Talk NERRdy to Me: Keith Laakkonen

Talk NERRdy to Me: Keith Laakkonen

Talk NERRdy to Me is a new column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s Maine correspondent Nik Charov catches up with Keith Laakkonen (above), Rookery Bay’s all-star manager and future NERRA president. And no, he’s not a Florida Man. (Interview edited for length and general appropriateness.)

You spell your name L-A-A-K-K-O-N-E-N. Is that true, or is your keyboard sticky? 
It’s Finnish. I actually just found out that I’m of Laplander origin; they are reindeer herders!

Where’d you grow up? 
Southwest Florida. I always wanted to be a biologist. In Lee County, we had these really cool areas like Matlacha Pass and Pine Island. I remember trying to catch snook and redfish out there and I just kind of fell in love with mangroves and the coastline. It was always so much cooler than the freshwater areas, because there was so much going on. Next thing I know I’m at the University of Florida – go Gators! – studying Wildlife Ecology. 

How did you get into the bush?
I worked my way around the state with Florida DEP at some aquatic and buffer preserves, the places I had grown up fishing in. There was this place, Rookery Bay in Naples—I was always very impressed by Rookery Bay, actually had a poster in my room as a kid…. I was really stunned to realize that I’d loved the place for that long, it’s such a memory for me… In 2005, their stewardship coordinator was leaving, and Gary Lytton hired me. I worked [at Rookery Bay Reserve] from ‘05 to ’07. In 2014, I was ready to move out of Florida and said there was only one thing that could keep me here—Gary’s job. He was retiring and he told me to apply for it. I’m still stunned to this day that I got it and that I have the honor of working at Rookery Bay.

What’s the best part of your job?
One, working for everyone at the Reserve, trying to make their jobs easier as much as possible. Two, any time when I get to use some of my hard-won biology skills.

Do you miss being a Stewardship Coordinator?
I miss getting out there with a chainsaw and doing the prescribed fires. I don’t miss the endless battle with exotics. I’m also happy to be a manager so I can really serve all the [Rookery Bay NERR] staff.

As the incoming president of NERRA, what do you hope for your first 100 days?
I hope that NERRA still exists after my first 100 days.

Nice S-M-A-R-T goal.
NERRA really embodies the passion people have for the system—people really take on this intense responsibility to be the voice of the system. I’ll try to do the best job I can in the best way I can. We’re all different people and we bring different strengths. My goal is to leave the system better than I found it, and that’s a tall order because it’s a pretty amazing system.

Often we see ‘Florida man’ used as a national news punchline. What makes a ‘Florida man’ and are you a ‘Florida man’?
I am not a Florida man; I’ve never been arrested. Listen, it’s hot down here, it’s sweaty, we have hurricanes and love bugs and tourists and it is a bountiful canvas for interesting people from all around the world.

While you’re not a Florida man, you have had a near-death experience. You were nearly chopped to pieces by a boat propeller and could have bled to death. After that terrifying experience, I have to ask: was the propeller OK?
The propeller was OK. There’s still a few chunks of my bone sunk out there. I did think, ‘at least it’s in the Reserve.’ That was my first thought, actually, when it happened. Right after ‘Oh dear god, I might die.’ I hope in my own way, I contributed to the energy flow of the ecosystem by contributing my own parts and pieces and fluids to benefit the estuary.

That’s gross and yet illuminating. Lightning round: salty or fresh?

Favorite animal?

Dream job?
X-wing pilot.

Sorry, the correct answer is “the one that you have now.” What’s next for Rookery Bay?
Resilience, in South Florida and around the state. And hopefully getting through another hurricane season without getting whacked.

PBS Documentary Celebrates Rookery Bay’s 40th Anniversary

PBS Documentary Celebrates Rookery Bay’s 40th Anniversary

Florida’s Rookery Bay Reserve celebrated its 40th anniversary in style this month with the red carpet premiere of the full-length documentary film Southwest Florida’s Mangrove Coast. Created in partnership with award-winning director Elam Stoltzfus and writer Nic Stoltzfus of Live Oak Production Group, this documentary is airing on PBS stations in Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico through June.

