Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the official name of the natural wilderness that surrounds Marco Island, is kind of a mouthful – try saying it three times fast. But the words have meanings, and last month, Rookery Bay managers announced two new projects, examples of what puts the “research” in the research reserve.

Beginning in September, Rookery Bay will host researchers from Duke University and the University of South Florida, working to improve understanding of the local ecosystem, and providing a baseline to view changes to the area’s natural building blocks. The projects are both supported by grants from the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) System Science Collaborative, with $114,000 for Duke and $182,000 for USF.

The USF project, “Habitat Mapping of Terrestrial and Benthic Habitats,” will utilize high-tech satellite imagery to provide a detailed map of Rookery Bay’s 110,000 acres, said principal investigator Frank Muller-Karger, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science. He will work with Matt McCarthy, a post-doctoral fellow at the school, using today’s vastly improved satellite mapping cameras to update existing maps.

“Most of the maps we have for coastal zones in land use and cover are based on LANDSAT data. Those have been flown for 40 years,” said Muller-Karger. “In those images, each pixel represents 30 meters. There are many things you cannot see, such as individual trees.”

Newer commercial satellites provide images in which one pixel shows as little as one meter, giving much more detail. Mapping these remote areas is “difficult to do by hand, and expensive by airplane,” said Muller-Karger. “The idea is to generate new maps.”

“A lot of solid fieldwork has been done,” said Rookery Bay research coordinator Brita Jessen, Pd.D. “We’re not starting from scratch.” The first complete habitat map of the area was completed around 2013, she said, and the area has changed since, notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. “The purpose is to make the maps publicly available, for researchers, educators and the general public.”

“Newer, high-resolution maps of coastal wetlands will help assess habitat loss, recovery from hurricanes and shifts in marine and coastal vegetation resulting from sea-level rise,” said Rookery Bay director Keith Laakkonen.

Current area maps can be found on the websites of the Rookery Bay reserve and FORB, the Friends of Rookery Bay, the reserve’s citizens support group.

The Duke project, “Conceptual Modeling of Ecosystem Services,” endeavors to quantify the ways in which the area and its human residents depend on a functioning natural habitat, said Sara Mason, research analyst and policy associate at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Their research will develop a new tool to help determine the value of ecosystem services provided by the coastal environment, including food production, nutrient cycling, oxygen production, aesthetic and recreational benefits and more.

“We know coastal habitats protect from flooding, provide recreation, rookeries, and benefits to the fishing and tourism industries,” said Mason. “We’re gathering evidence – can restoring coastal habitats help the ecosystem recover?” Her team will conduct workshops set up through Rookery Bay, hearing from stakeholders including restoration workers, academics, tourism and fishing industry representatives.

Eventually, the knowledge gained from the Rookery Bay project will help to quantify the importance of wetlands and ensure that the benefits of healthy ecosystems are considered in governmental and development decision making, not only in our immediate area but across the country.

“I presented on a salt marsh study to the annual NERR meeting in Texas last year, and Brita came up to afterward,” said Mason, sparking the new project. Health of our natural ecosystem, especially the marine environment, has become a critical topic recently, with red tide and blue/green algae fouling local waterways.

The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center provides an easy and fun way to explore our natural ecosystem, outside or in air-conditioned comfort. To learn more about visiting Rookery Bay, call the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center at call 239-530-5940, or visit Rookery Bay’s ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. south of US 41 between Naples and Marco Island.

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