New Faces Across the NERRS

New Faces Across the NERRS

Our Reserve family has some new faces, each bringing fresh talents and energy to their respective Reserves. Please join NERRA in welcoming these new NERRds to the family!

Vanessa Dornisch, Coastal Training Program Coordinator at New Jersey’s Jacques Cousteau Reserve

Vanessa grew up spending winters in Florida and summers at the Jersey Shore. All that time in coastal areas made her fall in love with the environment and pursue a career protecting it. After attending Rowan University for her undergraduate degree and University of Florida for graduate school, Vanessa worked in coastal resilience in Florida for several years before joining the staff at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve

“I am so excited to join the Reserve System because I’m a huge advocate of interdisciplinary approaches to research, education, and protecting coastal resources,” says Vanessa. “As CTP Coordinator, I’m looking forward to working with local communities to build resilience to sea level rise and flooding.”

Rachel Best, Office Coordinator at Washington’s Padilla Bay Reserve

When you call the Padilla Bay interpretive center or stop to visit the exhibits and aquariums, you’ll find a new face behind the counter—Rachel Best has joined the Reserve as its new office coordinator and administrative assistant.

Rachel is a native Washingtonian who grew up enjoying the great outdoors. She’s a coastal activist even outside of work, volunteering on the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee and the Skagit Conservation District’s Clean Streams project. She’s also a Salish Sea Steward volunteer, and headed that group’s advisory team.


Sarah Brostrom, Coastal Training Program Coordinator at Washington’s Padilla Bay Reserve

Sarah Brostrom, joined the Padilla Bay team in May. She is coordinating the Salish Sea Stewards volunteer training program (now virtual) and is ramping up to lead the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program (CTP) as it adapts to the COVID-19 world of virtual professional development. 

Sara grew up near the Salish Sea in Lacey, Washington, exploring the shores of Budd Inlet and camping and hiking with her family in the state’s many beautiful ecosystems. For Sara, these formative experiences sparked an early interest in environmental science. After studying at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Sara spent a year in the Washington Sea Grant Hershman Fellowship where she worked on projects related to sea level rise and was lucky enough to participate in the Coastal Training Program.

“I’m excited to bring experience in the field of education and marine policy to my role, and to explore new ways to broaden the reach of Padilla Bay’s CTP,” says Sara. “And I look forward to working with my new co-workers and to exploring the Reserve in-person!”

Sabra Comet, Coastal Training Program Coordinator at Oregon’s South Slough Reserve

Sabra (pronounced “Say-bruh”) comes to Oregon’s South Slough Reserve from NOAA’s Silver Spring office, where she worked in the Integrated Ocean Observing System and Technology, Planning and Integration for Observation programs. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Southern Oregon University, a Master’s in Natural Resources Conservation from Portland State University, and is a former Knauss Fellow with Oregon Sea Grant. She brings with her a wealth of professional experience related to coastal and ocean issues. 

“I’m very excited to be part of the Coastal Training Program, as it fits the mix of policy, science, and boots-on-the-ground community interaction that I love,” says Sabra. “Both the staff at the Reserve and at the NOAA level are very welcoming and passionate, and the diverse stakeholder audience will keep the job interesting far into the future.”


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Welcome, Robert & Sylvia

Welcome, Robert & Sylvia

Two recent additions to the NERRSDr. Robert Dunn (left), research coordinator at North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve; and Dr. Sylvia Yang (right), research coordinator at Padilla Bay Reserve.

Please join NERRA in welcoming two new NERRds to the family: Dr. Robert Dunn, the newly-appointed research coordinator at South Carolina’s North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve and Dr. Sylvia Yang, research coordinator at Padilla Bay Reserve in Washington.


Robert is an ecologist who studies species interactions, population dynamics, and the effects of fisheries on coastal ecosystems. Hee comes to the Reserve from the West coast, where he completed a PhD (UC Davis) and postdoc (San Diego State University) on Caribbean coral reefs, kelp forests, and California’s spiny lobster fishery. He also has a Master’s degree from North Carolina State University where his research focused on oyster reef ecology and restoration.