“We are really excited about this film,” Reserve Director Keith Laakkonen said. “The documentary shows the diversity of connections that people have made to this extraordinary place for over four decades.”

Rookery Bay Director Keith Laakkonen, center, celebrates the premier of Southwest Florida’s Mangrove Coast with NOAA Office for Coastal Management partners Erica Seiden and Matt Chasse.

The documentary tells the story of how a vision to protect the fragile ecosystem between Marco Island and Naples became the Rookery Bay Reserve we cherish today. The motivation for the Reserve came from local community members who were concerned about plans for a road extension and causeway to connect Naples with islands adjacent to the bay. What started out as a 3,000-acre sanctuary has grown to 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters, thanks to strong partnerships between the state’s Conservation and Recreational Lands Program, Preservation 2000, the Florida Forever Act, local families, and our partners at NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management.

Today, Rookery Bay offers many programs and opportunities for exploration. These are highlighted in the film, along with the people who were instrumental in creating the Reserve and continue to help Rookery Bay meet its mission.

Interested in bringing this film to a PBS station near you? Contact them and suggest they consider picking the film up from WGCU-TV in Ft. Myers.

Amy Shumaker (email)
Associate General Manager of Content
WGCU Public Media
10501 FGCU Blvd. South
Fort Myers, FL 33965-6565

Florida Steps Up Water Protection

Florida Steps Up Water Protection

Florida Governor Rick DeSantis stopped by the Rookery Bay Research Reserve last month to unveil Bold Vision for a Brighter Future, a far reaching executive order focused on water policy in southwest Florida.

The order proposes to tackle many of the state’s water quality challenges head on. It includes $2.5 billion to restore and protect the Everglades, as well as plans to reduce stormwater discharge from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts and recharge water supplies for Ten Thousand Islands and Florida Bay estuaries. The order also pledges to create a Blue-Green Algae Task Force and a new Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to coordinate responses to rising sea levels.

“While the Task Force has the potential to benefit water quality for all of southern Florida,  the new Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection will have the biggest effect on our Reserve and the others in the state,” says Keith Laakkonen, manager of the Rookery Bay Reserve. “As part of the new office, Florida’s three Reserves will have a larger role in coastal resiliency and serve as a hub for information and coordination of projects addressing sea level rise.”

“It’s encouraging to see Governor DeSantis’ promote such a resilient, science-based vision for Florida’s coasts,” says, Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. “Many problems that Florida experiences are felt by coastal communities served by Reserves around the country. We are excited to share lessons learned from Florida’s investments around our national system.”


Friends Always Ready to Lend a Hand

Friends Always Ready to Lend a Hand


The Friends of Florida’s Rookery Bay Reserve are always ready to support their Reserve, and 2018 was a busy year!

More than 800 members strong, the Friends is considered to be one of the largest citizen support organizations in Florida. Every year, they raise an average of $100,000 on behalf of the Reserve and its programs. In 2019, the Friends funding supported a range of Reserve programs. Their funding supported avian and turtle interns and the purchase of the R/V McLeod—a new custom-built research vesselto replace R/V Stella, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. They continued their tradition of helping the Reserve and its Environmental Learning Center serve as an outdoor and indoor classroom for children and adults. They also pulled tgether to raise awareness of the Adopt A Sea Turtle Nest Program, which had phenonmenal results this year.

Alongside fundraising, the Friends of Rookery Bay serve as trained volunteers, assisting Reserve staff with everything from sea turtle monitoring and shark tagging research in the Ten Thousand Islands to teaching young students about estuaries.

Thank you, Friends of Rookery Bay—we couldn’t get by without you!


Turtle Hatch Breaks Records at Rookery Bay

Turtle Hatch Breaks Records at Rookery Bay

Photos courtesy of the Rookery Bay Reserve.

At Florida’s Rookery Bay Reserve, the numbers for 2018 are in—more than 10,000 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings have made their way out of their nests at Cape Romano. That’s nearly twice the number for any year since the Reserve, which is part of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, began its turtle monitoring program in 2006.

