Every March, the Florida Panhandle hosts thousands of spring break students of all ages and from all areas of the country. While most come to our state to enjoy the surf and sand, other spring breakers arrive to volunteer. This month, multiple groups worked with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) to build reef breakwaters and living shorelines to make our watershed a better place.
Living shorelines are green infrastructure projects that reduce erosion while creating habitat. Reef breakwaters placed a few yards from the shoreline reduce wave energy, while the planted marsh grass holds the sediment in place. In addition to the oysters that thrive on the reef breakwaters, fish, crustaceans, and more use both the reef and the newly planted grasses for critical habitat.
In just one week, three spring break groups worked as part of CBA’s restoration program. On a misty, cloudy day along the Choctawhatchee Bay, eight students and staff from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University moved 10 tons of limestone rock to create new segments of reef breakwater in Florida Park, that’s more than a ton per person!
Determined to compete, middle schoolers participating in the Appleseed Expeditions/ Sea Life Discovery Center program made 511 oyster shell bags. Recycled from local restaurants, these oyster shells will replace those historically mined from the bay, allowing brand new oysters to grow on their hard surface.
Finally, a dozen students from the Rochester Institute of Technology returned to the bay for their second year to build a living shoreline. Thanks to these three groups, the reef at Florida Park is nearly complete, and the bagged oyster shells will create a new breakwater at a homeowner site.
“I’m always so impressed that students want to volunteer on their week off,” says Rachel Gwin, Restoration Coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance. “We team up with volunteers to build much of our living shorelines, and these three groups worked hard and had a great attitude.”
In 2018, CBA built nearly a mile of living shoreline, in addition to restoring over four coastal acres. “Each year CBA works with hundreds of reef-building volunteers,” explains Alison McDowell, CBA Director, “Like the students during alternative spring break, reef building projects teach everyone that individuals can restore the Choctawhatchee Bay with their own two hands.”
CBA is not alone in offering alternative spring break trips for students who want to volunteer. Habitat for Humanity, United Way, and more provide short-term volunteer opportunities for interested universities, colleges, and K-12 schools.
CBA offers volunteer opportunities for all ages, throughout the year. For more information, see basinalliance.org.