New England Marshes Need Support

New England Marshes Need Support

Scientists at the Wells and Great Bay Reserves monitor a marsh in Maine’s Webhannet Estuary

New England salt marshes are losing the battle to sea level rise, according to a regional study led by the University of New Hampshire along with four National Estuarine Research Reserves. The study presents a clear call to action for coastal land managers from Rhode Island to Maine: these ‘superhero’ habitats do so much for us—from storing carbon and reducing water pollution to protecting fisheries and mitigating the impacts of storms—and now, they need our help.

“This is critical information for coastal resource managers and decision makers, especially those who might be uncertain whether their local marshes are at risk,” says Chris Peter, research coordinator at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “Our research indicates that we can anticipate even greater salt marsh loss with rising sea levels, and managers should take steps to help marshes cope.”

According to Peter, the research points to a need for resource managers to consider in-marsh restoration techniques, like boosting elevation with sediment and reducing historical ditching. Another option, when feasible, is to allow marshes to naturally migrate upslope and inland  by removing barriers and protecting adjacent land.

The study synthesized information from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve, Massachusetts’s Waquoit Bay Reserve, New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve, and Maine’s Wells Reserve. It builds on a decade-long project in which 20 Reserves are collecting long-term data on tidal marsh health in an unprecedented effort to study, compare, understand, and protect these valuable habitats. 

“This New England study is the first to use long term, on-the-ground monitoring across a region to show the vulnerability of salt marshes to sea level rise,” says Peter. 

The team analyzed salt marsh plant communities at the four Reserves. They found that, across New England, salt marshes are shrinking in response to greater flooding and an overall wetter environment. Today’s marshes cover roughly half the area of historic marshes and the region is likely to lose an estimated 60 to 90% of existing marshes in the coming century.

Marsh vegetation dies off when it cannot keep up with the frequency and intensity of tidal inundations. One monitoring location on Narragansett Bay went from being predominantly vegetated to almost barren in just five years. At other places, the plant communities are shifting to more saltwater-tolerant plants.

Researchers and volunteers monitor long-term salt marsh plots on New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

The researchers found that southern New England’s marshes are declining at a faster rate than northern New England, possibly due to the smaller tidal range, which makes rising seas proportionally more significant. 

The results from this study, made possible by the NERRS unique and systematic data-collection methods, will help to inform how decision makers protect and manage salt marshes in the face of rising seas and other climate threats.

Talk NERRdy to Me: Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers

Talk NERRdy to Me: Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers

Talk NERRdy to Me follows leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. In early March, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Tonna-Marie Surgeon Rogers, manager and acting CTP coordinator at the Waquoit Bay Reserve.

Nik: You are now officially, instead of acting, manager at Waquoit Bay NERR. Are you sorry?

Tonna-Marie: Haha! There’s a piece of me that’s sorry about moving away from the Coastal Training Program, but I’ve discovered there’s a lot of “being out with the people” and “meeting needs” in this position, too. Meeting the needs of staff and the Reserve requires using a CTP skillset, as does working with partners. I’m truly honored to have this new opportunity to work with my colleagues to do good things for the Reserve and the communities we serve.

Nik: You’re still facilitating the solving of problems.

Tonna-Marie: Yeah! And there’s a whole lot of collaboration that happens at the manager level, which is a big piece of how CTP carries out work. And I’m still actually serving as CTP Coordinator too, which makes this period a bit of a crazy time. But so far, I like it.

Nik: Have you cut out sleep, or have you cut out family? [Ed.: Interview completed pre-pandemic.]

Tonna-Marie: Haven’t cut out either, but I’m definitely time-deprived in both areas! I’m hoping we can bring on a great CTP coordinator in the near future.

Nik: Does Cape Cod really need a Coastal Training Program? I was just down there for a regional meeting; it seems pretty nice.

Tonna-Marie: Cape Cod is wonderful. The weather is beautiful, the landscape is beautiful, the people are great. But it’s no different from other areas—communities are struggling to address coastal management challenges. For example, on the Cape, the impact of pollution is evident in many ways, and the CTP is targeting this and other environmental challenges the region is dealing with. We bring science that can help inform solutions—the work is definitely needed.

Nik: What are some of those challenges?