“I’m excited to be joining the NERRS because of our focus on combining research, education, and stewardship of coastal ecosystems,” says Robert,  whose first experience with NERRd life goes back to 2007 when he was a summer intern at the North Carolina Reserve. “The diversity of habitats at North Inlet-Winyah Bay is an amazing place for a marine ecologistI feel like the research possibilities are endless! I’m looking forward to contributing to the NERRS-wide effort to improve coastal ecosystem management through applied science.”


Sylvia is a seagrass ecologist who has worked in the estuaries of Washington for 14 years. Most recently she worked at Western Washington University as a marine scientist at the Shannon Point Marine Center and director of the SEA Discovery Center. 

Wherever she has been, Padilla Bay has been a consistent part of Sylvia’s work. She holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California (Davis, CA) studying saltmarsh ecology. To the Padilla Bay Reserve she  brings her enthusiasm for integrating authentic scientific investigation into educational settings and engaging community members in environmental science.


Please join NERRA and the crews at our Padilla Bay in welcoming Sylvia and Robert to the NERRS family.

Best Way to Protect a Bay? Be Prepared

Best Way to Protect a Bay? Be Prepared

Padilla Bay’s Saddlebag Island—one of the many special places stakeholders want to protect in the event of an oil spill. Photo courtesy of Conor Keeney.

Imagine 2,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into Washington’s Padilla Bay. Which places need protection first? Where should booms be placed to capture the spreading slick? How can they be deployed in a shallow bay that is also home to one of the largest eelgrass meadows in the nation?

The Padilla Bay Reserve is helping local groups navigate questions like these with data, monitoring, and a workshop focused on disaster response to oil spill risk. The event engaged participants from NOAA, the United States Coast Guard, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Samish Indian Nation, Skagit County, Washington’s Department of Ecology, local oil refineries, and others.

I wish there were more opportunities to participate in workshops like this one,” observes Conor Keeney, an emergency management specialist with Marathon-Andeavor Petroleum.  “By including a diverse group of stakeholders, natural resource experts were able to inform regulators, industry representatives, and response contractors about areas of concern. After the workshop, there was field work that led to a new protection strategy at Saddlebag Island. I attribute that and the relationships we’ve built directly to the workshop.”

The nearly 8,000 acres of eelgrass protected by the Padilla Bay Reserve are home to salmon, herring, crabs, and many more marine species that are key to the state’s fishing and tourism industries. It’s also bordered by oil and natural gas pipelines, a railroad that transports oil, and a highway that delivers refinery products across the state. Coordinated oil-spill prevention and response is vital to protect the bay’s wildlife and the many benefits it provides. The Padilla Bay Reserve is well-suited to help meet that need, according to Roger Fuller, the Reserve’s stewardship coordinator.

 Low tide at Padilla Bay reveals a sweeping expanse of eelgrass habitat and the challenges of navigation during an oil spill. Image courtesy of the Padilla Bay Reserve.

“The workshops helped us understand how the Reserve could be involved in a spill response and what more we should be prepared to do in terms of monitoring and research,”he says. “It was clear that we can help response crews be more effective at preventing ecological damage through our local expertise.”

For example, Reserve staff have already digitized a navigation map that will help responders wind their way through the bay’s sinuous channels, avoid grounding, and access sensitive habitats that need protection. They also have led land-based tours of the places that would be involved in oil spill response so that planning partners can see firsthand how different seasons, tides, wind directions, and water-level conditions could affect the team’s proposed landing sites and boat operations.

“We’d like to have a sampling plan ready, so that the Reserve is poised to initiate research in the event of a major incident,” says Fuller. “Identifying baseline data gaps now is helping us prioritize our monitoring work; we need to have good baseline data and tested protocols in place prior to an event.”

This kind of foresight and planning could be helpful beyond Padilla Bay, according to Jude Apple, the Reserve’s manager.

