Restoring Coastal Habitats: Measuring Success

MUVE, Miami Science Museum’s volunteer based coastal habitat restoration project has been in the business of bringing back South Florida’s increasingly fragmented native habitats since 2007. To date, over 5,000 local volunteers have restored over 15 acres of mangrove wetlands and coastal hardwood hammocks. Currently, we are working to restore 17 acres of dune, hammock and sea turtle nesting habitat at Virginia Key North Point through a grant from Wells Fargo and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Environmental Solutions for Communities Program.

Quite an accomplishment. But how does one quantify the success of newly restored areas? When volunteers are removing invasive plants, do those plants stay away for good, or recolonize as soon as volunteers pack up and go home for the day? And when we plant native plants in place of invasive ones, who is to tell whether those plants have found their foothold, or more importantly, if native fauna is returning or whether ecosystem services are restored?

This is where post-restoration monitoring comes in. This critical step involves taking scientific measurements of places undergoing change, such as Virginia Key’s North Point, Since September the North Point is being cleared of invasive plants in preparation for the planting of native vegetation next year.

To do so, we handpicked a group of young citizen scientists during a day of volunteer Scaveola removal on November 9th. Scaveola is a salt tolerant invasive plant that takes over swaths of native dunes in South Florida. It grows unchecked and not only chokes out native plants, but provides no shelter or sustenance for native animals that call our dunes home. In effect it creates a dead zone.

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Volunteer Jen Santer removes Scaveola from Virginia Key

The first step in quantifying success is getting a baseline. The baseline is our initial measure of invasive plant cover. We will use this to tell us where the area stands now in terms of ecosystem health. After the volunteers clear the dune and when we plant native plants next year, we will be able to revisit our baseline data to make comparative analyses of how invasive plants have been kept out and how native flora and fauna have coped.

Our team of citizen scientists went to work with a clipboard and a rope measuring 30 meters long. This rope would form our transect, which is a parameter by which to measure invasive plant cover. Our citizen scientists placed one transect perpendicular to the beach and one parallel thereby getting a broad subset of data.

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Our transect line

The results of the transects were quite telling. Over 60% of the perpendicular transect was made up of Scaveola. The rest was made up of Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, two very aggressive invasive plants. We also found a native plant in the mix called sea grape. These sea grapes were left untouched by volunteers as they are an important dune stabilizer and food source. We also found a plethora of native and invasive weed plants, especially along the mountain bike trail.

Our parallel transect revealed quite a bit of Scaveola (over 70%) but also lather leaf, another invasive plant originally from East Asia.

Our citizen scientists had lots of fun and did a great service to our project by creating an important baseline for future analysis. We are eternally grateful for all their effort.

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The citizen science team

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Volunteers clear lather leaf and Scaveola

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