Tonna-Marie: Degradation of water quality is a big one. The impact on our beaches, bays and ponds is huge and it’s not good for tourism on which the region’s economy depends. And it’s not good for year-round residents either. We’re also  thinking about coastal resilience and reducing disaster risk, how we prepare our communities to deal with extreme weather events and other climate impacts.

Nik: Have people been asking for these workshops more over your decade on the Cape?

Tonna-Marie: Definitely! We’ve become a recognized and trusted source for high-quality trainings and workshops. People look to the Reserve to provide educational programs that help to advance their learning and they ask us for them. This happens formally and informally.  There’s a lot of word of mouth. And we’re linked into a whole network with our community partners so we can keep a finger on the pulse of community needs.

Nik: So even if you can’t do it yourselves, you can connect people to those who can. And solutions take this full-court press from all these different disciplines?

Tonna-Marie: Yes, I love the “full-court press.” We’re focused on helping communities address problems, not just telling them the problems exist, but really bringing them information on the pros and cons of different solutions. And we’re also a place to test potential solutions as well. When you can say “ok, we tested this at the Reserve, or in this town, and this is what the research shows,” decision-makers respond to that. Making things locally relevant is so important.

Nik: Local people want local solutions. How does that inform one of the Waquoit Bay Reserve’s most well-known projects, Bringing Wetlands to Market? And, more importantly, how much can I sell our marshes for?

Tonna-Marie: That project helped to launch innovative science and tools related to carbon and greenhouse gases in coastal wetlands. These can be applied nationally and even internationally, but it all started by doing investigations right here at the Reserve and then in other places on the Cape.

All of this helped to build awareness of blue carbon and highlight how it can be used as a driver to restore wetlands. One of the many benefits of wetlands is that they store carbon and help to mitigate climate change. When we began the project years ago this was an under recognized benefit. Combined with all the other services wetlands provide, man, are these places important to conserve and restore!

Nik:You grew up on the wonderful island of Jamaica. How did you get to Cape Cod?

Tonna-Marie: I met my husband while I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, and after graduation he moved to Cape Cod for work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After we got married, I moved here from Jamaica.

 Nik: But wait, how do you get from Jamaica to Connecticut? I’m from Connecticut, I would want to be anywhere but there.

Tonna-Marie: When I finished my undergraduate studies in Jamaica, I received a Fulbright Ecology Scholarship, and I was matched with U Conn to carry out my graduate studies which was a great fit. I had an interest in working on a topic that could be relevant in the U.S. and the Caribbean as well.  And that was water quality.

Nik: What’s your first water quality memory?

Tonna-Marie: As an undergrad I studied marine ecology. In one of our field trips on the Jamaican coast I was able to view pristine places, but I was also able to see first hand the negative impact of pollution on water quality and on our beautiful beaches and coral reefs.  I realized how badly pollution could affect Jamaica which also has a tourism dependent economy. Seeing that real-time was really powerful. It gave birth to a desire in me to help solve these kinds of problems.

Nik: What do you tell your kids about what you do?

Tonna-Marie: They think I’m in meetings a lot. They’re like, “another meeting, mom?”  I tell them I love science, I love the environment, and my work is to bring people together to use science to understand how the environment is doing and how we can take care of it better because our lives depend on a healthy environment. When I bring them to the Reserve with me, they can see some of the issues I work on and I ask them, “how do you think you would address this problem?” And it immediately becomes a very complicated conversation.

Nik: You immediately have a meeting!

Tonna-Marie: We have a meeting! I was telling my son about the Bringing Wetlands to Market Project recently as we were doing a walk near a salt marsh, and I said, ‘Actually, Colby, this project has been going on for 9 years.’ And he’s nine, and he said, ‘You’ve been working on this project for as long as I’ve been alive and you never told me!?’ That was a really poingnant moment for me. It just struck me. So I seized the moment to tell him about blue carbon.  He thought it was pretty cool.

Nik: Lightning round. I’ve heard that you sing. You’re in a choir?

Tonna-Marie: Yes, I sing. From an early age I was involved in choral singing.

Nik: C-O-R-A-L or choral?

Tonna-Marie: Choral, yes, in my church. I’m not in a formal choir now, but I still sing; it brings me immense joy. I’m exploring singing with my teenage daughter.  That’s been a treat.

Nik: Favorite animal?

Tonna-Marie: I don’t know if I have one… but I really like otters, I think they’re so funny.

