Talk NERRdy to Me: Kerstin Wasson

Talk NERRdy to Me: Kerstin Wasson

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29—soon to be 30—Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Dr. Kerstin Wasson, research coordinator at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. They talked about marsh making, work marriages, ungrateful and grateful children, Indigenous knowledge, and the non-monetary valuations of mud.

Nik: Welcome to Talk NERRdy, Dr. Kerstin Wasson! You recently told me Kenny Raposa was your work husband. How does your home husband feel about that?

Kerstin: Many days I interact more with Kenny than with my husband. We often send hundreds of messages back and forth within a week. We don’t really talk or see each other, but we interact through collaborative manuscripts. It’s been one of the high points of my last decade of work to interact with Kenny Raposa. It’s just what a collaboration should be when you’re challenging each other and debating things, but making it better as a result of that.

Nik: Are you referring to the National Synthesis?

Kerstin: In the last decade of NERR work, my main papers have been with Kenny. The assessing tidal marsh resilience to sea-level rise (MARS) project was the first in a series of collaborative projects. Then we looked at crabs across the NERRS, wrote another paper on that, then we coordinated a thin layer sediment restoration experiment across eight Reserves. We’ve been trying to camera trap across all the Reserves but haven’t found the funding yet.

Wasson with her “work husband” Kenny Raposa (right) and sediment science rockstar Neil Ganju in Rhode Island.

Nik: That all sounds exhausting. Also, didn’t Elkhorn Slough just build Hester Marsh? Is it fun to play God? 

Kerstin: Scary, but fun. We are super proud that we did this, with a huge team and a lot of funding, of course. We asked, “How high should we make it?” and the answer was “as high as possible without becoming a grassland.” The king tides need to get it wet so that you don’t show your funders, “Look at this weedy pasture that we made!’”

Nik: I’ve got a weedy pasture in my backyard. Agreed: not impressive.

Kerstin: And because it was going to sink, we wanted to overfill it, but how much do you overfill? And what about tidal creeks? If we fill the whole thing, it has no creeks. Where are we going to put them and what should they look like? We decided to use history as a guide and look at the 1931 aerial photo—our oldest—and make them that way.

Nik: What does it mean to “make” a tidal creek?

Kerstin: We thought about maybe filling them with straw or something and protecting them, but it was more effective to just dig them out at the end. On a smaller scale, we are now doing lots of experiments.

My hero, restoration scientist Joy Zedler, encouraged the NERRS to use large-scale restoration activities as a place to learn and do science, and we have really taken that to heart.

When the landscape was bare, people used to ask, “Is it a flag farm?” Because there were so many red flags for this experiment and green flags for another. We planted 17,000 plants! We are learning from this restoration and that part is a lot less scary than playing God at the large scale.

Nik: You generously bumped a graduate student off your schedule so that we could talk today. How are the kids coming up? Did they do all that planting without complaint? What faith do you have in the future?

Kerstin: They’re awesome. My academic daughters are so much more grateful for the advice I give them than my biological daughter. 

Nik: Because you’re not related to them. I have teenagers, too.

Kerstin: I love having graduate students and working with them. The gold standard of what we know about the estuary comes from graduate theses that really dive into something. We provide a lot of guidance and logistic support in return.

Nik: There will be $77 million over the next five years for NERRS habitat restoration. Are we all going to build enormous outdoor sandboxes? Or does 30 by 30 mean everybody will get another 100 acres of marsh? “You get a marsh, and YOU get a marsh, and YOU get a marsh!”

Kerstin: Sea level rise is threatening marshes in so many regions. If we can save an existing marsh, that’s better than anything we can create. Meters of peat represent thousands of years of carbon sequestration and plant and animal communities that take hundreds of years to form. But sea level rise is not going to leave us many choices. 

In Elkhorn Slough, modelling suggests we will lose all marshes to 50 centimeters of sea level rise. If we want there to be a marsh for our great-grandchildren, the one we built is going to be the only one there. However, we also made some migration space for it to move up. I think that a lot of us will be doing that across the System in the coming decade. 

Nik: Why “Hester” Marsh, by the way?

Kerstin: Andrea Woolfolk, our stewardship coordinator, has done a lot of historical ecology research in the region to really inform our restoration work. She discovered that one of the first European landowners in the area was a woman named Hester Miller. She had a dozen or so kids and that seemed like a good omen for our marsh, to have a female name and a fertile landscape.