“What we learned about improving oil spill response here can also be used in neighboring bays, such as Fidalgo and Samish,” he says. “We plan to revise the existing response strategies for different habitat areas in the Reserve and coordinate our internal efforts around habitat response and recovery and potential post-spill monitoring.” 

Post workshop field cruise. Photo courtesy of Conor Keeney.


Farewell Terry Stevens

Farewell Terry Stevens

Terry Stevens, former director of the Padilla Bay Reserve. Story and photo courtesy of Cathy Angell.
After 35 years, Washington’s Padilla Bay Reserve is saying farewell to Director Terry Stevens. Terry joined the reserve in 1983, just months after it was officially founded.

As a shoreline planner with Skagit County, he had served on the project team to help make the Reserve a reality. When the opportunity arose to apply for the director position, he felt that it would be a great fit. He was ready to take a break from the regulatory world and focus on his other interests, which included scientific research, education, facility management, and real estate. This unique skill set positioned him perfectly for building the Reserve from the ground up and acquiring thousands of acres of tide flats to expand its boundaries.

When asked what he feels most proud of, Terry said, “One of my top priorities was finding the very best people to fill our important staff positions. I feel that I helped to put gifted staff in key positions who have stayed for many years, most of them over 25 years. They’ve been leaders in their fields and contributed enormously here in Washington and to the national Reserve system.”

Other accomplishments that have marked Terry’s tenure include significant expansion of the Reserve campus to include a new science laboratory, training room, guesthouse, aquarium, and staff offices. He has built solid relationships within the local community, as well as with state legislators and federal congressional members.

And Terry’s career has also influenced other Washington Department of Ecology initiatives, said SEA Program Manager Gordon White. “Terry has not just been the Reserve manager, he’s been an important advisor to many Ecology directors about how to use multi-disciplinary, community-based teams to create durable conservation solutions. Since my first day as SEA Program Manager, Terry mentored me in the many ways of Ecology and the wider world of natural resource protection and restoration.”

Other Reserve directors also have viewed Terry as a mentor, and he helped several Reserves go through the lengthy establishment process, traveling from Alaska to the Great Lakes and East Coast to meet with advisory groups and governmental officials. Terry also played a major role in launching the Padilla Bay Foundation in 1987, the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association in 1988, the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative in 1998 (at the request of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and former U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf), and the Northwest Straits Conservation Foundation in 2002.

When asked what he is looking forward to in retirement, Terry says that he plans to stay active with state and local conservation organizations so that he can continue contributing to the protection of our aquatic resources. He also would “like to go catch some of them!”

Farewell, but not Goodbye, Alex of the Salish

Farewell, but not Goodbye, Alex of the Salish

It’s hard to imagine a gathering of reserve educators without Glen Alexander, aka “Alex,” at the center, making everyone laugh with one of his greatest hits. (Treat yourself to his “Has Anybody Seen My Crab” or  “I Want to Dig a Clam.” You’re welcome!)

Yet that’s exactly what we must do. This spring, the Bard of the Salish Sea and coastal science educator for thousands of Washington residents rode his intrepid bicycle into retirement. Alex has been growing the education program at the Padilla Bay Reserve for nearly 30 years. He taught many people about estuaries and the Salish Sea—especially its eelgrass and mud flats—but he particularly enjoyed working with school children. He encouraged them to integrate poetry, music, history, culture and economics into their learning about coastal science. When asked about the best part of his work with the reserve, he says:

“I can’t begin to pick one thing out of the whole lot. I love the place. I love the people I work with. I love performing (to me, teaching is a performance). How can there be a job that is better than taking kids to the beach to look for crabs? When people tell about the influence I have had on their lives, I’m overwhelmed with honor. I have been blessed with the opportunity to get paid for doing the best job in Washington State.”

We know this isn’t goodbye, because Alex has already signed up to volunteer at the reserve and is planning to visit other reserves in his future travels. Once a NERRD, always a NERRD.

ReservesPadilla Bay, Washington