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On a Mission to Restore Oysters

Meg Goecker

Habitat Restoration Specialist: Mobile, Alabama

Oyster reefs foundations being placed in the water at a large restoration project in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.Oyster reefs foundations being placed in the water at a large restoration project in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama

I work in Mobile, Alabama, as part of the NOAA Fisheries' Restoration Center’s Community-based Restoration and Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Programs. My job is to be a technical monitor for all sorts of restoration projects in Mississippi and Alabama, and I help our partners develop projects based on coastal priorities and needs. I am currently involved in damage assessment and restoration planning associated with the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As part of all these programs, I focus on all sorts of restoration efforts from seagrass to coastal rivers, but I spend about half of my time focused on oyster reefs.

Why is NOAA Fisheries restoring oyster reefs in Alabama?
Oyster reefs provide many benefits that people may not immediately think about. For instance, when you restore an oyster reef, it helps strengthen the wetlands behind it by preventing waves from washing away the dirt and sand that allow new plants to grow. From a fisheries perspective, oyster reefs are prime habitat for fish that are important to recreational and commercial fishing. Oysters also filter a lot of water each day, which helps to keep our bays and estuaries clean. They are an important part of a coastal ecosystem.The agency's oyster restoration work in the Gulf of Mexico – interrupted by the spill – has taken on new significance and even greater urgency. In addition to involving partners and community members, restoration work also provides jobs for locals whose businesses have been severely damaged by the spill. There is a need for people to help build the reefs and skilled boat crews to deploy them.

What is that you like most about your job?
I enjoy working with enthusiastic community groups that, at first, may seem to have small ideas but together can grow into a great restoration projects for the entire region. One person, one group, one town, does make a difference. Also, being part of the effort to assess damage and eventually restore areas of the Gulf of Mexico that have been impacted by the oil spill is rewarding and will become a positive outcome to a difficult situation. In fact, we just received word that $1 billion will be invested in coastal restoration for the first phase or "early" restoration.

What is the hardest part about your job? 
Restoration ecology is a relatively young scientific discipline, which means, in many cases, that we are still learning how to effectively and efficiently restore critical habitats. Also, projects tend to be smaller because funding isn't always available. The smaller projects do make a difference, but some of the larger restorations - funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - that we've completed in Alabama, and nationwide, often speed up the process and can have more immediate benefits for the ecosystem. Maybe now that we have the $1 billion dollars for early restoration in the Gulf states, following last summer's oil spill, we can focus on larger efforts.

How long have you been with the Restoration Center, and what interested you in working for NOAA?
I started working on the Restoration Center in June 2009.  I was drawn to NOAA because of my passion for the local marine environment and the difference that habitat restoration can make, no matter how small the footprint.  Also, the Restoration Center has a unique arrangement with regional staff that get to know and work closely with their local partners to develop projects.  This is really a fantastic way to engage communities in federal funding programs.

What advice would you give young people thinking about becoming a habitat restoration specialist?
Restoration science is gaining momentum and we will need a great new crop of young scientists that can really make a difference to reverse damages from past decades.  Look around at the marine environments you encounter and take time to notice how people affect that environment and how we might fix or protect it from those actions.  I would also advise a you person to learn all the science they can - the opportunities to apply the knowledge in real life are endless.