Talk NERRdy to Me: Cory Riley

Talk NERRdy to Me: Cory Riley

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 the very familiar Cory Riley, manager at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve and past NERRA president. They talked about life stages, the need for friends and constant curiosity, and, naturally, mid-life motorcycles. Photo courtesy of Courtesy Danielle MacInnes.

Nik: We’re talking with Cory Riley today! Who is basically the last person on our list. Summer-brained, we couldn’t think of anybody this month, so we said well, why not Cory?

Cory: Anything for NERRA, Nik. Anything for NERRA.

Nik: You’ve been involved for like 50 years, or at least that’s how it feels. Why “anything for NERRA”? Why is NERRA worth Cory Riley’s time, by this point?

Cory: What!? NERRA does things for the system that nothing else can do. It gives us a collective voice to the Administration and Congress, which is really important because that’s how we get our funding. You need a friend in DC if you want to be a part of the federal budget! So that, number one, is why NERRA is worth all of our time, not just me but anybody who is in the Reserve system. NERRA helps us have a common message and forces us to have a vision.

And I love NERRA because in the last few years it’s really provided a very friendly way for Reserves to talk to each other and celebrate each other’s successes. Also, political winds change, there needs to be somebody who can remind people how awesome the Reserve system is—someday we won’t be so lucky. I love the historical stories about NERRA and why it started. 

Nik: What about how you started? Where are you from, Cory Riley? 

Cory: I am from Middleton, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Not far from the ocean, loved the beach as a kid. 

Nik: What about Middleton and the beaches of Boston’s North Shore was so great?

Cory: I had a best friend in high school who had access to a hunting shack on a little island on Great Marsh. We decided we were going to go out and fix up the shack, and so we spent every weekend cleaning out all the junk, bringing camp chairs out, and hanging out.

Nik: Wait a minute. High schoolers, unsupervised, in a shack in the middle of a marsh?

Cory: I know. I wouldn’t want it to happen within my Reserve boundaries. But it’s what made me realize that I love the smell of salt marsh. We weren’t doing anything nefarious because I was a big, fat nerd in high school.

Nik: So, it wasn’t the “beer bust at the Moon Tower” out there?

Cory: No. I always knew I loved the beach and the coast, but that’s when I really got into salt marshes. I studied biology at William and Mary and I had a professor who also worked at VIMS, which is, you know, where Willy Reay rules.

Nik: Has for 80 years. Retirement coming up, I hear. [Editor’s Note: This is a perverse rumor that starts—and ends—with Nik and has been repeatedly debunked by Dr. Reay.]

Cory: Yeah, yeah. Then… where was I? Peace Corps in Jamaica, where I did environmental education work in an organic garden in a little coastal town. Then I did something not related to the coast for one year, which was also awesome; I worked for a nonprofit with teenagers on the border of Texas and Mexico, training them how to do community service projects in their towns.

THEN I went to grad school to study Coastal and Ocean Science and Policy at UMASS Boston.  They have this research institute there, the Urban Harbors Institute. That’s how I got hooked up with the Reserve system, because I ended up working on a project with Jeff Benoit, who worked for Mass Coastal Zone, then NOAA, then Restore America’s Estuaries. He was behind a project at the time to look at performance metrics.

Photo courtesy of Courtesy Danielle MacInnes.

Nik: Oh, so performance metrics are your fault?

Cory: All of it is my fault. And the managers who were around then still blame me. As part of that project, I interviewed Paul Dest and the other New England managers at the time at Waquoit, Narragansett, and Great Bay. At my first interview, I was like “This is amazing! This is kind of what I want to do. I want to be someplace where you can do place-based research and education.” I got hired by NOAA out of grad school. I bopped around with Reserve work and did whatever needed to be done for a long time. It’s been almost 20 years! So I do feel like I know the System really well.

Nik: Where’s the system at by this point, if you had to give it a stage of life? We’re no longer larval.

Cory: (laughs) No, not at all. I think we’re in our mid 20s to mid 30s. For me at that time, it was like every two years, some big decision was happening. You’re going back to school, having a kid, buying a house,  getting a puppy… You were doing new things and taking on new responsibilities and learning things at an incredible rate. So I think that’s where I see the Reserve System now. We’re mature enough to be directing our own destiny, but we’re still moving at an exciting clip. 

Nik: We haven’t hit the midlife crisis yet. 

Cory: Right. I can’t wait to see what kind of motorcycle we buy when we do.

Nik: (laughs) A shiny one!

Cory: Sparkles and flames!

Nik: Do you think we would have a midlife crisis? Or do you think our System is like one of those lucky people that just keeps getting better as a person. Not that I know anybody like that. 

Cory: I think the people who do keep getting better are willing to embrace their mistakes and successes. They put their ego aside and are always taking a fresh look at the world. They aren’t afraid of a challenge or something that threatens their worldview. So I hope the Reserves can be like that.

If there’s anything we know about the coast is that it’s always changing. And I think that if the Reserves stay nimble, they will remain the sanctuaries that they are. In the last six years especially, Reserves have really embraced the place-based part of our mission. And I do think that’s what makes us special and is gonna make us relevant in the long term. 

Nik: What does “place-based” mean to you?

Cory: To me, a place is the thing you fall in love with. You can’t fall in love with a concept, you know. You’ve got to see it and touch it and smell it. We get people hooked on science, on ecology, on stewarding the coast. We show them what it really looks like—this is erosion, this is what marsh deterioration or flooding looks like. To fall in love and have your heart broken is what being place-based means. 

Nik: Someone should write an 80s rock song about us. What’s going on at Great Bay lately? Didn’t you just inherit a farm? 