Nik: It rolls off the tongue. Hester sounds like a heroine in an Austen novel.

Kerstin: You’re thinking Scarlet Letter

Nik: Hester Prynne! Right, but that’s New England. Speaking of which, let’s get back there, because I’m too jealous of California’s beauty.

My chat with Kenny was a little depressing—he’s  spent his entire career in Rhode Island and he expects that, within his lifetime, everything that he’s worked on may disappear. I guess I understand why you’re on a first name basis with your marsh—it’s something that will outlive you and won’t drown. It’s gotta be pretty gratifying to bring that into the world. And scary as well. Like parenting.

Kerstin: Climate change is going to alter our estuaries but that scares me less than the outright loss we’ve seen in the past century. Half of the Elkhorn Slough estuary is behind dikes and water control structures, which is a much bigger change than a marsh converting to a mud flat.

When marshes drown in sea level rise, migratory shorebirds will feed on the mudflats they become, and fish nurseries will expand in the eelgrass, which is actually thriving in the estuary. Sea level rise may allow us to regain disconnected wetlands, and conservation organizations may restore some of those lands. It may actually look better in 50 years, so I’m optimistic.

Sorry… my [home] husband’s coffee timer keeps beeping. He doesn’t want the french press to brew too long or too short.

Nik: We use an eight-minute brew in my house. How do you do it? 

Kerstin: I’m a tea drinker.

Nik: I don’t trust tea drinkers. First, you’re lauding colonialism with your Hester Prynne Marsh, now you’re talking about tea. Why couldn’t you have named it after the Native Americans?

Kerstin: I wish we had more of an understanding of who was living around our estuary and what they were doing. But we are partnering with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, who are trying to reconnect with their ancestral lands.

Most of them can’t afford to live in coastal California but they come back and do activities along the coast with partner organizations. On December 1st, they’ll be doing oyster restoration with me. We’ll learn from each other; our Reserve staff will learn about cultural perspectives and spirituality that they bring to interactions with nature and coastal stewardship. Their tribal members have never seen, touched, or eaten a native oyster even though their ancestors ate them for millennia.

Nik: More and more it seems that there are connections with local tribes in the NERRS, working together and sharing traditional ecological knowledge, but your approach sounds different.

Kerstin: I think there are prospects of learning from Native American communities further north on the coast that still have experience passed down directly from generation to generation. There are reservations near the Padilla Bay Reserve on coastal lands and oyster restoration efforts. Not every culture had the same practices but there are probably commonalities that could be exchanged up and down the coast. We’d love to work on that in the coming years. 

Celebrating finishing planting at Hester Marsh at the end of a muddy day, Karate Kid style.

Nik: What else is going on at Elkhorn Slough? We’ve gotten 20 minutes into this and you haven’t said the word “otter” once, which makes me happy.

Kerstin: What do you have against otters, and how long has this issue been troubling you? 

Nik: I went to school in California and I dated a girl who really liked otters and that was the beginning of the end of our relationship. And I can’t stand that some Reserves have such charismatic megafauna that they could live on the proceeds of otter stuffed animals for the rest of their existence.

Kerstin: I decided to be a biologist when I was five because I wanted to study marine mammals. I wanted to learn dolphin language. But when I took invertebrate zoology, I realized that invertebrates are so much cooler than marine mammals. I ended up doing my PhD on modular organisms that have many bodies per genetic individual. It’s like having thousands of twins.

Nik: Is that a colonial organism?

Kerstin: Yeah, and that’s a lot weirder than dolphins.

Nik: It sounds pretty slimy. So you’re a zoologist by training?

Kerstin: I am.

Nik: So what are you doing, plugging plants into a marsh? That’s botany!

Kerstin: They’re modular! The pickleweed I work with reproduces clonally, so there are some commonalities there. The invertebrates I was working on, Phylum Kamptozoa, don’t look that different from a pickleweed plant.

Nik: I’m getting more into the colonial and slimy. I learned about Bowiebranchia in an interview a couple months ago and that was one of the highlights of my year.

Kerstin: I’m drawn to slimy things. But I’ve come around to the fact that it’s hard to get our community to fall in love with mudflats and marshes. Otters are such a great flagship for why they should care. 

