Growing to Meet the Climate Challenge

Growing to Meet the Climate Challenge

Our soon to be 30th Reserve in Connecticut Reserve will help protect the state’s greatest natural resource.

As the federal government strives to slow climate change by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, efforts to expand the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) could not be more timely. The addition of three new Reserves in Connecticut, Louisiana, and Wisconsin will build on the 1.3+ million acres Reserves currently help protect, much of which is publicly accessible. It also will grow the network of NERRS programs that rely on the principles of locally-led conservation, as described in a recent report to the National Climate Task Force.

“Saving land is critical, but putting management in place to care for it in perpetuity is just as important,” observes Rebecca Roth, executive director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). “I was happy to see the report call out NERRS expansion—the creation of new Reserves by Congress. Reserves not only support the administration’s goals for conservation, they are the gold star for how it should be done.”

A Growing National Estuarine Research Reserve System


In addition to the Reserves in the designation process, a request has been submitted to NOAA to consider a Reserve in the U.S. Virgin Islands. New Reserves will expand the NERRS network of living laboratories, across which scientists and practitioners collaborate with stakeholders to test and share innovative approaches to habitat restoration and management. They will widen and deepen the impact of education and coastal training programs designed to meet local and regional needs, including those of tribal nations.

“When a Reserve is established, it brings with it a national community of practice, dedicated to working collaboratively to evolve tools and strategies  to advance estuarine  science, monitoring, stewardship, education, and training,” says Roth. “This approach creates tangible economic benefits for states and communities, and promotes the equitable distribution of the benefits that Reserves provide.

#30 - Connecticut

The Connecticut Reserve will contribute science and monitoring to support management strategies for a healthy and productive Long Island Sound, which contributes $7 billion annually to the regional economy.

Alongside research into how habitats and species have changed in response to centuries of development in the Sound, the Reserve will provide a unique understanding of the interplay of big river systems and receiving waters. It also will deepen our collective knowledge of the connection between oysters, eelgrass, and water quality, and protect critical habitats for hundreds of species of migratory birds and fish, including the endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.


Home to diverse natural resources of commercial, cultural, and economic importance, Louisiana faces some of the greatest challenges of any coastal state in terms of land loss, flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise. A Reserve would help protect the health of the Louisiana Delta, while providing targeted science, monitoring, education, and outreach to support the state, including its underserved communities, in being more self-reliant in the face of these challenges.

“This could be the highest and best use for the port ever,” said South Tangipahoa Port Commissioner Bill Joubert, adding that regardless of where the Reserve is placed, it’s a win for Louisiana and the port.

Currently, three regions are under consideration for designation, and the search committee anticipates one site will be selected and submitted to NOAA for approval by the end of 2021. Louisiana is currently the only coastal state in the U.S. without at least one Reserve. Learn more about their selection process.


For centuries, Green Baythe world’s largest freshwater estuaryhas been vital to how Northeast Wisconsin lives, works, and plays. To help preserve the Bay for future generations, supporters are pushing to designate it as a Reserve. 

Although the Bay of Green Bay is slowly bouncing back after generations of abuse that degraded water quality and habitat, much work remains. Supporters of the Bay hope that a Reserve will spur further research and identify new solutions to existing and emerging problems.

Site selection is currently underway for the Green Bay Reserve and is expected to complete by the end of 2022. Learn more about what’s happening with this Reserve.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) submitted a letter of interest in establishing a Reserve in December 2019. NOAA found the request compelling, but did not have the capacity to provide funds to engage in the site selection process at that time; they will reconsider the request in January 2022.

The Territory’s tropical estuaries are experiencing rapid changes as the climate shifts. In the wake of extreme storms, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria, USVI partners are studying how to support the resilience of these natural systems, and the surrounding communities, as they recover from large disturbances. They also are exploring how to diversify the Territory’s economy and invest in greater food security, including fishing and aquaculture.

Given the majority-minority population (76% African-American, 17% Hispanic and Latino), a Reserve in the USVI will increase diversity, equity and inclusion within the NERRS and be a valuable addition to the the System’s understanding of how to engage different communities—especially those from underserved and historically underrepresented groups in the STEM fields—in coastal science and coastal decision-making.

Helping Wetlands On the Move

Helping Wetlands On the Move

Mary Schoell, a NOAA Digital Coast Fellow, collects marsh elevation data in the field.

Coastal wetland migration—the gradual shift of tidal wetland habitats inland—is a natural process that’s been accelerated by sea level rise. As the U.S. moves to protect 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030, understanding how to protect the upland areas that these coastal wetlands will move to is critical. A new project is leveraging the science, expertise, and partnership networks of the National Estuarine Research Reserves System (NERRS) to help prepare communities to support coastal wetlands on the move and secure their benefits for future generations.  