Cory: Oh yeah. The farm has been a real handful, but it’s also stunningly beautiful and I cannot wait to connect people to Great Bay there. It also has a really interesting history that we’re learning a lot about. You sit at a coastal farm yourself at Wells! It’s fun to interpret history.

Nik: When you go place-based, there’s that history that’s straight behind you every single day.

Cory: Yup. We do that at the Hugh Gregg Discovery Center. All of our fall field trips interpret how people have interacted with Great Bay, from Native American times to today. We’re making the farmhouse into housing for visiting researchers. And then we’re going to build a big picnic pavilion to create an amazing space for people to go, and we’re partnering with other parts of our agency to restore the boat launch that’s there. 

Nik: Great Bay NERR’s state partner is New Hampshire Fish & Game, yes? 

Cory: Yes. I love being a part of Fish & Game because we have similar missions—to protect and steward the state’s natural resources and to connect people to those resources. All of our lands are open to hunting and fishing.

Nik: Everything sounds really well functioning. So why do you need the Great Bay Stewards

Cory: They are part of our birth story. The Great Bay Reserve was created when Aristotle Onassis wanted to build the country’s largest oil refinery here in Great Bay,  and a group of citizens came together and stopped that. That group morphed into the Great Bay Stewards once the Great Bay NERR was up and running. They have been invaluable because even though we are supported by NH Fish & Game, we are a self-funded agency, so all of our state match comes from hunting and fishing licenses, which is a challenge.

The Stewards provide all kinds of amazing project specific support. They also serve as fiscal agents for external funding, so they provide that essential role, which NERRA and the Laudholm Trust at Wells do too. It’s not glamorous but it’s very important. They’re also our citizen advocates for Great Bay and the community and carry our mission forward in different circles—as community leaders, as people who are engaged in their town. They’re an amazing group, we’re very lucky to have them.

Nik: I feel that Wells is very lucky to have its friends group, as well. You like the give-and-take. Who’s your favorite giver-and-taker in the Reserve system? Somebody the three people who read this every month will now.

Cory: I like to argue with you. As far as give and take, where you sit down and argue over beers? North Inlet-Winyah Bay’s Eric Smith is a good one.

Nik: Something this important can’t be left to the Eric Smiths. …hey, come to think of it, there are so many new people in the system lately!

Cory: I think that’s great. It’s a sign that the Reserve system is becoming this professional organization, where hotshot people come and work for five years and then go somewhere else. This has its pros and cons, but I do feel like we’re really contributing to the next generation of amazing people—you have to let people go to know that we’re influencing the world. 

Nik: It feels to me like more people have just retired, and the new people coming in are young and exciting and diverse and really prepared… You talk to the Davidson fellows and they sound just like you, except they’re, like, 19!

Cory: Oh my gosh, yeah. I’m ready to give my job to Anna Lowein, the Davidson fellow who works at Great Bay right now. She’s such a rock star.

Nik: I think we all just need to quit and give it to them, and see what happens. I think that’s the next stage in NERRS development. 

Cory: I’ve thought about that a lot lately. Am I becoming a stale voice in this community? At what point do you say ‘I should show myself the door?’ How do I productively challenge myself? How do I need to light my fire to have a totally different perspective on the Reserve system?

Nik: I think you should get a motorcycle.

Cory: I think you’re right. [Editor’s note: With sparkles.]

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Bella Mayorga

Talk NERRdy to Me: Bella Mayorga

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29—soon to be 30—Reserves. For the May issue, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Bella Mayorga, the new education coordinator at San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. They talked about feathered dinosaurs, science translation (into Spanish!), and how bad golf courses can make good marshes.

Nik: Ok, so, is it the San Francisco NERR, or the San Francisco Bay NERR?

Bella: San Francisco Bay. The Bay’s the important part!

Nik: Said no one in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, ever. You’re the newly installed education coordinator there. You’ve only been on the job since… March? How’d you get there?

Bella: I’m originally from outside of LA, in Rancho Cucamonga. I got a bachelor of science in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, then I went right to grad school at the University of Michigan and got a master of Science in Environment & Sustainability. I moved back to California, actually, to start working with the NERR. 

Nik: How did your family get to Southern California? Were you a nature kid growing up?

Bella: My parents were born in Ecuador and moved to LA when they were teenagers. There wasn’t a lot of nature where we lived because it’s very developed, but my parents would always take me to the museums like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Aquarium of the Pacific

Nik: What do you remember from the museums? What were your favorite exhibits?

Bella: I always loved the dinosaurs, and I think my current love of birds is a natural extension of that. I also just have a lot of good memories of spending time with my parents there. Even though neither of my parents have a formal natural science background, I always loved how they could appreciate the things there. 

Nik: I started my career working in a science museum, and we always wondered if we made any difference at all. Hundreds of thousands of kids would come to our museum every year, but it felt like they would just come, press all the buttons and eat in the cafeteria, and we had no idea if any of the exhibits or programs were sinking in. Every once in a while, though, one, like you, would say ‘oh yeah, that totally influenced me.’

Bella: The visits allowed me to see a lot of things I couldn’t see where I grew up. At the museum, you can see creatures from the Sahara or rainforest or deep sea. So it’s almost like reading, in the sense that you can visit places you wouldn’t normally be able to.

Nik: You said you were a bird lover. I like to think that in our system there are the mud people, the crab people, the grass people, the bird people—

Bella: Don’t forget the algae people.

Nik: I try to. Why birds, for you?

Bella: Because they’re extant dinosaurs! That part just blows my mind. You look at their eyes, those are dinosaur eyes.

Nik: And you can see that old lizard body underneath the feathers. How did you make your way to estuaries?

