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IU students get dirty, make a difference in Gulf restoration project

Two dozen Indiana University Bloomington students dropped everything last month and raced to spend a quick weekend on the Gulf of Mexico, where they tromped through coastal mud flats, wrestled with heavy bags of gritty oyster shells and generally got sweaty and filthy dirty.

"It was awesome," said Leah Morehouse, a junior in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The students joined several Indiana Nature Conservancy staff members and more than 400 other volunteers taking part in 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama. Spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper and the Ocean Foundation, the project aims to build 100 miles of oyster reefs and establish 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grass in Mobile Bay to help offset damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Nature Conservancy

Photo by Anne Birch, TNC

IU students take a break while helping with a restoration project in Mobile Bay.

The IU students traveled to Alabama courtesy of Vicky Meretsky, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an advisory trustee for The Nature Conservancy's Indiana chapter. She put out a call for volunteers and offered to pay expenses, and students responded.

Meretsky said she expected as many as 10 students might make the trip on a moment's notice. She was amazed and grateful that more than twice that many volunteered.

"I've said I was proud of the students, and I am," she said. "This was a big deal. It's a lot of work; it's important work. And it was a sacrifice for all of them. There's no way they didn't have to work really hard the next week to make up for the time they put in."

Working at Helen Wood Park on Mobile Bay, the volunteers placed 17,000 bags of shells to build a quarter-mile section of reef that will help expand and strengthen the marsh, prevent erosion and provide habitat for oysters, fish, crabs, birds and other species.

The task involved forming lines and passing along bags of oyster shells -- first 40- to 75-pound bags to form the foundation for the reef, then 10-pound bags to cover and give it shape. Eventually, live oysters will colonize the reefs, re-establishing a key element in the local economy.

"It was literally fire-bucket brigade style, sometimes with over 200 people in a line, passing bags of oyster shells to stack," said Mary McConnell, Indiana state director of The Nature Conservancy, who took part in the effort. "It was like watching a ballet of hundreds of people there to physically do something that will improve the Gulf of Mexico."

McConnell said building oyster reefs can play an important role in restoring the health of the Gulf of Mexico, which was badly weakened by pollution and the loss of marshlands even before the oil spill.

"Oysters are really the kidneys of the coastal ocean areas," she said. "They clean and filter all kinds of things from the water. Historically, oysters were prevalent throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They are one of the keystone species that are so important for water quality issues."

For their effort, volunteers got sore muscles, bruised forearms from catching bags of shells, and a sense of having accomplished something difficult and worthwhile. For many of the IU students, the full day of work came after driving through the night to reach the Gulf.

"I learned how much of a difference 400 people can make," said Jessica Fulgoni, a first-year student in SPEA's Master of Science in Environmental Science program. "We did a quarter mile; you don't comprehend how long that is. And I loved being in the mud; that was my favorite part."

Volunteers traveled from as far as San Francisco and New Hampshire to join local residents in the work project. But the Indiana contingent was by far the biggest out-of-state group, making up about 10 percent of the work force. The Nature Conservancy's Indiana chapter facilitated the effort as part of an initiative called "Gen C," aimed at engaging a new generation of conservation leaders.

IU student Morehouse said the project reinforced the message that students can have rewarding experiences if they make themselves available. "When you open your eyes to the world of volunteering, it's endless," she said.

Marianna Eble, a junior biology major, recalled watching news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon explosion last spring and getting a sick feeling when she saw satellite images of oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. But eventually, "you detach yourself from it, because it's so far away."

Traveling to Alabama, working side-by-side with locals and hearing about the impact of the spill on the local tourism and fishing economy brought the disaster close to home. "Although we're not responsible for the spill, we do have a responsibility to help," Eble said. "The livelihoods of so many people were just smashed."

Meretsky said it's not uncommon for her IU students to take part in volunteer and service-learning activities, such as helping with Nature Conservancy projects, such as helping eradicate invasive plant species on conservancy properties and public lands in Indiana. But an opportunity to contribute to a national environmental restoration project was special.

"It's the kind of experience that I would guess most of them will remember the rest of their lives," she said. "And you should get those kinds of experiences when you're at college or university. They came back shining from it."