Nik: They’re wonderful and adorable, and I don’t want to hear any more about them. Let’s move to ecosystem services and their valuation: Why do we have to put a dollar figure on everything? 

Kerstin: I understand having that as a tool in our conservation toolbox when we’re working with partners, private landowners, and businesses who don’t necessarily care about protecting our wetlands. 

I recognize the value of the tool, but if we already own the land and we have communities who can afford to love music or art for its own sake, those same people can afford to love nature for its own sake. I think we can, with no embarrassment, love our marshes and our oysters for their own sake, not for what they do for us. And isn’t the whole framework of, “what can nature do for humans”, what got us into trouble in the first place?

Nik: If you could put a dollar figure on otters, where would it land? 

Kerstin: I have no idea. You’re making a face. Did you actually want me to say something more about otters? 

Nik: No! Stay outta the otters! ….How did you get into all this? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?

Kerstin: I grew up in LA, but my parents both grew up in villages—in Arkansas and Northern Germany. My happiest times were wading the creek in Arkansas and walking in the woods in Germany, so I decided I wanted to live and work with nature.

I would see the park rangers and be like, “Oh you get paid to live on a nature reserve in beautiful places? That’s what I want to do.” But I was also this nerdy intellectual that liked books and writing. Conservation scientist melds those two for me. 

Nik: And you never deviated from that course?

Kerstin: It was completely indirect, but it’s a long story. I was a professor at Humboldt State University, and I met my husband when he was a new professor here. I don’t know if you know California geography but that’s like 400 miles apart. Not so good for a marriage. 

Nik: “Here” being UC Santa Cruz

Kerstin: Yes, that’s where I’m zooming from, I live on the UCSC campus. So there I was, 22 years ago, in the market for a Monterey Bay area job and didn’t know a darn thing about estuaries. 

Nik: We’ll strike that from the interview.

Eating a native Olympia oyster—there aren’t many grown commercially on the West Coast, so most people have never tried one—with former collaborative lead of NSC-funded Native Olympia Oyster Collaborative and current graduate student leading conservation aquaculture efforts.

Slogging through the mud excited to go use calipers to measure aquaculture-raised Olympia oysters.

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DC Download: November 2021

DC Download: November 2021

Thank you to President Biden for signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law and to our members of Congress for their bipartisan work and support. This means $77 million for NERRS restoration and conservation over five years—that’s roughly $15 million per year!

Independent of this, the House and Senate are in conference to reconcile FY 2022 funding. Translation? They are working to reach agreement on the NERRS Operations and PAC budgets that get awarded to each Reserve in summer (or fall) of 2022.

NERRA’s goal for the conference committee is to agree to the higher funding amounts in the Senate’s proposed bill. Here is a simple breakdown of where they currently stand:

In addition, NERRA is asking the conference committee to waive the state match normally required when federal funds for PAC projects are received in FY 2022. These funds typically support construction, facilities upgrades, and acquisition of land.

NERRA acknowledges its many board members, along with Reserve friends groups and foundations around the country, who sent emails or letters to support this request, including, Friends of Old Woman Creek Reserve, Friends of Padilla Bay Reserve, Otter Point Creek Alliance, Kachemak Bay Council, Laudholm Farm Trust, and Friends of Rookery Bay.

Next Steps? Congress has until this Friday, 12/3, to either pass the appropriations bill or a second continuing resolution to continue their work on FY 2022 budget. Once the reconciled bill is approved by both the Senate and House, it is sent to the President to sign into law.

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2021 Annual Meeting

With nearly $1k in the 50/50 NERRA 2021 Raffle kitty AND it being so close to the holidays, we thought we’d let the pot grow a bit (along with our waistlines).  The raffle is open until midnight (Hawai’i Time) on December 20. We’ll announce a random winner on the winter solstice to bring a little extra light into the darkest day of the year. C’mon, NERRds—who wants a holiday bonus?

2021 Annual Meeting

Across the country, Reserve staff, friends, and fans gathered for our second fully virtual NERRS/NERRA Annual Meeting this month. Virtual or not, we’re still basking in the after glow that comes from spending so much time with other NERRds.

There is such a long list of people to thank for making this meeting such a special event, but above all—thank YOU. This meeting wouldn’t have been possible without your contributions—and the contributions from people from across the System.