“This was an amazing year for nesting,” says Reserve Director Keith Laakkonen. “We have increased hatching success by close to 100 percent since we started installing cages, which help prevent predation by raccoons or other animals.”

Like so many success stories around our Reserve System, this year’s record breaking hatch came about through hard work and partnership. The turtle monitoring program is a collaboration of Reserve staff and volunteers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Collier County Natural Resources, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and the Friends of Rookery Bay, which organizes an Adopt-a-Sea-Turtle-Nest program that provides funding for a summer intern.

During nesting season, the turtle monitoring team patrols the beaches of Cape Romano and local islands five days a week to locate nests and place cages over them. Once the eggs have hatched, the team goes back to remove the cages, excavate the nests, and count the empty shells to determine the number of hatchlings. During nesting season, the team cautions local beachgoers to remove beach furniture, fill in holes, and smooth out sandcastles before leaving the beach.

“We have noticed that beachgoers along the Cape Romano Complex have done a great job of picking up after themselves,” says Sarah Norris, the Reserve’s monitoring coordinator. “Anything we can do to prevent predation and obstacles on the beach can help ensure nesting females and hatchlings make their way to the water safely and efficiently.”

—Thanks to Renee Wilson for contributing this story.

Storm Prep Never Stops at Florida’s Rookery Bay

Storm Prep Never Stops at Florida’s Rookery Bay

Last November, kayakers united to help clean up debris left by Hurricane Irma in the mangroves. Photo courtesy of the Rookery Bay Reserve.
When big storms are on the horizon, we all become “preppers”—stocking up on batteries, water, sandbags, and other supplies—but for Florida’s Rookery Bay Reserve, hurricane prep is a year-long activity that unites the Reserve’s programs, friends, and partners. “Rookery Bay really is a place for everyone to explore, enjoy, and protect,” says Reserve Manger Keith Laakkonen. “Events like hurricanes help you see that. They call on all of our friends, our partners, and the wider community of people who live here to work together before, during, and after the storm.”

All Year Round
One of Rookery Bay’s research priorities is water quality monitoring. The Reserve maintains seven monitoring stations around the bay and its Ten Thousand Islands that record the physical and chemical properties of the water, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This helps establish benchmarks for normal conditions that local resource managers use as a reference for other bays in the region and to measure impacts of storms.

Photo courtesy of the Rookery Bay Reserve.
When a storm hits
After Hurricane Irma swept through the Reserve last fall, staff and friends began clean-up and restoration almost immediately. By November, a massive clean-up effort in Henderson Creek, sponsored by Red Bull, brought more than one hundred paddle boarders and kayakers to help remove large piles of debris including styrofoam that had lodged in the mangrove roots along the creek banks. The Friends of Rookery Bay provided volunteer support for these efforts; now they are working to raise funds to replace the research vessel that was destroyed during the storm. “The Rookery Bay Research Reserve is home to a very large extended family,” says Athan Barkoukis, Executive Director of Friends of Rookery Bay. “We must plan and protect the Reserve so future generations can continue to call this special place in Southwest Florida ‘home.’”
Photo courtesy of the Rookery Bay Reserve.

After the storm
Since Irma, Rookery Bay has attracted students and scientists from around the world who are interested in a hurricane’s effects on coastal processes and wildlife. When the research staff retrieved the data from the water quality data-logging devices, they discovered extremely low oxygen and salinity levels in the backwaters, which persisted for a few weeks. To understand how aquatic life dealt with these harsh conditions, the reserve launched a Fish Population Assessment that showed that it took weeks for native populations of fish and shellfish to rebound. Most of the fish caught were juveniles, which rely on estuary backwaters as nurseries for estuarine and marine fish.

Photo courtesy of the Rookery Bay Reserve.
Planning for next year
Each May, the Rookery Bay Reserve reviews hurricane plans and begins preparations for the next season, especially in remote field locations and dorms that are more difficult to access. They closely monitor every storm to determine the level of preparation needed based upon track and intensity of the storm. When the storm is approaching, they meet daily and coordinate closely with county and state emergency operations centers as well as other partners and local governments.

ReservesRookery Bay, Florida