Bella: My pathway to estuarine science has been roundabout; I did my thesis on sustainable agriculture. But I went to school in UC Santa Barbara, and that campus is right on the coast. While I was there I worked as a restoration intern on the North Campus Open Space Restoration Site. It’s a site that was originally a giant wetland, and then they drained it and built a golf course. And you might be shocked to hear this, but it was a really bad spot to have a golf course. So the University bought the land and implemented a restoration project. Over the three years I worked there, I saw the estuary really take root.

Nik: You got a taste for restoration there, but some of your studies took you to other places in the world, not just California and Michigan, right?

Bella: Well, my graduate work was supposed to be in Puerto Rico, but with the travel restrictions over the past year, it ended up being virtual. Luckily my graduate degree specialization was in geospatial data science; with remote sensing we can do a lot of things without having to go there. But let the record show I’m actively trying to find an excuse to go down and visit the NERR in Puerto Rico, though!

Nik: They’re very welcoming. Did you ever get to go to Ecuador, to look up family or do any research there? 

Bella: My parents took me and my brother once when we were about 13. But as you might imagine, a lot of it was wasted on me as a thirteen-year-old. No one’s their best self when they’re thirteen.

Nik: So true. I happen to have a thirteen-year-old in the next room. [calls over shoulder] You’re not your best self!

Bella: I really wanted to go back and get more out of the experience, so I went during college as part of a study abroad program. We stayed in a lot of field houses, did little research projects, got to go to the Galapagos Islands. I can say that I definitely appreciated everything a lot more, considering I was paying for it this time!

Nik: You’ve gotten some great experiences, but you only just graduated! You’re at the very beginning of your career, and yet like any good Millennial, you’ve already blogged it all… How did you convince SF Bay NERR you were their next education coordinator?

Bella: They’ve told me now that what really stood out is how I express myself and my research background. I did a study in undergrad, interning with Stacy Philpot at the University of California Santa Cruz, and we published a paper together that came out in 2020. I also submitted my master’s thesis for publication in an open access journal. I think they liked that research background and my hands-on experience in a wetlands restoration project. They could also see that I have a genuine passion for the ecosystem and that this job really aligns with my professional and personal interests. I want to connect people to these beautiful places and the science that goes on here.

Nik: Is that going to be a particular focus of yourstranslating the science that goes on at the NERR? Or translating the weird ramblings of Mike Vasey? Is it too soon to ask what you’re going to be working on?

Bella: In the Bay Area, there’s people from a lot of different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages. I think the language of science is another language that’s learned. But science can be really scary for people who haven’t really interacted with it before. Everything’s so systematic and there’s a way of speaking that’s not really the way most people would communicate. In estuaries, a lot of people will be more inclined to care if the work that’s being done here and the threats and challenges that the estuary is facing are communicated to them in a way that they can understand, and in a way that’s not just “doom & gloom.”

Nik: Why is “doom & gloom” tried so often, and why doesn’t it work?

Bella: I think stage one of learning about environmental problems is: you hear something like ‘you should recycle.’ And you think, ok, yeah I can recycle. But then you start learning about all the systemic problems about how recycling isn’t actually the answer and it’s really easy to get discouraged. 

Some of the classes I took were on climate psychology, which shows that all doom & gloom does is put people off the issue and activate cognitive mechanisms that make you want to dismiss the issue. Climate change is one of those problems that triggers every psychological inclination we have to just forget about it.

It’s difficult for people to understand it, see how they can help, and see how what they do makes a difference. But they don’t have to address climate change on a global scale in order to be impactful; you can create a really positive impact by focusing on a local ecosystem. 

So connecting people to the work at the SFBNERR and how we can save the estuaries we have locally is a really great opportunity to get people to care more about climate change. 

Nik: I’m putting you on the spot, newly installed Education Coordinator, but how are you going to get people to care? How are you going to make your NERR as inspiring as the museums you visited as a kid?

Bella: The first step is getting people interested in the ecosystem and habitat itself. I just put together a feather lab for Rush Ranch’s discovery day. A great first step is birds, because that’s something people feel stewardship of relatively easily, they’re charismatic megafauna, and often very cute!

Another thing I’d like to do is make our NERR’s education program more accessible to diverse audiences. I’m conducting a needs assessment where we’re reaching out to different groups that the Reserve hasn’t interacted with in the past, which includes working with community science educators, mentors from afterschool programs, educators that work with special education children, faculty from SFSU.

Nik: Will you have the capacity to do bilingual science education at the Reserve?

Bella: That’s something I want to do. At China Camp they are trying to do some Spanish-language content, and the Puerto Rico NERR actually has a Spanish language climate change activity booklet, so I connected them to that resource. 

Nik: There’s your ticket to Jobos! You get a Science Collaborative transfer grant, some travel money, get down there, bring all those materials back. Ok, time for one lightning round question. I was going to ask favorite animal, but I’m going to skip right to: favorite bird?

Bella: The Oak titmouse. It’s the first bird that I identified on my own. I heard its call and then suddenly it came into view, and it was exactly as cute as I wanted it to be. I love its little crest, which looks like constant bed head, and reminds me of myself sometimes.

Nik: My bird up here in Maine is the Northern Mockingbird. One of the first I could identify, and it too reminds me of mealways sitting on top of something, yelling.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden

Talk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden

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 two Davidson fellows for the price of one: Nancy Torres (above left), at California’s Tijuana River Reserve, and Matt Virden (above right), from Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserve. In our system for only half a year, they’ve already drunk our brackish Kool Aid.

Nik: Nancy and Matt, welcome to Talk NERRdy, this time with two people! Double the pleasure, double the fun. You’re both Davidson fellows, which is a new program for the NERRS. First of all, how did you find the fellowship program?

Nancy: My advisor, Jeff Crooks, was actually at the Tijuana River Reserve. We came up with some projects combining my interest in ecotoxicology with the needs of the Reserve listed for the fellowship. I’m always looking for mentorship opportunities.

