Taking Back the Beach

Ocean Guardian Students Battle Invasive Species

By Lisa Jensen

Aliens have invaded the beaches of California. They're small, green, spiky, and they're everywhere. But these invaders aren't from another planet — just another part of our own. And now, with NOAA's help, one group of students is fighting back.

ice plant
Gault School students looking powerful removing ice plant from the cliffs in Santa Cruz, California.

The "alien" in question is ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis), a fast-growing succulent familiar to anyone who's spent time on the California coast, where it sprawls across seaside dunes and bluffs in dense green mats. It may look harmless, but its innocent appearance hides a sinister impact on local ecosystems. That's why students from Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz, California, supported by a NOAA Ocean Guardian School grant, have taken it upon themselves to protect their shores from this unwelcome intruder.

Unintended Consequences

ice plant
Ice plant.

Originally from South Africa, ice plant was introduced to California in the early 1900s to help stabilize soil along railroad tracks. The newcomer fared extremely well in California's sunny, cool climate, and rapidly spread up and down the coast.

So, what's the problem? For starters, ice plant wreaks havoc on local ecosystems; taking water, light, nutrients and space away from native species. Native plants and animals normally found in dune ecosystems may not have a place to call home. To make matters worse, ice plant's heavy leaves and shallow roots can actually destabilize coastal soil and even increase the chance of landslides — the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do.

Score One for Nature

In Santa Cruz, the Gault School's hands-on, community-based restoration project has enlisted students and volunteers to remove ice plant along the shores of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and restore the native coastal ecosystem to its natural beauty. In addition to removing the invasive plants, students are growing ten native species from seed and planting over 3,000 of these native plants in the restored sites. These newly planted coastal sites are already showing signs of positive changes with the increased presence of migratory birds and native pollinators like bees, butterflies.

ice plant
Before the ice plants have been removed.

Stewardship and Science

As the students and their teachers participate in these restoration activities, they are also learning scientific research and restoration monitoring skills from real scientists so they can accurately evaluate changes in the number and diversity of plants and animals as well as long-term effects on coastal erosion. One of the tools students will use allows them to create a 3-D image of the coastline to monitor changes over time.

ice plant
After the ice plants have been removed.

The students' Ocean Guardian School restoration project is being cheered on by the local community and visitors, and supported by a number of community partners including the City of Santa Cruz, Seabright Neighborhood Association, California State Parks, US Geological Survey, California Native Plant Society, Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Patagonia, UC Santa Cruz, and the California Coastal Conservancy. In time, with the students' focused efforts, the days of the invading ice plant may be numbered!