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Weeks Bay Day Celebrates Reserve's 25th Anniversary

By DAVID RAINER

Coastal conservation took a significant step in 1986 when the Weeks Bay watershed in Baldwin County was added to the National Estuarine Research Reserves System, which encompasses more than 1.3 million acres of coastal and estuarine habitat in 28 reserves located in 22 states and Puerto Rico.

To celebrate that inclusion, Weeks Bay Reserve will hold a 25th anniversary celebration with Weeks Bay Day on April 2 at the Reserve’s Tonsmeire Weeks Bay Resource Center on Highway 98 about 12 miles southeast of Fairhope.

“We are an education and research facility,” said Reserve Manager L.G. Adams. “We try to spread the word about how important estuaries are to the quality of life we enjoy. The Reserve is like a living laboratory for research scientists and students to learn more about estuaries and their processes and how valuable they are.”

Weeks Bay Day will be a family-oriented celebration from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Scheduled activities include: tours of the facility’s pitcher plant bog, a bird show with raptors, as well as a presentation on snakes, other reptiles and amphibians. A Watershed Wagon will have a variety of activities to teach attendees more about watersheds and how to protect those areas with a focus on water quality.

“We’ll have demonstrations of watershed protection, and we’re going to try to have binocular microscopes to look at plankton samples and understand how there are a lot of microscopic organisms thriving in Weeks Bay and the nursery areas of the estuary,” Adams said. “For the kids, we’ll have face painting and an art project related to the natural environment.”

The coastal areas where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with saltwater from the sea are extremely productive habitats but are somewhat fragile.

“If water quality is degraded, it impacts the productivity of these areas,” Adams said. “Or if wetlands are filled, it impacts the watershed.

“Even more than ever, these inshore waters are important in light of last year’s tragedy with the oil spill. I think many of us have a greater appreciation for these wetlands, estuaries and inshore areas that are connected to the seafood industry, recreational fishing, and even bird watchers. And it’s more apparent that estuaries, wetlands and emergent marshes associated with these coastal areas are just so important to a healthy environment, but that is also linked to a healthy economy. I think that’s the message that perhaps we have become most aware of in the last 10 months.”

Weeks Bay serves as a critical nursery for shrimp, bay anchovy, blue crab, as well as numerous inshore and nearshore fish species. Adams said the estuarine environment is among the most productive on earth in the creation of organic matter. Estuaries foster an abundance and diversity of wildlife such as shore birds, fish, crabs, marine mammals, and shellfish. More than 75 percent of America’s commercial fish catch, and 80-90 percent of the recreational fish catch are directly related to estuarine areas. These coastal areas also serve as rest stops for migratory birds, as well as wintering habitat for migrating waterfowl. These habitats nurture unique microscopic organisms and a rich source of plant diversity.

Estuaries also have human components, as well. They provide protection against the floods and storm surges, as well as erosion. These areas have the ability to filter water contaminants. More than 28 million jobs in the nation are connected to estuaries, which provide $8 to $12 billion annually through tourism and recreational activity nationwide.

The Reserve also offers numerous research opportunities for scientists, as well as educational opportunities for all ages. It also provides a means of assessing overall ecosystem health.

For the past 12 years, the Reserve has been a part of the System-Wide Monitoring Program, which monitors water quality, weather, and water column nutrients. The information is made available via the internet and is used by local weather stations, anglers, the general public, and researchers working at the Reserve. A partnership with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program allows the data to be accessed in real time.

Phytoplankton in the Reserve is also monitored, as well as sediment levels and tide activity. Other areas of study include: habitat restoration, effects of hurricane-tropical storms, algae blooms, as well as invasive species.

Weeks Bay Reserve, a partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Alabama, encompasses 6,525 acres, which is made up of the water bottoms of the state designated as part of the Reserve, land tracts acquired by the state, which includes swamps, coastal forests and marsh areas.

“We have also acquired new lands and hope to incorporate that into our boundary,” Adams said. “But in order to do that, it requires a revision of our management plan, which is planned for next year. Hopefully we’ll add those other parcels as soon as possible.”

After enjoying Weeks Bay Day, visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the Weeks Bay Interpretative Center and Kurt G. Wintermeyer Nature Trail with elevated boardwalks. Also, the celebration is right in the middle of the annual Master Gardener plant sale, which runs April 1-3.

Parking for Weeks Bay Day will be at the Safe Harbor Site located on US 98 west of the Fish River Bridge and shuttles will be provided. For more information, contact Weeks Bay Reserve at (251) 928-9792. 

PHOTOS: (ADCNR) Visitors to Weeks Bay Reserve can take a tour of the pitcher plant bog from a raised boardwalk, while birdwatchers and other outdoors enthusiasts can find numerous birds, like the great blue heron, to observe at the Reserve southeast of Fairhope.

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