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A Living Laboratory: New national research reserve aims to promote sustainable use of estuaries, coasts and oceans

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By this time in May, the only naturally migrating population of whooping cranes in the world is making its way north to Canada, where the five-foot-tall, white-feathered birds breed and raise their young. The great noisy beasts have spent their winter days chomping on blue crabs (their favorite food) among coastal estuaries near Aransas Bay, Texas.

Only lately, the blue crabs have been rather scarce. The shallow water is too salty for the crustaceans to survive, likely the result of decreased fresh water streaming into the estuaries from rivers and creeks due to drought and human population growth farther inland. Fewer crabs can mean fewer and less healthy cranes.

Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve photo slide show
The Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Visit the photo slide show to view more images from the Mission-Aransas NERR.

The connections between the cranes, crabs and wetlands is typical of the coastal estuary, an ultra-diverse and economically important ecosystem on the Texas Gulf coast getting new attention and focus as part of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), managed by the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute (UTMSI).

“The reserve is a living laboratory,” says Paul Montagna, reserve manager and professor of marine science at UTMSI. “It’s a place where we’re going to create a lot of long-term data.”

The long-term research is important, he says, because it will help coastal decision-makers better understand what changes in the estuaries are related to natural conditions or human activities.

The Mission-Aransas NERR, officially designated May 6, 2006, is the newest and third largest of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) estuarine research reserve program, which aims to promote the sustainable use of our nation’s coasts and oceans through scientific research, education and coastal stewardship. [Read more about the May 6 designation ceremony in Port Aransas, Texas.]

The 185,000-acre reserve doesn’t keep fisherman at bay, turn back shrimpers or remove oil and gas wells. Instead, humans are considered a very influential player in a complex ecosystem that includes coastal prairies, black mangroves and open water. Named for the two major rivers that flow into the area, the Mission and the Aransas, the reserve’s boundaries encompass the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (home of the whooping cranes) and a large private landholding, the Fennessey Ranch.

Mission-Aransas NERR Facts

Name: Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve
Designated: May 6, 2006
Area: 185,708 acres, mostly water
Manager: Paul Montagna, Marine Science Institute
Major bays: Copano, Aransas, Mission, Mesquite, Ayers, St. Charles
Major rivers: Mission and Aransas
Habitats: Coastal marsh, open water, coastal prairie, tidal flats and mangroves
Endangered/threatened species: whooping crane, black lace cactus, American alligator, Leatherback, Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, Gulf Coast jaguarundi, Atlantic and Rough-toothed dolphin, piping plover and wood stork (not a complete list)
Birds: More than 400 species of resident and migratory birds
Human activities: ranching, agriculture, shrimping, fishing, tourism, oil and gas exploration, and hunting
Estimated value to commercial fisheries: $260 million annually
Average summer temperatures: 91.9–96.1 °F
Average annual rainfall: 30–36 inches

The Mission-Aransas site was an attractive site for a new reserve, says Laurie Mcgilvray, chief of NOAA’s Estuarine Reserves Division, because it is representative of western Gulf coastal estuaries and still in relatively natural condition.

“Texas was a great opportunity to have one of these research reserves represented by a sentinel site in the western Gulf,” says Mcgilvray.

The reserve designation means that NOAA will provide additional financial resources to conduct research, education and stewardship programs within the reserve boundaries. Several new education and research facilities will be constructed, including the Wetland Education Center in Port Aransas on the UTMSI campus.

“My hope for Mission-Aransas is that it will enhance our understanding of that particular estuary and the estuaries in that region of the coast,” Mcgilvray says. “We’ll be able to really enhance the next generation’s understanding of the importance of estuaries and coastal resources and take the research to coastal decision-makers—elected officials, planners, the agricultural community—and help provide them information to improve their decisions. We want to improve resource stewardship, and to make the general public more aware of the importance of estuaries and coastal resources in their lives.”

One of those coastal decision-makers is Todd Pearson, mayor of Rockport, Texas, a town that sits central to the new reserve.

“The future of our community is dependent on the bays that surround us,” says Pearson. “Shrimping, oystering and recreation are absolutely critical to our economy. Any time we can get real longitudinal studies—the conditions of our bays and what kinds of things we’re doing to affect that—we’re going to learn better how to protect those bays.