“The NERRS is well-situated to facilitate the protection of coastal wetland migration corridors,” says Mary Schoell, project lead and a NOAA Digital Coast Fellow co-hosted by NERRA and Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve. “Reserves not only directly contribute to our scientific understanding of wetland migration through research and long-term monitoring, they have strong, on-the-ground partnerships with local decision makers. If Reserve staff aren’t the people working on land acquisition and conservation—and many of them are—they certainly know who is.”

To support the Reserve system’s work, Schoell is undertaking a needs assessment to understand what different Reserves and regions need to protect migration corridors. This work will inform communications products to help meet those needs, as well as guidance for policy-makers and managers.

Although the assessment will not be complete until this summer, common needs are already emerging. For example, in the Southeast, where there is potential to conserve over one million acres of resilient marshes, much of the upland areas are owned by private landowners. As a result, Reserves and their partners in this region need tools and strategies to communicate with these landowners, as well as higher resolution, local mapping data to inform strategic decision-making. Part of Schoell’s work will be connecting Reserves with NOAA data and mapping resources where available.

“I hope to leverage the work Reserves already do to elevate the conversation to a regional and national level, which could translate into more funding,” says Schoell. “We need to understand how best to apply our finite resources towards coastal wetland conservation and restoration.” 

The stakes are high. Coastal wetlands are valuable habitats that store carbon, filter pollutants, protect important fisheries, and shelter coastal infrastructure from storm damage, flooding, and erosion. They’re also threatened: human activities have led to the degradation or loss of 50% of our salt marshes in the last century, and rising seas, stronger storms, more extreme precipitation, and drought are all contributing to their decline.

All 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves experienced at least one moderate, major, or catastrophic climate-related impact from 2009 to 2019—many of which affect wetland condition.

Like many of the challenges created by the impacts of climate change, equity is a critical issue. “How we choose where to conserve land is not a question only of where wetlands are projected to go; it also involves partnerships, money, and people interested in conserving that land. Do we default to areas of lower income?” says Schoell. “More work is needed.”

Once complete, Mary’s work will join a suite of tools the Reserve system provides to advance the goals of efficient, effective marsh conservation and restoration, including the Landscape Scale Marsh Resilience Project, which supports “apples to apples” comparison of tidal marsh condition across broad scales nationwide.

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Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Gabion-break design protects marshes and encourages oyster reefs. Photos courtesy GTM Research Reserve.

Wetlands and other natural places along shore can minimize erosion, anchor habitat, and provide stability even in the face of fierce hurricanes. But in Northeast Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, they can be overwhelmed by storm driven waves and large boat wakes. Research at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve is bringing living and built structures together to stabilize the shore and help protect and sustain economically important habitats. 

 At six sites in the Research Reserve, the University of Florida-led team combined two lines of defence—porous wooden breakwalls and oyster catching structures—to reduce erosion at the edge of sensitive marshes and encourage oyster reef development. Known as a gabion-break, this design dissipated damaging, high-energy waves by 30 to 90 percent. The research also helped put boat wakes into perspective.

“One of the most significant results was increased awareness of just how damaging boat traffic can be on natural and built infrastructure,” says Nikki Dix, research coordinator at the GTM Reserve. “If we are going to invest in restoring important habitats like wetlands and oyster reefs, this research shows we need to protect them from boat wake so they can succeed.”

The design, previously used with success in the Netherlands, was tested and improved for application in Florida.  Research reserve staff helped to design the demonstration, build partnerships, support field work, supply technical assistance and data, and assist with written materials, workshops, and public events. The team also created an instructional video and manual to help others follow the process. Together with more than 130 volunteers, they logged more than 640 hours of project support.

“Reserves bring a lot of things needed for this type of research to the table: conservation land, monitoring data, manpower, and outreach,” says Dix. “Through monitoring, we were able to compare oyster reefs on the breakwalls to natural reefs and see how they did—and they did really well! That natural baseline data helps us understand how well oyster restoration works, and how it could be applicable to other habitats like wetlands, and far beyond the bounds of the Reserve itself.”

The GTM pilot has inspired similar installations in nearby estuaries. The design has been replicated at North Peninsula State Park by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and St. Johns River Water Management District. The commission funded monitoring at both the pilot site and the state park, which allowed comparisons of gabion-break performance in areas of different tidal and boat traffic regimes. In the future, other Reserve teams may test similar breakwalls to protect marshes restored through the thin-layer placement of sediment—an emerging technique to elevate the marsh in the face of sea level rise (SLR).

