Bob Stankelis: NERRA’s Estuary Hero

Bob Stankelis: NERRA’s Estuary Hero

Photo courtesy Narragansett Bay Reserve.

NERRA is proud to recognize the late Bob Stankelis as our estuary hero of 2020. As manager of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve for more than 15 years, Bob left a legacy of people and places made better through his influence.

“Bob was inspired by a desire to make a difference,” says Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. “He left a career in rocket science to one focused on protecting the coastal places he cared about. Everyone who loves estuaries is in his debt.”

Under Bob’s guidance, the Narragansett Bay Reserve became a leader in salt marsh research and a living laboratory for environmental education.

“From conducting leading-edge seagrass science to enhancing the Reserve’s infrastructure and programs, Bob’s legacy is strong,” says Kenneth Raposa, the Reserve’s research coordinator. “His impact on Prudence Island and Narragansett Bay is a testament to his outstanding dedication to estuaries.”

Bob’s brought partners together to conserve more than 225 acres of land and ensure that 85 percent of Prudence Island will be protected in perpetuity.

“Bob understood that many people needed to come together to protect and restore our estuaries,” says Jen West, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “He brought us together and enhanced every process with his passion, knowledge, work ethic, empathy, and kindness.”

Bob was recently recognized with a posthumous lifetime achievement Environmental Merit Award by USEPA for his long career devoted to protecting the environment.

We miss you, Bob.

Growing With Salmon

Growing With Salmon

Photos and story courtesy Jacob Argueta, research technician at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was told the significance of salmon from a young age. From grade school through college, in multiple disciplines, we were taught how salmon had provided for the indigenous people and sustained the landscape through their lifecycle for millennia. 

Over and over again, this idea of salmon being a cultural and biological keystone was presented to us in the past tense, with many people working to restore what had been lost. We learned about, and saw firsthand, that development and population growth had come at the cost of salmon habitat. Rivers and streams were controlled, dammed, culvertized, and disconnected. The remaining salmon populations were just a shadow of what they had historically been, even with large inputs from hatcheries. 

By the time I arrived in Alaska in 2017, I had become accustomed to the view that salmon were a species that couldn’t survive without people because of what we had done to their habitats. It is hard to describe the sight of a largely unimpacted salmon run battling upstream after so many years of the aforementioned mindset. The rivers team with life. What you thought were riffles or eddies are actually hundreds, thousands of fish driven by instinct to return to their natal streams. It is also not just the fish that gather, but the birds, mammals, insects, and people do as well. The whole ecosystem responds to the return of the salmon. 

The last few years at the Kachemak Bay Reserve has allowed me to work with an amazing and dedicated group of people who strive to better understand and protect these incredible fish and the landscape that supports them.

My teams’ work has largely focused on the freshwater portion of the coho salmon’s life cycle. I am continually blown away by the resilience and determination of these juvenile fish. They are now understood to spend multiple years in freshwater, utilizing every part of the watershed, from the estuaries to the smallest headwaters. Perhaps equally important is the role the landscape plays in maintaining productive salmon streams. In the Kenai Lowlands bordering the Reserve, the land is a tapestry of salmon support. Alders fix nitrogen into the soil, peatlands store large amounts of carbon and regulate water temperatures, and shallow groundwater acts as a transport mechanism bringing these critical elements to the salmon streams. 

I have been given a glimpse into what it must have been like only a hundred years ago in the Pacific Northwest. Like my mentor, Coowe Walker, says, ‘in Alaska we have been given an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and not destroy an intact ecosystem. We know people and salmon can coexist, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We know better than ever the mechanisms and elements that make good salmon habitat.’ 

I hope that we can come together around this unifying species and become a shining example of coexistence and mutual sustainability.  

Teachers on the Estuary

Teachers on the Estuary

Oregon teachers brave gray skies for a research cruise with South Slough Reserve staff.

Whether they are in Oregon, Alabama, or any other coastal state, all teachers need opportunities for professional development, particularly those that meet Next Generation standards for education. In response, Reserves partnered with NOAA to create Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE), a national program that delivers local trainings that get teachers out of their classrooms and into estuaries, where they can use local research to improve their understanding of the environment.

TOTE workshops have reached hundreds of teachers—and by extension tens of thousands of students. Each workshop has a unique theme, but they share three essential qualities: authentic learning experiences that promote estuary stewardship, connections to research, and field-based exploration.

Highlights from 2019

Oregon teachers braved gray skies, icy passes, and winter precipitation to spend three days with South Slough Reserve staff, studying ocean acidification and the impact of a changing atmosphere on estuaries and oceans. They explored water quality with a Reserve scientist, took a research cruise, and discussed how to make the science more relevant to their students and overcome obstacles they face in teaching these issues. With the aid of an artist and ocean historian, they also collaborated to identify ways environmental arts and humanities can strengthen ocean acidification lessons.


At Alabama’s Weeks Bay Reserve, local educators learned about the different types of marine debris that impact the Gulf Coast. They explored shoreline monitoring and went on a field trip to sample for microplastics in Weeks Bay. The Reserve provided supplies for various marine debris activities that educators could take back to their classrooms. All were encouraged to bring their students back to the Reserves for future sampling, so they could share in the experience and learn about the impacts for themselves. 


Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve built a unique program for teachers from Coweta County—one of the furthest counties from the Atlantic—that allowed them to trace the flow of Georgia rivers to the sea. Research and education staff helped the teachers learn about estuaries and coastal management issues in Georgia, and compare the state’s watersheds. The experience culminated with an excursion on a University of Georgia research vessel. Teachers returned to their classroom with a better understanding of Georgia’s unique ecosystems and the complex issues surrounding them.

Supporting Massachusetts Teachers

Supporting Massachusetts Teachers

When the COVID-19 pandemic turned students across Massachusetts into remote learners, Waquoit Bay Reserve’s education staff leapt into action to support the teachers who are helping them learn at a distance.

The Reserve offered a webinar on how environmental educators can get students “away from the screen” and into their own backyards by providing concrete ways for students to do real science while conforming to social distancing guidelines.

The webinar was so well-attended and well-received that more professional development trainings for teachers are in the pipeline. The Reserve has also made a number of remote learning resources available on their website.

South Slough Restoration Project Connects Community

South Slough Restoration Project Connects Community

Oregon’s South Slough Reserve transformed the unhealthy forest around their visitor’s center in the fall of 2019.

The project was designed to reduce fire risk, improve forest health, diversify habitat, and enhance educational opportunities at the visitor’s center.  As a result of the work, the Reserve was able to donate 120 cedar logs harvested from the project to two local tribal nations, the Coquille and the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. Other logs were used to make visitor benches and milled into boards for future wildlife education programs.

Over 2,300 students were educated at the South Slough Reserve in 2019, and the marriage of a major stewardship project to education expanded the Reserve’s capacity for 2020, and benefited the local tribal community too. Now that’s a win-win!

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