Matt: I worked for Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center. I had a research project that I was just finishing up, and my boss said ‘there’s this new opportunity I’ve heard about, would you be interested?’ I had worked with the people at Grand Bay Reserve a few times, so I knew what they were about and what was going to happen with the project.

Nik: So Nancy, are you from California, and Matt, are you from Mississippi?

Nancy: Yeah, I’m from Southern California, Greater Los Angeles area. Now I’m two hours south of that. I go to school at the University of San Diego, and the Reserve is about a 20-minute drive south.

Matt: I’m from Montgomery, Alabama. I moved to Starkle, Mississippi, for undergrad at Mississippi State University, and then came down to the coast after I graduated.

Nik: Had either of you worked coastally before? 

Matt: My major was Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture. I randomly took an internship with my advisor in 2018, and that’s how I ended up on the coast. When I came down here, I liked it a lot.

Nancy: I did my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, which has a beautiful campus right on the coast. I got my first internship there at the Valentine Lab of Earth Sciences. I did a project on microbial oceanography, and I realized the extent of all the coastal issues there are to help with, so now I’m getting my master’s here in Environmental & Ocean Sciences.

Nik: Did either of you worry about finding a job or career in these fields? You’re of a generation that has seen a couple economic collapses in your lifetime. So I always wonder about recent college grads: did you think that there would be opportunities going forward?

Nancy: I had no idea what getting an environmental science degree meant career-wise when I was interested in pursuing one! Luckily I was part of the McNairs Scholars Program that helps underrepresented groups on their way to get their PhD. That program gave me the tools to understand what research actually means, how to conceptualize a project, how to work with an advisor…

Matt: I don’t think I ever worried about finding a job, but I was more worried about what I, personally, would want to do, because I don’t know! People still ask, and I tell them, well, I’ve got a couple more years to figure it out. Hopefully I do!

Nik: You both have gravitated towards wildlife, oceans… were there experiences earlier in your lives that pushed you towards this? Were you outdoorsy kids? 

Nancy: I’ve always loved being outdoors, yes. And then when I went to UC Santa Barbara, I spent a lot more time outdoors, being by the coast, and I became aware of all these environmental issues. I really wanted to be part of that and do what I could.

Matt: Right along the same lines, I always loved being outdoors. Growing up in Alabama, that’s pretty much what you dogo outdoors. And then my grandmother lives along the Florida coast, so we’d always go down and visit her every summer. I remembered that when I did my first internshipI was like, oh yeah, I love the coast! That was probably a major reason I got into the field.

Nik: In both Santa Barbara and Grand Bay, the oil industry is a big presence. I mean, you can see oil rigs from the shore, usually. How does that play into your experiences? 

Matt: Events like the Deepwater Horizon spill have funded a lot of environmental work and restoration. That’s the side I’m more involved in. The project I’m doing research on, studying oyster reefs, is funded from the BP settlement. So indirectly, it affects everything I’m working on.

Nancy: Walking along the shores in Santa Barbara, you would get tar spots on your feet pretty regularly. It was a normal thing to bring oil wipes so you could just wipe them off. My first research project was to see how the microbes around the area respond to large amounts of oil and hydrocarbons.

Nik: Tell me more about your current projects.

Nancy: Mine involves ecotoxicology. I’ll be sampling sediments and target species to use as abiotic and biotic indicators of the contaminant levels within the Tijuana River Estuary. I’m doing my own fieldwork assessing current conditions to combine with historical data from past monitoring efforts to get a timeline of pollution levels within the area and see how that’s been responding to changing inputs and management strategies. It’s especially exciting because there’s a lot of interest in remediating that pollution right now.

Nik: For those who don’t know, Tijuana’s unique in that half of the watershed is in Mexico, yes? So are you working across the border?

Nancy: Yes, about a whole 2/3 of the watershed is in Mexico. I want to! I am very interested in adding a social science component, because both communities are being affected by the issue that’s presented here. I want to find a way I can do outreach and turn it into a win-win situation for everybody. 

Nik: What about you, Matt?

Matt: Like I mentioned, it’s a very large RESTORE-funded project in Mississippi. They’re constructing oyster reefs at four different bays along the coast, including Grand Bay. They’ll be constructing multiple different designs at two different locations, both intertidal and subtidal reefs. So my project is really to come in and evaluate how those reefs are performing. 

Nik: Is this an aquaculture project, studying the oysters themselves, or their impact?

Matt: Their impact. I’m really looking at secondary productivity and wave energy. Basically if they have any effects on the waves and shorelinesif they reduce erosion or if there’s any kind of interaction between the shoreline and the reefs. One aspect of the project is the Management Application Team. We call it the MAT. Different stakeholders get together and influence the project, give suggestions about what they would like to see from the project, or if we’re doing something wrong or could be doing it better, they give us a heads up and suggest ‘hey, try it this way.’ This way we get that input while the project is still going on.

Nik: The Davidson Fellowships are short timeframes, so I’m sure you’ve had to hit the ground… eh, the water running… eh, swimming. How have you been welcomed into the system and into your individual Reserves? I know it’s been difficult for everybody with the pandemic.

Nancy: My Reserve has weekly meetings online, so at least we “see” each other pretty consistently. And across the NERRS there’s always really cool events. At the annual meeting you could really tell everyone’s an awesome group of people looking to collaborate. 

Nik: That’s good to hear. It was our first-ever virtual one… we were making it up as we went along!

Matt: I’ve gotten four emails this morning about working with staff at the Reserve for a presentation to local educators. Even though that’s not my project, they still invite me in and are asking me to bring aspects of my research in.

Nik: Have you two found other ways to go “cross-sector”?

