By Kristine Alford
Cover Photo by Lori Sparacio / Stop Or I’ll Shoot Photography
Coastal Alabama is a uniquely abundant place, home to beautiful beaches, lush wetlands, colorful nature trails, and more. In fact, Mobile Bay was nicknamed “America’s Amazon” years ago in recognition of its exceptionally wide range of plant and animal life. However, like many natural resources, coastal Alabama is facing environmental threats. Pollution, habitat destruction, and resource exploitation are among the many challenges that we are experiencing, and to keep our rich ecosystems thriving, several organizations have stepped up to the plate. Among those hardworking groups is Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF), a statewide nonprofit whose mission is to protect coastal Alabama’s environment through cooperation, education, and participation. Since 1993, ACF has initiated several projects to protect wildlife, educate the public, and keep our coast clean.
If you’re gazing at a mother osprey feeding her chicks on a platform at Gulf State Park or watching a team of hard-working volunteers protect a sea turtle nest on an Alabama beach, chances are you are experiencing the work of ACF, led by Executive Director Mark Berte. Mark spent his childhood exploring the outdoors and emphasizes that he was very fortunate to enjoy vacation trips along the Gulf of Mexico with his family every year since he was five. He carried that passion for our environment with him to ACF, which educates both locals and visitors about the importance of protecting our coastal resources. ACF uses an “inclusive environment stewardship” approach, initiating projects that protect and maintain Alabama’s coastal environment and encouraging cooperation among the entire region. Some of ACF’s current projects include Share the Beach, an oyster shell recycling program, osprey platforms, and education/outreach programs.
Share The Beach
One of ACF’s most popular initiatives is its sea turtle conservation program, also known as Share the Beach, which protects nesting sea turtles, their hatchlings, and their habitats each season, which runs from May through October. During this time, ACF staff and volunteers are hard at work patrolling the beach, monitoring nests and hatchlings, educating the public about sea turtles, and distributing sea-turtle friendly red LED flashlights. Their Share the Beach flashlights have been tested, confirming that they do not contain wavelengths that disorient sea turtles, and ACF has partnered with MagLite to offer 20% off red flashlights, which you can purchase at MagLite.com with discount code ACF20.
Oyster Shell Recycling Program
When you eat an oyster, do you ever think about what happens to the shell when you’re done? Alabama Coastal Foundation does. That’s why they created the Oyster Shell Recycling Program with a 2016 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Now, instead of sending used oyster shells to landfills, many local restaurants give them to ACF, who recycles them back into Alabama waters to provide habitats, prevent erosion, improve water quality, and help more oysters grow. As of Fall 2021, ACF has recycled over 16 million oyster shells, and is looking for additional local restaurants to join the program and decrease the amount of shells delivered to landfills.
Featured in the ACF logo, ospreys (also known as seahawks) can often be seen nesting along the coast during the spring and summer, feeding on seafood and enjoying the warm weather. These beautiful sea birds tend to return to the same nest each year and prefer tall structures for building nests and laying eggs. Alabama Coastal Foundation has worked with partners to install over 35 osprey nesting platforms in coastal Alabama. These platforms are tall, human-made structures that the ospreys, as well as other local birds, can utilize during nesting season. Additionally, ACF partnered with The Nature Conservancy and the City of Orange Beach to install a camera that streams a live feed of an osprey platform for public viewing.
Fun fact in the 1907’s when the poisonous insecticide DDT was used, it was harmful to several animals, and famously made the egg shells of birds such as ospreys so thin they would crack when the birds tried to sit on them. This helped raise awareness about harmful effects of DDT, and played a large role in the DDT ban in 1972.
Education and Outreach
ACF believes in a community-wide approach to conservation. That’s why they are constantly involving the public, hosting in-person and virtual education events to raise awareness for our environment. On the school level, ACF runs K-12 programs such as Bay Buddies, Coastal Kid’s Quiz, and Water Festivals to teach children about the importance of environmental conservation. These are great resources for educators in Alabama, helping reinforce lesson plans. The Coastal Kid’s Quiz program also provides 5th grade teachers in Alabama the opportunity to win extra money for their classrooms. If you are past your school years, there are several additional programs in which you can participate. One fun way to get involved is through ACF’s newest education program Coastal IQ, an online trivia game that tests the public’s knowledge about coastal Alabama. If you prefer an in-person setting, you can learn more about ACF during their Connect to Your Coast events, held at local breweries.
ACF believes we all have something to gain from protecting our coast, and there are many ways to get involved. Since most of ACF’s work is volunteer-led and donation-funded, they emphasize that there are many ways to contribute – volunteer at education events or Share the Beach, planting trees or sea oats, participating in a coastal cleanup, donating money on ACF’s website, purchasing ACF merchandise online, contacting elected officials to reform environmental policy, or even sharing ACF’s posts on social media.