“We look forward to the fact that Rockport will be the very center of the NERR. It’s going to help us know how to make decisions for the long-term best health of the bays and our community.”

Paul Montagna
Dr. Paul Montagna is program manager for the Mission-Aransas NERR and professor of marine science.

Estuaries aren’t only important to or affected by those people and creatures living on the coast, says Montagna.

“The entire balance of the ocean economy relies on estuary health,” he says.

Around 95 percent of all commercially important fish and shellfish spend their young lives in estuaries. The area bounded by the new reserve alone generates an estimated $260 million annually for commercial fisheries.

Estuaries also act as natural filters for terrestrial run-off and serve as important buffers from major storms, absorbing the shock of a hurricane like a catcher’s mitt softens a fastball. (This lesson was learned the hard way when Hurricane Katrina pelted New Orleans. Those places with intact wetlands endured less damage than those that bore the full brunt of the storm.)

Montagna says the main threat to estuaries today is habitat loss and degradation, which is why research, education and stewardship around the Mission-Aransas estuaries are so critical.

“The problem today is habitat degradation and loss, development in ways which are not sustainable,” says Montagna. “I anticipate that we’ll spend a lot of time on habitat, smart growth, fisheries and resource development. As cities and farms grow they need more water. As we divert more water from rivers, less flows to the coast. We need solutions to these hard problems and the problems that are emerging.

Map of Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve area on the Texas Gulf coast

“I think eventually we’ll get to the point where we can have smart growth and sustainable development, and I can guarantee the Mission-Aransas NERR will play a role in that.”

Sally Crofutt, manager of the Fennessey Ranch, makes no bones about it.

“I think it’s going to save the coast of Texas,” says Crofutt. “It’s flat out endangered and until we get some good hard science done in the area, we’re at risk.”

Brien O’Connor Dunn, owner of Fennessey, decided to join with the Mission-Aransas NERR because it dovetailed perfectly with his mission for the ranch, which is dedicated to conservation, education and non-traditional ranch uses, like birdwatching and hunting.

Like much of the Mission-Aransas NERR, the Fennessey Ranch is “an environmental Disneyland,” according to Crofutt. The only upland site with fresh water in the reserve, the ranch has more than 1,100 acres of wetlands, nine miles of riparian corridor and 400 species of migratory and resident birds.

“The NERR site is an opportunity to further the habitat and conservation mission [at Fennessey],” says Crofutt. “It’s an opportunity to further the educational programs. It’s an opportunity to monitor and do research on the ranch.”

Crofutt says they want to know what’s going to happen to this wonderland if they or other landowners in the area start selling their artesian well water. They also want to know what pollutants go down the Mission River, which borders the ranch before dumping into Mission Bay, and exactly what species of plants and animals they have on Fennessey, which will be determined as part of the initial NERR site study over the next few years.

Egret stands sentinel in the new Mission-Aransas estuary reserve
Egret stands sentinel in the new Mission-Aransas estuary reserve.

“Private partnerships are so important,” says Montagna. “We’re not going to tell anyone what to do, but we’ll lead by example. We’re going to be able to show people that you can turn a profit and still do the right thing by the environment. And your grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be able to catch fish on this coast.”

Montagna spearheaded the creation of the Mission-Aransas NERR, which began as a seed of an idea in 1999. Over the last seven years, he’s engaged with local city and county officials, national policy-makers, state agencies, conservation groups and area residents to create what Mcgilvray of NOAA calls a “catalyst or magnet.”

“Once you have the research reserve designation and you have dedicated people and programs around this mission of research, education and resource stewardship,” she says, “it begins to attract things to it. It catalyzes things to happen.”

Next year, when the whooping cranes return to their wintering grounds and blue crab grub, they’ll be alighting within a new human boundary. They won’t likely notice the difference from previous years, but if Montagna and all those participating in the Mission-Aransas NERR succeed, the future of the cranes, and every last piece of the coastal estuary they inhabit, will be better off for it.

BY Lee Clippard
College of Natural Sciences

MARSH AND EGRET banner photo © Laurence Parent

PHOTOS: Sally Morehead-Applebaum and John Williams
Marine Science Institute

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  Updated 8 May 2006
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