Matt: Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty cool the amount of opportunities that have arisen just from applying to this fellowship. I now have connections with NOAA, the Reserve staff, the state partner. And also all the other Davidson fellows. Everyone gets together to talk about papers and projects. 

Nancy: Yeah, it’s been really cool collaborating with all the fellows. Everyone that manages the fellows has done a really great job making sure we’re all connected and supported. There are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with others.

Nik: It sounds so 21st Century, in the whole networking aspect! If you started in science 40 years ago, you might be getting papers on microfiche and having to read them at the library. And if you wanted to get in contact with somebody you had to call or write them a letter and wait a couple months! The whole collaborative aspect of science, on which the NERRS is built, seems to be part of the foundation of the fellowship program too. We’re grateful to Congress that they took this leap and stepped up to fund the Davidson Fellows. It’s so gratifying to see new young scientists that are going to go out there and make a difference. I’m glad we got the chance to catch up. What advice would you have for the next class of fellows?

Matt: Take all the opportunities that you can, even if they’re not mandatory. The more stuff you can do, the more people that you meet, that’s just more experience for you.

Nancy: Come open-minded and with the intent of staying flexible and finding ways to develop collaboration. I feel like I keep saying the word collaboration! But it’s so integral to project development. What’s really important is to think of who your project will benefit, who’s your audience, and reach out to as many stakeholders as you can in the beginning. Think about different perspectives and the communities who would be affected by your project results. 

Nik: I love to hear folks new to our system, part of this new program, already talking about it’s essential NERRdiness. You’re pulling on the strands of what ties the system together. You already see it’s not just these different places, it’s a network for collaboration across geographies and sectors. You’ve drunk the Kool Aid.

Nancy Torres (left).

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood

Talk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood

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 zoomed to Alabama to talk with Angela Underwood, education coordinator at the Weeks Bay Reserve, about BIOdiversity and equity, remote estuary education, and joining the secret society of the Jubilee.

Nik: Welcome to the “show,” Angela!

Angela :This is really exciting! It does make me nervous, though.

Nik: We’re talking the day after tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama, and you’re nervous about talking to some idiot from Maine? What’s worse in your mind: a hurricane or a tornado?

Angela:Tornadoes still frighten me more. They’re so unpredictable, although the forecasting has gotten better. But neither one is something you’d want to go through.

Nik: Has Weeks Bay been hit lately by either?

Angela: We were hit by Hurricane Sally last September. It was predicted to be a Category 1 hurricane and weaken as it came up on shore, but it actually did the opposite. There was a lot of damage to trees, wetlands, and rooftops. We’re still recovering and probably will be for many years. A few weeks later we had Hurricane Zeta.

Nik: Right, we got into the Greek letters. Because #2020.

Angela: What a year, right? Zeta pushed a lot of water into Weeks Bay. We had piers destroyed from the uprising of water.

Nik: Weeks Bay has a tiny little river mouth, right?

Angela: It does. Please don’t ask me how wide though!

Nik: You’re an education coordinator. Every fact is supposed to be at your fingertips!

Angela: I know, I know! 

Nik: Is part of your education work to teach people about coastal hazards?

Angela: We do, especially with our Coastal Training Program. We also are partnering with the Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative to train teachers on some new curriculum on sea level rise and coastal hazards, to get students thinking about how communities can be more resilient.

Nik: What’s the reception from teachers and students when you talk about sea level rise and climate change in coastal Alabama?

Angela: Really good among our teachers. They want more knowledge on it, because they want to be able to teach their students better.

Nik: You’re not from the coast, though, right? You actually went to Auburn. Quick question for you: why is it the Auburn Tigers? Have there ever been tigers in Alabama? There are bears in Florida, aren’t there? Jaguars in Jacksonville?

Angela: I went to school there and I have no idea! You know how sports teams are. They pick aggressive…

Nik: …charismatic megafauna? Yeah. OK. But you did your masters in biological sciences?

Angela: I did. I went to a small school in Montgomery for my undergrad and then completed my graduate studies at Auburn. That’s the area I’m from, too. I focused on the ecology of the ecosystems in Alabama. I consider myself a naturalist, but learning about estuaries didn’t actually come until I moved down here and took a position as an educational assistant at the Reserve. I had a lot of knowledge about Alabama ecosystems, but estuaries were new to me. Ok, now let me ask you a question for a minute.

Nik: Oh boy.

Angela: In the US, where does Alabama rank for biodiversity?

Nik: Are you in the Top 10? Yes? Top 5?!?

Angela: We used to be #5. The four above us were all big huge states west of the MississippiCalifornia, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico… But east of the Mississippi, we’re number one.

Nik: Ok, why?

Angela: I’m glad you asked! I call Alabama the Goldilocks state. It’s not too hot, not too cold. We get lots of rain, especially along the Gulf Coast, so we have great water resources. If you start at the top of the state, you have mountains and cave systems that are actually hotspots for cave biodiversity in the entire world. As you come down, you have…

Nik: Racetracks!

Angela: Prairie systems. You keep coming down and you have long-leaf pine forest with these pitcher plant bogs, and all along the coast you have the delta and the estuarine systems, and right at the coast you have the dune systems.

So you have this magnificent rich ecology in Alabama. For biodiversity, we used to rank #5, right behind New Mexico. I used to joke that if we could just find a few more species, we would beat them. Well guess what? As of a few weeks ago, I read in the news that now we officially are #4.

Nik: We’ve been working on extirpating things in New Mexico for a while now, too. You’re welcome. How did you get into nature? I always ask that; it’s one of the most important things to know about people who work in our system. We need to know where we came from, so we can grab more “ones of us” coming up now.

Angela: I always enjoyed being outside. My dad would take me fishing as a child. But I don’t think it was a straight path for me. In college, I was really interested in human biology and genetics, but I took one ecology course. Later I was able to take a two-week study abroad program where I went to the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Being there and seeing it made ecology make sense to me.

