshes, you will find numerous grasses (including a native rosemary), trees, fish, crabs, birds, snakes, lizards, and even alligators.

       
*Salt Marsh on Petit Bois Island. Photo credit Mark Silverman* 
*Evidence of horseshoe crabs in the salt marsh. Photo credit Trevor Hance.* 
*A red wing blackbird sits in the wooded section of the island. Photo credit Trevor Hance.*

Despite the isolation of Petit Bois, the island and its habitats face threats from the outside world. Storms will often upheave animals from their homes and can cause lasting damage to the ecosystems all over the island.  A powerful example of this danger occurred in 2005 when Petit Bois suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. The storm inundated the island, which killed the majority of the trees in its wooded section.

The biggest threat, however, may be from people. Although the isolated island is protected as a part of Gulf Island National Seashore under the US National Park Service, we removed a large amount of trash while on the island. Trash and other harmful debris not only hampered the beauty of the deserted beach, it also posed a very real threat to wildlife, especially if any of the animals had eaten it.

         
*Photos of cleanup. Photo credit Mark Silverman and RyanHawk.com.*

While some of this garbage was likely left by people visiting the island, a large amount of it was also marine debris. Marine debris is any man-made solid material that is discarded, intentionally or accidentally, into a marine environment. This includes items such as plastic bags, leftover fishing gear, and even shipwrecks!

Marine debris doesn’t have to start in the ocean! Garbage thrown into storm drains, streams, or rivers can eventually make its way into the ocean. Once there, marine debris is able to travel long distances due to winds and ocean currents, which means garbage discarded in neighboring Pascagoula can easily travel across the sound to Petit Bois Island. For that reason, NOAA brought us out to the island to help restore its unique habitats to their natural glory.

For more information on this trip and more, please contact me!

Jason Moeller
Outreach and Homeschool Educator

Posted by Anna Leigh Goolsby at 9:22 AM
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