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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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.

Growing With Salmon

Growing With Salmon

Photos and story courtesy Jacob Argueta, research technician at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was told the significance of salmon from a young age. From grade school through college, in multiple disciplines, we were taught how salmon had provided for the indigenous people and sustained the landscape through their lifecycle for millennia. 

Over and over again, this idea of salmon being a cultural and biological keystone was presented to us in the past tense, with many people working to restore what had been lost. We learned about, and saw firsthand, that development and population growth had come at the cost of salmon habitat. Rivers and streams were controlled, dammed, culvertized, and disconnected. The remaining salmon populations were just a shadow of what they had historically been, even with large inputs from hatcheries. 

By the time I arrived in Alaska in 2017, I had become accustomed to the view that salmon were a species that couldn’t survive without people because of what we had done to their habitats. It is hard to describe the sight of a largely unimpacted salmon run battling upstream after so many years of the aforementioned mindset. The rivers team with life. What you thought were riffles or eddies are actually hundreds, thousands of fish driven by instinct to return to their natal streams. It is also not just the fish that gather, but the birds, mammals, insects, and people do as well. The whole ecosystem responds to the return of the salmon. 

The last few years at the Kachemak Bay Reserve has allowed me to work with an amazing and dedicated group of people who strive to better understand and protect these incredible fish and the landscape that supports them.

My teams’ work has largely focused on the freshwater portion of the coho salmon’s life cycle. I am continually blown away by the resilience and determination of these juvenile fish. They are now understood to spend multiple years in freshwater, utilizing every part of the watershed, from the estuaries to the smallest headwaters. Perhaps equally important is the role the landscape plays in maintaining productive salmon streams. In the Kenai Lowlands bordering the Reserve, the land is a tapestry of salmon support. Alders fix nitrogen into the soil, peatlands store large amounts of carbon and regulate water temperatures, and shallow groundwater acts as a transport mechanism bringing these critical elements to the salmon streams. 

I have been given a glimpse into what it must have been like only a hundred years ago in the Pacific Northwest. Like my mentor, Coowe Walker, says, ‘in Alaska we have been given an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and not destroy an intact ecosystem. We know people and salmon can coexist, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We know better than ever the mechanisms and elements that make good salmon habitat.’ 

I hope that we can come together around this unifying species and become a shining example of coexistence and mutual sustainability.  

Welcome, Mary!

Welcome, Mary!

The National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA) and the Narragansett Bay Reserve are delighted to welcome new NOAA Digital Coast Fellow, Mary Schoell. 

Mary will develop and refine data tools on coastal wetland migration pathways and identify what end-users need to protect these pathways. 

“Protecting the spaces where we predict marshes will migrate is a proactive coastal resilience strategy with numerous environmental, economic, and cultural benefits,” she says. “I’m thrilled to put my scientific understanding of the subject into action and to help ensure that marsh migration modeling tools can be understood and implemented by those who make on-the-ground changes to protect our coastal ecosystems.” 

“I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work within the NERRS,” she adds. “A collaborative program that combines research, education, and stewardship is an amazing balance of what I’m looking for in a career in coastal management.”

Mary grew up in the rural town of East Haddam, Connecticut, which shaped her love and appreciation for the natural world. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut, she worked for three years on a salt marsh restoration project with the US EPA’s Atlantic Coastal Environmental Sciences Division in Narragansett. 

Mary earned her master’s in Environmental Science from the Yale School of the Environment last May. There she studied the effects of sea-level rise and storm surge on salt marsh migration into coastal forests along Long Island Sound. Through a forestry technique known as dendrochronology, she explored the timescale in which salt water inundation drives tree stress, tree death, and marsh migration. She is excited to act on the broader land use management implications of this research through her NOAA Digital Coast Fellowship.

Restoring land, food, and people at Heʻeia

Restoring land, food, and people at Heʻeia

Freshly-harvested taro (Kalo, Colocasia esculenta) being cut in preparation for cooking. Cultivation of taro is a keystone element of Hawaiian social-ecological systems. Photo Credit – Sean Marrs

250 years ago in the Hawaiian islands, Indigenous resource management practices sustainably supported a population of more than a million people. Within this context, native habitats and biodiversity co-prospered with a thriving human community. Today, to feed roughly the same number of people, Hawai’i imports 90% of its food and has experienced significant loss of native species, habitat, and coral. The Heʻeia Reserve is combining Indigenous and conventional science to restore lands to help solve these problems.

The Reserve works with its community-based co-management partners to restore and manage  Indigenous wetland agro-ecology systems (loʻi kalo) and associated aquaculture systems (loko iʻa). The systems are cultivated by lineal descendants and other local families, which builds cultural identity, connection to place, and food self-sufficiency. Early findings show this approach is successfully restoring habitat for native plants and animals. It also contributes to Hawaiʻi’s sustainability goals, which include doubling food production in 20 years, protecting watersheds and ecosystems, and facilitating community-based management. 