I went to grad school thinking I was going to teach biology. But I met this great professor there, and she and her husband were both naturalists working at Auburn. She specialized in pitcher plant bogs. And I was like ‘pitcher plant? What’s that?’ I decided to work with her, and that’s when the world was opened up to me about Alabama. If I could, I would just take people all over the state and teach them about the wonders of Alabama.

Nik: You had to go down to the Amazon to learn that?

Angela: I did, yeah. And I learned that Alabama has habitats that rival the Amazon for biodiversity! There are some well-maintained pitcher plant bogs that have more biodiversity in a meter square than the Amazon does.

Nik: Are you constantly dragging your own kids off their screens and into the outdoors?

Angela: I have two girls, nine and four. They get very little screen time, haha. They’re outdoors constantly. Though during COVID, we got really into iNaturalist together.

Angela’s two daughters, appreciating an Alabama ecosystem.

Nik: I want to ask you about a phenomenon I learned about in the Weeks Bay Visitor’s Center down at the annual meeting in 2015. Have you ever actually seen a jubilee? So apparently there are just times of year there when you all can go out with a wheelbarrow and gather up four or five seafood dinners from the shore of Mobile Bay? 

Angela: No, I haven’t, and I’m so disappointed! Jubilees tend to be a well-kept secret among the locals, because when it happens they want to be the ones to go scoop up the flounder and the blue crab.

It tends to happen in the summer, when there are wedges of low oxygen because of the hotter water. That incoming tide pushes the wedge of low oxygen in towards shore and pushes all of those ground and bottom dwelling species like the flounder and blue crab and eels.

They’re not dead, they’re just a little stunned. People will go out and gather them, hundreds at a time. The story is that this only happens in one other place in the world, and that’s in Japan. 

Nik: So you have to be on a text alert to catch it?

Angela: You really do! That’s what people do, they call each other. Since I don’t live right on the Bay, I’m never going to catch it.

Nik: Bummer. Hey, you all recently won a national art contest! Or enabled a win, at least?

Angela: It was a school we worked with that won it. We have good connections with a lot of the local art teachers. A teacher reached out to us and said they wanted to apply for this art contest. They’re not able to take field trips here because of COVID restrictions, so they asked us if we could bring the estuary to them! 

We went out and gave a short presentation to each of the art classes. We talked about the different animals and biodiversity, showed them some preserved specimens, and let them ask questions. They were able to touch the specimens and make sketches and produce that incredible mural. I was honestly so impressed.

Nik: WAIT! the kids made this beautiful artistic representation of the estuary without even getting to go there?

Photo Credit: Outdoor Alabama

Nik: It’s above water and below water… They got all that without even getting there? 

Angela: They were 7th and 8th graders and so talented, and they really have a talented teacher too. We went in the fall and she had only had the students for two months at that point. I was really proud of them, it’s always really fun to go into a classroom and get to be in the students’ “habitat!” For me it doesn’t compare to being able to bring them out into the estuary, but it is fun to go into schools.

Nik: I hope we can all get back into that, as soon as we can. Thank you so much, Angela.

Angela: Please edit out any places that sounded stupid!

Nik: I’m sorry, we can’t do that. You’d never hear my voice at all.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Kenny Raposa

Talk NERRdy to Me: Kenny Raposa

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 chats with Dr. Kenny Raposa, research coordinator at Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve, about his crabs, the Marsh Restoration Club for Men, and the benefits of not being dead yet.

Nik: February is the shortest month—who better to talk to than Dr. Kenneth Raposa? But seriously, Kenny, how long have you been at NBNERR?

Kenny: April will be 21 years. 

Nik: That’s a long exile. Napoleon was only on St. Helena for six years! Do you actually work on the islands of the Reserve?

Kenny: I do! Though not every day, especially not right now. Right now, when I go out there about once a month, I stay for three days. Which is nice. I get to spend some quality time out on Prudence.

Nik: The NBNERR islands are Prudence, Patience, Hope, and Dyer, right? It’s like three sisters from a Hawthorne novel… and also Dyer. But twenty-one years. Wow. What did you do before that? 

Kenny: I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander. I was born and raised in East Providence and then did what everyone says not to do—my undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD, all at the University of Rhode Island. I specialized in biological oceanography, but you have to take classes and labs in physical, geological, and chemical oceanography, too. In theory, I know a lot about oceanography. Or at least I’ve forgotten a lot about oceanography.

Nik: Rhode Island’s the Ocean State. Were you a shore kid?

Kenny: Absolutely. I grew up right near the Bay and spent a lot of my youth poking around the shorelines and the marshes that were there way back when.

Nik: From childhood, you’ve been wading around in the grass.

Kenny: Oh yeah, I caused a lot of trampling damage in my years.

Nik: The guilt of the scientist! This is why we can’t have nice things. How early on did you know you wanted to study these places?

Kenny: I didn’t know! Like many American males I was clueless up until…..

Nik: …Age fifty?

Kenny: I was going to say ‘high school.’ But as an undergrad at URI, I was lucky enough to have most classes wrapped up by my senior year, so I was able to take a full semester internship at the Graduate School of Oceanography [GSO]. That’s where I got introduced to marine science. 

Nik: What did you specialize in? 

Kenny: Kind of the same stuff I do now! For my Master’s, I worked down in Fire Island, New York, characterizing the nekton, which are fish and crustaceans. My PhD was focused on nekton, too, but it was looking at their responses to tidal marsh restoration across southern New England.

Nik: So it’s northeast marshes—really southern New England marshes—for an entire lifetime?

Kenny: I’m not dead yet!

