NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools help protect sanctuary resources

By Seaberry Nachbar

November 2018

Adorned with garden gloves and reusable water bottles, the students of Gault Elementary School have been walking the one-mile journey to Seabright State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, for the last five years. Led by their intrepid teacher, Susan Dahlgren, and Dr. Bill Henry of Groundswell Coastal Ecology, the students get right to work removing invasive ice plant and replacing it with native dune plants. Seabright State Beach, once covered in the non-native ice plant, is now thriving under the loving care of these students. Their work has been so successful that threatened and endangered animals like the snowy plover and burrowing owl have now returned to these dune ecosystems to nest and flourish.

Through the Ocean Guardian School program, K-12 schools implement stewardship projects focused on watersheds, the ocean, and special areas like national marine sanctuaries. Through their Ocean Guardian School project, Gault students are making a difference for the beach, one ice plant at a time.

two young students hold seedlings
Gault Elementary School students hold native seedlings to be replanted at Seabright State Beach. Photo: Bill Henry

Guarding the ocean and coast for the future

Gault’s project is part of the Seabright Coastal Enhancement Project, a partnership led by Groundswell Coastal Ecology that includes California State Parks, the city of Santa Cruz, local schools, students, nonprofits, businesses, and more.

Students and volunteers meet regularly to remove ice plant along the shores of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and restore the native coastal ecosystem to its natural beauty. ”Native plants attract native animals to the beach, and that is really important,” explains Gault Elementary student Phoebe Doudu.

student holding a seedling
A Gault Elementary School student prepares to plant a native seaside daisy she grew from seed. Photo: Bill Henry

Ice plant, also known as sea fig, is originally from South Africa and was introduced to California in the early 1900s to help stabilize railroad tracks. But it rapidly spread along the coast, where it wreaks havoc on local ecosystems. Ice plant chokes out native species, and its shallow roots can actually destabilize coastal soil and increase the chance of erosion and landslides.

ice plant
Introduced to California to help stabilize railroad tracks and dunes, ice plant actually destabilizes coastal soil. Photo: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

In addition to removing the invasive plants, Gault Elementary students are growing over 30 native species from local seed and have planted over 3,000 of these native plants in the restored sites. These native plants create habitat for migrating birds and native pollinators like native bees and butterflies. Henry notes that thanks to efforts by Gault students and other volunteers, Groundswell has documented a 10-fold increase in abundance of native bees, and a three-fold increase in migratory land birds. Plus, a more diverse array of species of bees and birds have been seen in the area.

By replanting these coastal sites, students are supporting living shorelines that in turn stabilize coastal dunes and bluffs. “Building native coastal ecosystems increases the resiliency of our coast to the impacts of climate change,” including sea level rise and increasingly frequent and intense storms, explains Henry. He adds that the project makes “Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary better for both wildlife and people. This is an amazing opportunity to work together to create a culture of stewardship around a resources we all love.”

snowy plover
Students’ restoration efforts have created habitat for threatened and endangered species, including the snowy plover. Photo: USFWS

Learning by doing

Gault Elementary School is one of over 100 schools that have been designated as a NOAA Ocean Guardian School. Each school makes a commitment to ocean conservation and protection and then develops and implements a project on school grounds or in the community that inspires changes in environmental stewardship behavior. Some schools are eligible for grants of up to $4,000 that support their projects. The program was developed in 2009 and to date has worked with over 50,000 students.

Gault students’ role in the Seabright Coastal Enhancement Project has drawn in locals: the project is now supported by over 50 community partners. These students are not only changing the landscape, but learning invaluable lessons by protecting their coastal and sanctuary treasures. “Our students are getting hands-on science experience in biology, ecology, and environmental science. They are learning the importance of biodiversity in sustaining a healthy ecosystem at our local beach,” says lead teacher Susan Dahlgren. “Perhaps most importantly, they see that they can make a difference in the world through their own actions. Many of our students return to the beach and are educating their own families about our local environment.”

students holding clipboards on beach
Gault student scientists quantify the success of their restoration efforts by measuring the abundance and diversity of native plantings. Their restoration project is providing habitat for snowy plovers and other species by building a new dune ecosystems. Photo: Bill Henry

The NOAA Ocean Guardian School program strives to create students that are knowledgeable about the actions and behavior changes they can make in their school community and in their own lives to protect and improve the ocean environment. When students are provided the opportunity to make this difference, they will rise to the occasion and find their own environmental voice.

Seaberry Nachbar is the director of NOAA’s Ocean Guardian School Program and an education coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.