This project was supported by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, a nationally competitive science and knowledge transfer funding program that advances collaborative research to address coastal management problems important to Reserves and their communities. The Science Collaborative is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of Michigan Water Center.

Volunteers Protect Kelp in Puget Sound

Volunteers Protect Kelp in Puget Sound

Photos courtesy Island County Marine Resources Committee, Ron Beier.

The kelp beds of Puget Sound provide critical habitat and food for the foodweb that supports Endangered Southern Resident Orcas, and Washington depends on these whales to bring an estimated $65 million each year to the state’s tourism industry. The kelp beds, in turn, rely on responsible land and water management. And the land and water managers? They depend on data collected by a crack team of kayak-based citizen scientists!

“The reciprocal nature of our research and monitoring done through community science partnerships provides a powerful means of expanding our data collection capacity and communicating the story it tells,” says Padilla Bay Reserve GIS lead Suzanne Shull.

In 2020, the Padilla Bay Reserve and the Northwest Straits Commission (NWSC) helped more than 40 volunteers survey bull kelp canopy via kayak in the Northwest Straits region. These paddles contributed to a long-term data set that is painting a picture of how local bull kelp distribution in the Sound varies from year to year. Together, they surveyed 22 different bull kelp beds, documenting 416 acres of bull kelp forest.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources and county planners use this data to better understand bull kelp’s abundance and stressors. It is also helping them design strategies to preserve thriving kelp beds long into the future, as envisioned by the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan.

Through the NWSC partnership, Shull was able to process and share the volunteers’ kelp data with decision makers and the public. “Suzanne’s expertise is something we do not have the capacity to support, if we were not able to borrow a fraction of her time from the Reserve,” says Dana Oster, NWSC’s marine program manager. “She spearheaded our web-based mapping tool over ten years ago as a way to share and archive the data collected by our volunteers alongside other state marine datasets.”

“The beauty of programs like these is that not only are they cost effective ways to collect much-needed data, but they also connect members of the local community to their marine environment,” says Oster. “Not to mention the benefits of connection to nature and the exercise they get from all that paddling!”

Within the NWSC, there are seven Marine Resources Committees (MRCs) made up of community members who advise county commissioners on marine resources matters. The Reserve and the Skagit County MRC partner to provide coordination and curricula for the Salish Sea Stewards and Kids on the Beach, programs that started with a community need to improve place-based, marine science education for adults and middle schoolers.

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The Big Picture of Marsh Resilience

The Big Picture of Marsh Resilience

Tidal marshes at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. Photo courtesy Walter Jalbert.

Squeezed between rising seas and landward development, many of our nation’s tidal marshes are in danger of disappearing. Deciding how to protect them requires the ability to conduct “apples to apples’’ comparisons of marsh condition across broad landscapes. A new study out of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is meeting that need by using geographic information system (GIS) data to provide a first-ever assessment of marsh resilience at multiple geographic scales.

“There are many reasons to protect tidal marshes and everyone wants to invest their resources where they can do the most good,” says Rachel Stevens, co-lead of the study and stewardship coordinator at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “This assessment can help us understand what drives not just one marsh’s ability to survive, but all the marshes in a particular geographic area. Research and monitoring design, selecting the right restoration approach, deciding which lands to protect to allow migration—all of this depends on being able to see the big picture of marsh resilience.”

The team analyzed tidal marsh resilience—the ability to persist in place or migrate to another location—as rates of sea level rise accelerate. Different factors influence resilience, and the study looked at 13 GIS-based measures of current marsh conditions, vulnerability to sea level rise, and capacity to adapt in the future. Region by region, they found marshes in the Southeast to be the most resilient and those in the Northeast the least.

Southeast marshes like those in North Carolina (left) are the most resilient, while those in Rhode Island are among the least.  Photos courtesy Tara Rudo and the Narragansett Bay Reserve.

 In every region, the study identified undeveloped lands with the capacity to support healthy tidal marshes as they migrate landward in the future. Only 53% of these lands have already been protected by fee or easement. 

“Healthy marshes contribute to community resilience,” says Rebecca Roth, director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). “As the climate changes, we need science-based tools like these to support marsh conservation efforts around the country. This work is more important than ever as we push to conserve 30% of the world’s lands and waters by 2030.” 

Marsh conservation opportunities by region.