Nik: I just mean other people have taken a circuitous route. But you must know your locale so well. What can you tell us about the salt marshes of Rhode Island? What does the world need to know?

Kenny: The world needs to know that if you want to see a lot of them, come now. [dark laughter] 

Nik: It’s like “they’re leaving Netflix on February 28th, watch them now!”

Kenny: We’ve done so much work on these marshes. We can put them into perspective regionally and nationally. We know how bad they are in terms of current conditions and future projections. It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re losing many of them right now, rapidly. 

Nik: We’ve been joking around a bit, but this comes down to one of the questions that plagues our system and the people working in it. I don’t want to pick at a scab, but how does it make you feel to say something like that?

Kenny: It’s tough. I often think of what used to be my favorite marsh, Coggeshall Marsh, right in the Reserve. I’ve been poking around in there for more than twenty years. It used to be so beautiful and in really good shape. I’ve been monitoring it since 2000, and I’ve quantified and seen year-to-year how rapidly it’s degraded. It’s almost unrecognizable compared to twenty years ago. Sometimes I don’t like going out there.

Nik: But change is a natural process, like all of us aging and becoming more and more attractive. [Nik and Kenny both tip their ball caps to reveal receding hairlines] We need some thin layer placement up here!

Kenny: Haha! I’d like that.

Nik: But in the marshes, is their degradation a natural process, or is something driving it?

Kenny: The vast majority of the impacts to our Rhode Island marshes are from sea-level rise. 

Nik: Which is anthropogenically driven. On these pages, all agree on that. Is their biology also changing? You’ve also been studying life on these marshes for decades. You were a co-PI on the national crab synthesis that came out and looked at crabs throughout the system. What do we need to know about crabs?

Kenny: Their effects on the marsh vary by state and region, but here in Rhode Island, in Southern New England, the crabs are intimately linked to sea-level rise. As the marshes get wetter, these crabs have more access to the marsh surface. The peat softens, so they can burrow in. And it’s just a cascading impact that degrades these marshes even faster.

Nik: All these threats to the marshes that you’ve spent your life in. So what are you going to do about it? Tell me about thin-layer placement (TLP)

Kenny: I was not really aware of this technique until about 8 years ago or so, and even then I was pretty skeptical. But I got to participate in a large-scale TLP project—which is where you add sediment to a marsh surface to raise it higher—down in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and got to witness firsthand how beneficial TLP can be when done correctly. That marsh now looks just gorgeous, after about four years. So I’m a huge proponent of TLP in certain situations, and I’m optimistic that we can do more of those projects in Rhode Island.

Nik: Where does the sediment come from? 

Kenny: That’s why I say it’s a good technique to use in certain places, because the sediment is usually sourced from nearby dredging projects. The other possible source for sediments— and we did this in our big NERRS TLP project—is from local quarries. We did that in part because it was easier, and there is precedent. The US Fish & Wildlife Service did a project in Sachuest Point Marsh in Middletown, RI, where they did use some quarry-derived sand on the marsh.

Nik: It would have gotten there eventually, in millions of years, right? They just trucked it over and sped it up a bit.

Kenny: Just a bit, yeah.

Nik: What’s next for the Narragansett Bay Reserve, and for its research in particular?

Kenny: We’re still doing some TLP. I think there’s a lot we need to learn about doing these projects effectively. One thing I’m really excited for: we have a pre-proposal into the NERRS Science Collaborative to do wildlife photography in coastal marshes with motion sensor cameras. We’re going to look at large-scale wildlife value for marshes across the System, which has not been done.

Nik: Are you a photographer yourself? Why photos?

Kenny: We used these cameras in a small project in 2019. We set them up to look at wildlife use of TLP marshes at different stages of recovery. We put some out in a mature TLP site, some at a brand-new TLP site, and some other cameras in a control marsh. I didn’t think much of it, but as the photos started coming in, I was just blown away at their quality, and the diversity of animals that were using these sites. It showed me that you can tell some good scientific stories with these cameras. I’m a big proponent of doing these big national syntheses in the NERRS, and I think this might be a really fun and useful thing to do across the entire system, not just for science, but also for outreach and education. 

Nik: We’re the selfie society, why not? What else do people want to look at anymore but photos of things? Lightning round. What’s your favorite marsh creature?

Kenny: By default I have to say mummichog. 

Nik: Patens or alterniflora? 

Kenny: Love Patens. Sad to see it leaving us.

Nik: High marsh or low marsh

Kenny: Oh, high marsh.

Nik: That’s where you want to be. Kenny, thanks for the time this morning. I dressed up for this. [gestures to his own plaid shirt and baseball cap]

Kenny: I actually shaved about 20 minutes before this call.

Nik: Good for you.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Jen Plunket

Talk NERRdy to Me: Jen Plunket

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov checked in with Jen Plunket, stewardship coordinator at South Carolina’s North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve, to run through a Swiss Army knife’s array of tools: fish, fyke nets, films, and floods.

Nik: Dr. Plunket, when we set up this call, you told me you actually got your start at the Wells Reserve. Naturally, that’s all I want to hear about. 

Jen: I grew up in South Berwick, Maine. In high school, I somehow discovered the Wells Reserve. I didn’t know anything about the national system, I just knew that Wells was a really beautiful place to go hiking. One day I was out hiking near the edge of the marsh and there were these two women, who must have been graduate students, and they were coming up from the marsh with buckets full of fish. They had their waders on, and some kind of nets with them, and I just thought “That is SO cool! I want to do that.”

That was the first time I thought fieldwork with fisheries and marshes might be what I wanted to go into. I went off to college a couple years later, and when I came home my first summer I got hooked up with Dr. Michelle Dionne [the Wells Reserve’s founding research director] and had the opportunity, for a summer, to do her fyke net surveys in restored marshes. I was doing exactly what those women were doing! And it WAS really cool.

