By Lauren Swaddell
Coral Reef Conservation and US Coral Reef Task Force Fellow
NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
“Look! This is where we live?! I can’t believe we’re still on Guam! It’s so beautiful!” That was the genuine reaction of a middle schooler as our bus climbed a hill, revealing to us a breathtaking view of Sella Bay in southern Guam. We were en route to our first stop on the Humatak Watershed Adventure, which I was co-leading as a part of my extension project for my University of Guam Sea Grant Fellowship.
Thirty-four students in red, maroon, and grey shirts stopped singing along to the radio and crowded around the bus windows to record the view on social media. They were stunned that this was the island they lived on. “Is this really the first time you all have seen this place?” I asked. A majority of them said it was.
At first, I was shocked that this was the first time many of them saw Sella Bay having grown up on Guam–an island you can literally drive around in 3 hours. But, they all lived in Guam’s northern villages where a majority of the population resides, and they probably rarely ventured to the rural south where there were no movie theaters or shops. One bus ride had suddenly transformed Guam from a tiny, isolated island into a beautiful and inspiring place they called home. And we hadn’t even arrived at our first stop!
Their excitement made my job much easier that morning. We had three stops planned to teach them the importance of watershed restoration. We first stopped at the Southern Mountain Overlook to show the students the top of one of Guam’s 14 watersheds. We pointed out the visible signs of pollution and erosion that were impacting the health of the environment. By seeing the physical connection between the land and streams, they were able to understand how human impacts in the watersheds also had downstream effects.
Back in the bus on the way to our second stop, I pointed out large erosion scars, called badlands, and burnt areas in the watersheds. Wildfires are common in southern Guam, and are unfortunately always human-caused. People start fires in the mountains as a hunting tool–tricking the deer go to easy access areas to eat the young grass shoots that grow after a burn. Fires are one of the leading causes of erosion on Guam and can create the formation of badlands. I explained that during rain storms, large amounts of sediment are transported into rivers and bays from the badlands eventually settling on and killing coral reefs. The atmosphere in the bus drastically changed as the students realized that their island was being harmed by intentional human action. “We are going to fix this together. I’ll show you how at the next stop.”
At our second stop at the Umatac Mayor’s Office, I took out buckets of native soil and native seeds and told the students to gather around me. “One way to restore our watersheds is to reintroduce native seeds into eroded areas.” I made a ball from a handful of soil and a da’ok (Calophyllum inophyllum) seed . “This is a seed ball. If we can protect areas from fire and improper land use while reintroducing native vegetation, we can trap sediment in place before it reaches the coral reefs. Now it’s your turn to make some!”
Our last stop was Fouha Bay, a culturally significant site where Chamoru, the indigenous people of Guam, believe creation began. “The upper reaches of this watershed is impacted by fires and has several badlands. The corals here are stressed from heavy sediment loads in this bay. So this is where we will throw our seed balls!” On the count of three, thirty-four students threw seed balls of all shapes and sizes into a barren area that had low-fire risk.
We walked to the coast to complete our watershed adventure. They saw the mountain sediment that accumulated in the bay. “Coral reefs are vital to our lives. They protect us from strong waves and flooding, they are the habitat for our fisheries, and they generate revenue for our island.” I explained that our ancestors knew how to take care of our island’s resources for thousands of years, and now we have to learn to take care of them.
From the mountains to the coast, they saw the environmental and human interactions that impacted the health of our land and sea.. Back at the bus, I asked them who was going to take care of the watersheds, they said, “we are!” Another Saturday morning well spent!
Every now and then, I’ll see a student from a Humatak Watershed Adventure and they’ll say, “Hey, you’re the seed ball lady!” That’s became my unofficial job title, and I am proud of it! I knew that the lessons they learned on the watershed adventure left a lasting impression. But what I really hope is that they’ll always see our island as a special place they’ll want to protect.
Now I’m on my own adventure in Washington, DC as a Knauss Fellow in the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. During my year here I’ll better understand how federal agencies, local coastal resource managers, and other partners work together towards coral reef conservation. I’m excited to return to Guam after the fellowship with a new perspective and professional relationships to protect the resources on Guam and in the Pacific region.