Thank You, Plenary Speakers

Our plenary speakers—Dr. Rick Spinrad, Brenda Mallory, Dr. Rick Bennett, and Eva DiDonato—inspired us with their eloquence and vision for climate science; mitigation and resilience; conservation of 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030; and the advancement of racial equity and support for underserved communities.

Thank You, Estuary Heroes

There is no shortage of people in the NERRS doing extraordinary work. This year, we were happy to honor three NERRds who inspire us.

NERRS-NERRA Award for Outstanding Contribution: Jeff Carter, stewardship coordinator at the Rookery Bay Reserve

For 13 years, Jeff’s infectious enthusiasm and authentic joy for people and the work we do has strengthened and enriched partnerships at Rookery Bay and across the System.

NERRS-NERRA Award for Outstanding Contribution: Lisa Auermuller, assistant manager at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve

A recognized leader in climate resilience,
Lisa is always thinking about how to
make things better. She is, quite simply, the best partner anyone could have. 

Nate Herold, physical scientist with NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management: Technical Assistance Award

A whiz with remote sensing, digital imagery analysis, and GIS, Nate goes above and beyond to promote the translation and communication of NERRS data to benefit coastal communities nationwide.

You, Cinephiles

Many of you joined us on Facebook Live for the eighth NERRS Annual Filmfest. If you couldn’t make it, you can still watch the films on NERRA’s Youtube. Which is an awesome opportunity to subscribe to our Youtube Channel, while you’re at it 😉

Congratulations to the Mission-Aransas Reserve for their winning video, The Great Gulf Nurdle Expedition! And to the Jacques Cousteau Reserve for winning a DJI Mini 2 Fly More Combo drone, compliments of NERRA and Roca Communications in the NERRS Filmfest Raffle

These videos help forge a connection to the amazing places and programs that are the NERRS.

… and thank You, Auction Team.

Going once, going twice and…SOLD! Kudos to this year’s ‘Bidding Bunch’ for finding ways to make our second annual auction fun, despite the distance. None of it would have been possible without our amazing donors, auctioneers, and of course, bidders.

Reserve Gets Gold Star

Reserve Gets Gold Star

The Chesapeake Bay Maryland Reserve received the Gold Star Award from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program for its extraordinary work as a partner committed to maintaining the environmental integrity of the Coastal Bays watershed. The experience and expertise of Kyle Derby, Research Coordinator for the Reserve, made the collaboration possible.

“Kyle brought his extensive technical knowledge of surface elevation tables (SETs) to the team as a tool to understand the impacts of sea level rise on marsh elevation and health,” says Jennifer Raulin, manager of the Reserve. “He’s also a fantastic teacher who can distill high level scientific information in an approachable, humorous, and memorable way.”

The Reserve helped install SETs to monitor wetland elevation change in the northern portion of Coastal Bays. This has enabled the Maryland Coastal Bays Program—one of 28 National Estuary Programs—to expand their tidal marsh monitoring and make their overall program more robust. 

“Kyle led the effort with Reserve staff to work with our state’s National Estuary Program to educate and train on the siting, installation, and monitoring of SETs;” says Raulin. “As a result we have an extended network of long-term monitoring sites that will give us a better picture of how Maryland’s marshes are changing over time. This collaboration was a perfect fit for the capacity of our Reserve and the NERRS.

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Advancing Diversity in Marine Sciences

Advancing Diversity in Marine Sciences

Written in collaboration with Amy Plantarich.

The inspiration for a new internship program at New Jersey’s Jacques Cousteau Reserve was simple: diversity in science is better for everybody. Not only is creating equal access important for advancing equality, science is stronger when everybody contributes.

In that spirit, the Reserve welcomed six undergraduates to pursue their own research last summer. Their experience was made possible through a partnership between the Jacques Cousteau Reserve and two programs from Rutgers University: the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and the Idea, Design and Entrepreneurship Academy (i.d.e.a.).

The path to a career in the sciences is long and challenging. The goal of this partnership was to create opportunities for students from racial and ethnic minorities to explore the fields of marine and coastal science, education, and resource management, connect with mentors, and identify career development opportunities.

“This internship gave me a better understanding of the field of marine and coastal science, as well as relevant career opportunities.” says Austin Crawley, one of the interns from Rutgers University.