Nik: What took you all the way down to South Carolina, when there were amazing, incredible marshes and marine science schools right around the corner?

Jen: I liked the marine science program at Coastal Carolina University. As much as I loved Maine, I was eighteen, and South Carolina seemed so exotic with palm trees and sandy beaches!

Nik: Just give Maine another hundred years, we’ll get there. But you stayed down south after school?

Jen: After graduation I worked on Sapelo Island in Georgia at the Marine Institute for a couple of years doing more fisheries work. 

Nik: I feel like, in the system, we’ve got plant people, and mud people, and fish people.

Jen: Fish is how I started out. But then in graduate school at Louisiana State University, I was more into plants and marsh mussels. Now I’m more of a bird person!

Nik: I’m fascinated by Louisiana. Is it a good idea to start a new Reserve in a place that’s disappearing so quickly?

Jen: It’s not all disappearing! The Atchafalaya Basin is actually accreting. But it’s definitely an issue in some areas. One of the reasons I went to Louisiana for graduate school is because, if you want to study wetlands management issues, that’s the epicenter. So I think if we want a Reserve that’s studying climate change and sea-level rise in wetlands, Louisiana makes total sense. 

Also, I tell people if you dream of going to the Amazon, you ought to go to the Atchafalaya Basin. It’s an amazing place; you’ll totally get that National Geographic feeling.

Nik:  You helped to transfer the NECAP grant that the New England reserves developed down to Georgetown, South Carolina. Tell me about being a stewardship coordinator and running those role-playing simulations.

Jen: I can’t take any credit for that particular project because that grant was written by our former CTP coordinator Michelle LaRocco.  I was involved in running the grant in the interim before our new CTP coordinator, Maeve Snyder, came on. But it was a lot of fun. When you set a task like [imitating serious grant writer voice] ‘if you can bring people with diverse opinions together in a non-threatening manner, they will suddenly see where each is coming from…’ You gotta ask yourself, is that really gonna happen? Is this just mumbo-jumbo? But no, it really happened! Those activities create an opening for seeing other people’s points of view.

Nik: I think of Stewardship Coordinators [SC] as the Swiss Army knives of the NERR system. They can go anywhere, do anything: repair a truck, survey wildlife, dive into the river or into the community… how do YOU do that at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve?

Jen: My job as an SC is a little different than at most other Reserves, because we don’t actually manage any of the land that we’re on. I can certainly consult with the land manager, but I don’t make any of those decisions. I get a little envious of people at other Reserves who get to, y’know, do burns, or dig things up, or plant new things! The Stewardship role is to tie together monitoring with management to conserve species and resources. A big part of that for me here is increasing community knowledge and building buy-in to stewarding the land through personal actions.

Nik:  Managing the natural human resources, eh? Even before you were hiking at the Wells Reserve, were you always a nature kid?

Jen: I think so. But I thought I’d be more like an environmental journalist. A friend and I used to write this magazine called Orb. It was before computers, so we cut photographs out of other magazines and pasted them in, and hand-wrote our own articles about saving the Earth. I thought that was the way I would lean, but the whole thing about science is it’s an opportunity to spend your life creative problem-solving. I think that was what appealed to me. You can spend your life pursuing curiosity.

Nik: That encapsulates the scientific endeavor right there. It’s inspiration, it’s discovery, it’s working on a problem. It may not be solved in your lifetime, but you’re never bored.

Jen: Or when you are, you just move on to something else!

Nik: You didn’t quite leave science communication behind. You’ve also been a driving force behind the NERRS film festival… Is that an outgrowth of your environmental journalism interest?

Jen: Many years ago I went to a film festival at a conservation biology meeting. That event had more professional filmmakers, showing their award-winning films. Still, it got me thinking about how in the Reserves, we were all getting that first push to do video… I think this was a little bit pre-Jace [Tunnell, the system’s Rob ReiNERR], but when he came on the scene with his awesome [sic] videos, I realized we ARE conservation filmmakers in the Reserve system. I saw some of the things other Reserves were putting together, and I thought, we need to highlight this and learn from each other. Because I think video is the way to reach people these days. We aren’t winning Sundance Awards or anything—yet—but we’re making stuff. 

Nik: We’ve had seven years of the film festival by now, and you’ve seen a lot of submissions. Any advice you’d give to people setting out to make films of the NERRs?

Jen: Use a tripod! Have a decent sound system—invest in a microphone or do a voiceover. Watch a lot of other films and see what works for you. And have a script! I think that’s important too. If you know who your audience is and what you really want to do before you set out, it’ll save you a lot of time. 

Nik: At your Reserve, what are you working on next?

Jen: We’re getting a more robust volunteer program rolling—more community science, more volunteers working with our education program. We had just gotten the ball rolling on that when COVID hit. But we’ll get it re-rolling! 

I want to engage diverse audience sets. There’s a very diverse community in Georgetown, and I’m wrestling with how to make those connections and how to bring that more diverse community into the Reserve.

Nik: As soon as you figure out how to promote unity, please let the rest of the country know. Jen Plunket, what gives you hope?

Jen: I do volunteer water quality monitoring with the Waccamaw Riverkeeper Program. My site is at a local boat landing; I go down there every other week and do basic water quality primers.

One day there was this guy who stopped. It was a really high tide so the landing was flooded. And he said ‘It never used to flood like this when I was a kid.’ And I said ‘No, probably not.’ He said ‘This is really happening. The sea is really rising and we’re going to have to do something about it.’ And this was an older gentleman, the type of guy you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be on board with sea-level rise. And it was that kind of experience that makes me feel like people’s minds are changing, and we’re moving towards finding real solutions to problems. That gives me hope.

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Talk NERRdy to Me