Understanding resilience at the landscape scale helps natural resource managers determine which marshes need help and the kind of help they need. For example, highly resilient marshes that are likely to persist in place are strong candidates for protection. Marshes that are vulnerable to sea level rise but in good condition with a high adaptation potential, might be appropriate for restoration. Those in poor condition with nowhere to migrate as sea levels rise may be too expensive to save. Scientists also can use the analysis to help target fieldwork and monitoring and strengthen experimental design. 

The relative resilience of Maine’s marshes from high (green) to low (red), including those within Maine’s Wells Reserve. Comparisons like these can help scientists and policy makers understand the broader relevance of the Reserve’s marsh science and monitoring work.

“With state and local budgets stretched thin by the pandemic, it’s important to make sure that every dollar invested in coastal resource management and science counts,” says Roth. “When you combine on the ground knowledge, a strong national network, and expertise from a federal partner like NOAA, you can deliver tools like these that not only help efforts to protect beloved salt marshes, they make the coasts a better place to live and work. It’s what the NERRS was created to do.”

Monitoring wetland response to accelerating sea level rise is an evolving focus of the NERRS System-wide Monitoring Program. Photo courtesy of Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve.

The study provides a strong foundation for states and communities to create targeted tools that meet local priorities. To make this study more actionable for New Hampshire, for example, the team used high-resolution land cover data from NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) and locally relevant metrics, like the presence of invasive species, to develop parcel scale tools. 

“With these tools, we can compare the feasibility and the likelihood of success of specific restoration and conservation projects,” says Cory Riley, manager of New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “They are informing a more comprehensive marsh management plan for Great Bay, ordinance language for local communities, and a new tidal wetland reporting methodology for New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.”

Restoring Manoomin in Lake Superior

Restoring Manoomin in Lake Superior

A geese exclosure put in by staff at the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa prevented the birds from grazing the manoomin at right. Photos courtesy Lake Superior Reserve.

Reserves protect special places. But the wild rice beds, known as manoomin in the Ojibwe language, at the Lake Superior Reserve are exceptional. At least they were.

Manoomin once thrived in the clean waters of the Lake Superior Basin, where they were central to life for thousands of years. Since the 1960s, however, the abundance of wild rice has steadily declined. The threats are multiple, and include over predation by birds like geese and swans, hydrologic changes, pollution, land use impacts, and climate change. 

The Reserve has joined with First Nation and other partners in the Lake Superior Manoomin Workgroup to explore how to bring the manoomin back. The group has been working to understand the value of these beds and what can be gained by restoring and protecting them for future generations.

“We’re well-situated to be in the group,” says Deanna Erickson, manager at the Reserve. “The St. Louis River Estuary had some of the largest rice beds in the basin. Those were largely lost, and the community is in the process of restoring them now. We’ve provided ecological monitoring that is critical to these efforts.”

The group completed the Lake Superior Manoomin Cultural and Ecosystem Characterization Study last May. This report provides a baseline understanding of the current status of many historical manoomin beds, describes what it would take to restore their ecological and social functions, and makes recommendations for moving forward.

Manoomin is integral to the culture, livelihood, and identity of the Anishinaabe, a group of Indigenous peoples within Canada and the United States. In their culture, manoomin is considered a sacred, animate, “more-than-human” being. It is present at ceremonies, celebrations, feasts, funerals, and initiations as a food source and spiritual presence.

Manoomin is also ecologically important. Migrating and resident wildlife feed in wild rice beds, which provide a nursery for fish and nesting and breeding habitats for waterfowl and muskrat. Wild rice also helps stabilize shorelines, and by binding loose soils, it lowers nutrient loading, improving water clarity and reducing algal blooms.

“The potential for restoration is enormous,” says Erickson. “Even in places where restoration has been successful, more is needed. At one Minnesota site, Twin Lakes, it was found that if planned restoration improved habitat functionality by 2.5%, more than 100,000 additional acres of restored habitat—the area of 550 Twin Lakes—would be needed to recover the loss in functionality that occurred between 1966 and 2019.”

Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resource Manager, teaches Reserve education program participants at the wild rice lake Atawemegokokaaning.

The report highlighted the critical importance of monitoring data, such as the kind provided by the Reserve, to support restoration. Long-term data can help cultural leaders and  other natural resource managers assess the health of existing habitats and evaluate the success of different restoration strategies. It also can provide information about manoomin productivity and other aspects of the ecosystem. 

“Our Reserve will keep supporting our partners in manoomin restoration,” says Erickson. “We’re here to sustain the Estuary and the people who rely on it. Because of this project, we can speak more articulately about the value of restoration, and we’re looking to what we all can do together to support the harvest of manoomin and ecological integrity of the Estuary in the future.

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