A contingent from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries recently helped restore the beaches and aquatic habitats of San Juan, Puerto Rico, that were damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Steve Lochmann, professor of aquaculture and fisheries; Joseph Kaiser and Cody Salzmann, graduate students of aquaculture and fisheries; and Kyler Hecke, alumnus, volunteered as part of the annual spring meeting of the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society.

Dr. Mike Eggleton, associate professor of aquaculture and fisheries and president of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, and Shannon Smith, research associate, also attended the conference in San Juan.

Seventy-seven conference attendees partnered with two local non-governmental organizations, the San Juan Bay Estuary Program (Estuario de la Bahia de San Juan) and Grupo 7 Quillas, to form a 100-person dune restoration force.

“We cleaned the beach of trash, removed sand that had been deposited on an adjacent street and planted 200 coastal plants of two species, sea grape and icaco, at the Ocean Park urban beach in San Juan,” Douglas Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society, said. “The beach dunes will protect local infrastructure from flooding and protect important leatherback sea turtle nesting habitat.”

Hecke said taking part in the service activity alongside other fisheries professionals was a great experience.

“I am glad we could give back to Puerto Rico while attending the SDAFS meeting,” he said.

The activity, part of the San Juan Bay Estuary Program’s #EstuarioRevive campaign, was made possible after the AFS donated more than $3,000 for the purchase of the coastal plants and supplies, and to supplement the cost of transportation for meeting participants. Society members plan to raise an additional $3,000 to donate to the San Juan Bay Estuary Program.

Additional disaster relief funds raised by the AFS ensured that Puerto Rican chapter members affected by Hurricane Maria could attend the conference.

“These stipends were critical because our island-resident members and the agencies that they work for have been severely affected financially by the hurricane,” Austen said. “One member still does not have power and only has intermittent water service.”

The San Juan Bay Estuary Program works on conservation, restoration, monitoring, resilience and education in the aquatic habitats of the San Juan Bay estuary, an extensive water system that includes several lagoons, bays and coastal habitats in the heart of San Juan. The organization “7 Quillas” is comprised of local sea turtle conservationists that protect nesting leatherback sea turtles and their habitat in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan.

The Arkansas Chapter of the AFS was formed in 1987 to serve fisheries professionals in the state of Arkansas by promoting the wise management, conservation and use of fisheries and aquatic resources, facilitating the exchange of information among industry professionals and increasing the public’s awareness of fisheries-related issues and projects.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.