“The research that I dove into taught me a lot regarding computer automation’s role in advanced projects and the potential for it to help even more with future innovation.” says Jake Stocki, another intern from Rutgers University. “The program as a whole has inspired me tremendously in my studies, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity and support.”

In addition to their own research, the interns were able to take advantage of field-based projects currently underway at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve and the New Jersey Aquaculture Innovation Center (NJAIC) and take part in professional development training. 

“This was my first opportunity to work in a research environment,” says Stocki. “It not only taught me a great deal about the topic I was working on but it also gave me a great respect for the work that is done at these facilities all over the country and the world.”

On August 13th, program partners and interns celebrated their experience with presentations of the students’ research projects. This prepared them to participate in the upcoming GS-LSAMP symposium on February 25th, 2022, when more than 200 New Jersey undergraduates are expected to present research.

“This internship made me more comfortable with presenting my work in a professional setting. I was able to network with undergraduate and graduate students all interested in various topics in marine and environmental science,” says Intern Jordan Tarleton. “I was able to gain mentors who have been helping me with professional development and finding new research opportunities to be a part of.”

Staff at all the participating institutions were grateful for the opportunity to work with these students and have already begun preparations for the next cohort of interns next summer. Anyone interested in learning more about last summer’s program or the plans for next year, please contact Amy Plantarich at

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Building the Blue/Green Workforce

Building the Blue/Green Workforce

Digging into field work at Oregon’s South Slough Reserve.

An unprecedented number of young people want to work in the environmental sciences, and to do that, they need on the ground experience. Reserves around the country are helping our next generation of scientists get their boots wet—and muddy—through NOAA’s Hollings Scholarship Program.

This program supports summer internships for undergraduates at a NOAA facility. Many students end up at Reserves, where they can get practical experience in coastal, oceanic, and atmospheric science, technology, policy, and management, all while addressing some of the most critical issues facing our coasts today.

“I am very passionate about climate resilience,” says Everett Craddock, Hollings Scholar at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve. “This project could have a direct impact on the area’s ability to develop adaptation strategies that prevent local fisheries from being negatively impacted by climate change.”

“I aim to answer questions about the effects of industrial contamination and climate change on Indian Country,” says Jessica Lambert, another Hollings Scholar at Kachemak Bay and enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation. “I have seen the destructive impact on my own Tribe firsthand. I am excited about the possibilities for remediation and to bring to light such a crucial issue that is too often overlooked.”

Working side-by-side with their Reserve mentors and their partners gives the scholars an opportunity to network and develop the skills they need to work in science in the future.

“My time at Padilla Bay allowed me to work with and learn from incredible researchers,” says Anna Poston, Hollings Scholar at the Padilla Bay Reserve in Washington. “Working with the researchers at the Reserve solidified my desire to attend graduate school and helped me develop the critical thinking and coding skills necessary to succeed in research.”

A moment of zen amid the field work at the Padilla Bay Reserve.

Dozens of scholars have trained at Reserves over the past ten years and many of them do. Some even go onto graduate work.

“I am working on improving our understanding of the biogeochemistry of Great Bay,” says Anna Lowien, a Margaret A. Davidson (MAD) Fellow at the New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve and former Hollings Scholar. “I did my internship at Kachemak Bay and loved it! I knew then I wanted to be part of the Reserve System.”

The Hollings Scholarship Program sponsored Anna Lowein’s internship at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve, where she used her knowledge of hydrology to develop computer models, now used by Reserve partners to predict peak salmon months more effectively and plan management decisions accordingly.

Reserve participation in the Hollings Scholar Program is coordinated by Nina Garfield, Dani Boudreau, and Chris Kinkade at NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management and made possible by generous support from Reserve mentors every year.

Anna Posten’s work explored seagrass habitat resilience and restoration in the face of environmental change at Washington’s Padilla Bay Reserve. (Mentor: Sylvia Yang)

Everett Craddock’s work focused on groundwater recharge-discharge in the Anchor River watershed at the Kachemak Bay Reserve in Alaska. (Mentor: Mark Rains)

Jessica Lambert’s work analyzed different ways of knowing groundwater in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay region. (Mentors: Coowe Walker and Syverine Bentz)

Petra Zuniga researched the links between vegetation, hydrology, and soils in undisturbed and restored wetlands at the South Slough Reserve in Oregon. (Mentor: Jenni Schmitt)

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