 Nik: Everyone always says @#$#$ otters. I’m done doing these interviews. Salty or fresh?

Tonna-Marie: Salty.

Nik: You have four names. I always meant to ask about that. You have the longest email on the NERRS list.

Tonna-Marie: It’s true. And that’s not even counting my middle name.

 Nik: What’s your middle name?

Tonna-Marie: Oh, it’s atrocious.

Nik: Tonna-Marie Atrocious Surgeon Rogers, thank you so much for talking with us.

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.

Estuaries Are For Everyone

Estuaries Are For Everyone

The New England team for “Watershed Stewardship in Action: Deaf Students on the Estuary” fingerspells ‘estuary’. From left: Todd Czubek, Boston University; Suzanne Kahn, Wells Reserve; Jeanne Reis, The Learning Center; Joan Muller, Waquoit Bay Reserve; Maureen Dewire, Narragansett Bay Reserve; and Caryn Beiter, Wells Reserve.

Watching a heron hunt, walking along a golden marsh, fishing on a misty morning—little compares to the sense of wonder we get from being on the coast. For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we are celebrating some of the advances Reserves have made to make estuaries part of everyone’s coastal experience.

Finding the Right Words: Before 2018, American Sign Language (ASL) had no signs for words like “estuary,” or “watershed.” For people with hearing loss, this creates a barrier to experiencing and learning about the coast. That’s all changing, thanks to educators at our New England Reserves and their partners. Teachers and interpreters for people with hearing loss now have access to ASL coastal terms and instructional videos through the Teachers on the Estuary curriculum at the Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay Reserves. Read more in the The Wrack from our Wells Reserve in Maine.

Making Trails More Accessible: California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve has a new ADA-compliant trail welcomes visitors of all physical abilities, and features a flat, gentle path through a variety of habitats.

Improved Water Access: In Mississippi, the Grand Bay Reserve is outfitting their new education boat to accommodate wheelchairs. An ADA-accessible kayak launch is also in the works. The Reserve widened their Savannah Trail boardwalk and installed rails, boosting safety and helping wheelchair-bound visitors view more habitat.

Therapeutic Horse Riding: Access Adventure at Rush Ranch provides therapeutic horse riding in the San Francisco Bay Reserve for people living with mobility challenges, special needs children, the elderly, and injured veterans.

Hey Waquoit Bay, Has it Really Been 30 Years?

Hey Waquoit Bay, Has it Really Been 30 Years?

Time sure flies. A very happy 30th anniversary to our Waquoit Bay Reserve in Massachusetts—and here’s to many more. Perched on the southern coast of Cape Cod, the reserve’s land was first purchased in the 1970’s by a group of concerned citizens and became a Reserve in 1988. The reserve’s proximity to development have made it an ideal place to study the impact of human activity on estuaries and test creative ideas for communities to live in balance with natural areas. Over the past decade, the Waquoit Bay Reserve has become a leader in understanding how to manage blue carbon in wetlands.

Teachers on the estuary = climate science in the classroom

Teachers on the estuary = climate science in the classroom

Photo courtesy of our Waquoit Bay Reserve.
Money does not grow on trees, but it could be growing in our coastal salt marshes. A team from the Waquoit Bay-based Bringing Wetlands to Market project studied the connections between coastal wetlands, carbon dioxide uptake and storage, and the global carbon trading economy. They found that wetlands have the potential to serve as valuable assets in carbon trading markets—but only if we protect them and don’t dig up the “treasure.”

To bring this cutting-edge science to the classroom, educators from the Waquoit Bay and South Slough reserves teamed up to create a high school STEM curriculum, which is linked to the Next Generation Science Standards, and introduces teachers and the science behind “blue carbon.” This curriculum offers an authentic context for studies of the carbon cycle, ecosystem functions, the process of science, the engineering and technology design process, calculating economic value for natural resources, and student field studies and stewardship projects.

The reserves also offered bi-coastal Teachers On The Estuary (TOTE) programs that brought teachers to the field to pilot the curriculum and explore the relationship between salt marshes, climate change, and the economic value of salt marshes as carbon sinks. Educators who attended the TOTE programs in Oregon and Massachusetts piloted the curriculum with their students last fall.

ReservesWaquoit Bay, Massachusetts