They came from all over the country, dressed in wet suits, chest waders, hip boots and knee boots and bailed off into Mobile Bay. They emerged covered in enough mud to make a rambunctious 5-year-old boy envious.

But this mud fest was not about play. It was serious business. This was the opening step in a five-year journey to restore habitat in coastal Alabama.

The 100-1000 Restore Coastal Alabama program is designed to build 100 miles of oyster beds that will aid the restoration of 1,000 acres of shoreline habitat. The Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper, The Nature Conservancy and The Ocean Foundation formed a coalition in 2010 to try to mitigate the environmental impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as well as reverse years of shoreline habitat damage from pollution, storms, erosion and human interaction.

The recent effort at Helen Wood Park on Mobile Bay just north of Dog River utilized 10-pound sacks of oyster shells to build a quarter-mile boundary along a mud flat that was slowly expanding into the shoreline.

Funding from the Alabama Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid for the initial effort that placed 16,000 sacks of shells across the mud flat. Other organizations involved in the effort were: Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.

Mobile Baykeeper’s Casi Callaway, who was in the middle of the action during the two-day initial event, said she was “ecstatic” with the response of the public to the initial project.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Callaway said. “We had 545 volunteers from as far away as California. To see people so excited and so motivated to do a really nasty and hard job was just inspiring.

“This is the first step. Funding is the question, of course. But we believe for $90 million we can put 100 miles of oyster reefs and shoreline protection measures and plant and promote 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grass in five years. The BP oil disaster was the biggest environmental disaster to happen in this country, and it requires an answer that big. It requires a response that big. And planning and building 100 miles of oyster reefs – that’s the kind of answer we need to do.”

The 100-1000 program is an effort to put a master plan together that will bring all the environmental organizations together for a common effort, Callaway said.

“We’ve been incrementally losing habitat,” she said. “We’ve been losing reefs, shorelines and boatloads of wetlands and marsh and sea grass. We’ve got all these wonderful organizations that independently are doing a quarter-mile or half-mile or 100 acres or 10 acres of grass planting or whatever. We’ve all been doing these little projects that are amazing, but they’re small. What we need to do is unify, get everyone talking to each other and figure out how to put our money, our efforts and our energy together to do something big.”

Judy Haner, Marine Program Director with The Nature Conservancy, said their organization had already started work in the area and the oyster reef building fit nicely into their plans.

“It worked out really perfectly for us to get a large group of people out here in a high visibility area and get everybody involved,” Haner said. “We’re putting oyster reef barriers and breakwaters in place to mimic old oyster reefs that were once here to protect the shoreline and allow the marsh to regrow in areas where it has eroded. In addition, we have some marsh grasses on site. We want to protect those, but they will thrive in the lee between the oyster reefs and the shoreline. So we’re excited about that.

“We’re planting oysters for shoreline protection and habitat improvement. The habitat improvement will affect the finfish and shellfish that live in and around the bay. It will be great nursery habitat. The complex of the oyster reef with the sea grass and marsh is just spectacular for that purpose – for productivity.”

Dan Everson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Daphne office said the funding provided by the service came through the Ecological Services Office’s aptly named Coastal Program.

“We work closely with other agencies in south Alabama, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other organizations that deal with conservation issues,” Everson said. “It was very exciting for us to be able to provide some money to get this going.

“Just about any fish or shellfish species that inhabit the bay or Gulf near here will benefit from this. When you look at the historical numbers of fish that came out of Mobile Bay, it was just tremendous. That was because, at one time, there was a lot of structure. It was three-dimensional. You didn’t really see these expansive mud flats. These oyster reefs are going to provide that habitat, those nooks and crannies where oyster spat will settle. Other bivalves will move in. A whole ecosystem is going to get started because you’ve provided that hard structure. The small fish start moving in because of the structure and the big fish follow. Fishing opportunities here are going to be tremendous in a few years.”

Chris Olberhoster, The Nature Conservancy’s Alabama State Director, said he was amazed at the response for such a task that left everyone speckled, if not coated, in mud.

“We had fantastic turnout, a fantastic show of support from the local community and folks from all over the United States,” Olberhoster said. “People from as far away as Indiana, Massachusetts and California came by the dozens to help with this oyster reef and other living shoreline projects. It shows how much people care about the Gulf, especially in light of what has happened over the last nine months.

“This segment is the start and this is as much funding as is available right now through the contributions of private donors, organizations and public agencies. After that, we hope to get some Clean Water Act or restitution money from the Deepwater Horizon event so we can reinvest it back into the Gulf of Mexico for this kind of work. That what it’s going to take to move the needle and do this at a scale where it’s going to make a difference in water quality and habitat restoration. This is something that’s never been done on this scale.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Dan Everson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hands off one of the 10-pound sacks of oyster shells to Judy Haner of The Nature Conservancy during the 100-1000 Restore Coastal Alabama event held recently on the western shore of Mobile Bay just north of the mouth of Dog River. About 16,000 bags of oyster shells were used to construct a reef across a mud flat, which will start a regeneration of improved coastal habitat in both bottom structure and aquatic vegetation. A lone volunteer (bottom photo) makes her way back across the mud flat at the end of the first day’s effort.