“Ancient Hawaiians figured out how to manage wetlands to increase their ecosystem services—specifically food production, water filtration, and aquifer recharge,” says Dr. Kawika Winter, manager of the He’eia Reserve. “They did this through a resource management approach we call ‘ecomimicry,’ whereby ecosystem processes were managed to support human populations within them.”

An endangered Hawaiian Stilt (ʻAeʻo, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni) foraging in a wetland agro-ecosystem (loʻi) within the Reserve. Photo credit – Sean Marrs.

Just as the Hawaiians of old, contemporary communities use ecomimicry to restore habitats for native fish, insects, plants, and birds, including the endangered Hawaiian stilt, while restoring Indigenous food systems. Food security has become a big issue during the pandemic, and the approaches at Heʻeia are addressing that issue as well. In addition, current estimates suggest that if the family volunteer farming program goes to scale, it could increase returns to the state’s economy by $2 million. 

“The place that we’re working at becomes more abundant and healthier and restored,” says a participant in the program. “The thriving factor increases as we work not only for my own family, but for the place.”

The partnerships that support this work extend beyond the Hawai’i throughout the Reserve System and NOAA, according to Winter.

“Standardized water-quality monitoring is foundational to the NERRS entire research program, and that’s what our community wants us to do,” says Winter. “Beyond that, we are trying to develop a career pipeline for local students.  The various fellowship and internship opportunities within NOAA allow us to open the door to local students for some of the best professional development opportunities around.”

“I’ve been involved in conservation my entire life, and professionally for the last 15 years. I’ve never witnessed such strong community support for conservation work,” he adds. “The level of support we have is the envy of conservation efforts elsewhere, and I’m really proud that our community truly appreciates the work we’re doing.”

Talk Nurdle to Me: Jace Tunnell

Talk Nurdle to Me: Jace Tunnell

Jace Tunnell is NERRDy about Nurdles. Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s Maine correspondent, Nik Charov caught up with Jace Tunnel, manager of Texas’ Mission-Aransas Reserve and the Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas of the NERRS—all wrapped up into a really nice guy.

Nik: Jace, you’re the third manager I’ve interviewed who’s doing hurricane recovery. Hurricane Harvey was almost three years ago.

Jace: August 25th, 2017. They say it’s a five-to-eight year recovery—we’re just in the beginning. 

Nik: Luckily, a hurricane will never hit the Texas coast again.

Jace: Knock on wood!

Nik: Tell me about the manager role. Do you actually know what you’re doing? 

Jace: I’m not sure any of us managers do, haha. A lot of it is what you’d imagine: writing grants, doing budgets… no fun stuff. If you write yourself into a grant with fieldwork, that’s your excuse to go outside. 

Nik: So when we see you out on the beach, you’re actually working, not just fooling around with your GoPro?

Jace: Every once in a while. 

Nik: Tell me about the Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK). Is it some kind of fortress? 

Jace: The ARK was started in 1982 by Tony Amos to rehabilitate coastal animals and birds. The first year they had seven animals; last year we had more than 1,500. I don’t know of another Reserve with a rehab facility, so that’s a unique feature at Mission-Aransas. A lot of the funding comes from community donations and a large grant from the BP oil spill. 

Nik: That’s right—you’re also recovering from an oil spill.

Jace: That happened in 2010. We actually never had oil on our beach, so a lot of people ask me why we got money. But if you look at sea turtles and migratory birds, they were impacted, and those animals do come to Texas.

Nik: They bring the oil to you?

Jace: Yeah, indirectly. Our main job at the ARK is to get these turtles in, find out what’s wrong with them, and get them back out there. So we help to reestablish what was lost in the spill.

Nik: So much of your recent work has become about plastic pollution. How do you square that with this massive Texas petrochemical industry you’re surrounded by? 

Jace: We don’t play the advocacy role or point fingers at the plastic industry. We just collect data on where these plastic pellets, called nurdles, can be found in the highest concentrations. Before the Nurdle Patrol, no one knew where these pellets were coming from. Now we can see the highest concentrations are where plastic manufacturing facilities are. 

Nurdles, which are the raw material for everything plastic, spill when manufacturers load them for transport and during transport. When it rains, they get into the stormwater and go out to sea.

The upcoming Texas Nurdle Bill legislation is going to try to make some mandatory changes to stormwater permitting. In Texas and most other states, plastics manufacturers are allowed to spill a “trace amount” of “suspended solids.” This bill wants to replace that language with “zero discharge of plastic pellets.” That would be huge. 

Nik: What do you have against nurdles?

Jace: As with all plastic, wildlife swallow them. There’s chemicals and additives in them, and the longer they’re in the environment, the more chemicals they absorb. There’s no nutritional value, and if birds eat enough of them, they clog the intestinal tract. Fish experience behavioral changes, and we don’t know yet if those chemicals leach into the muscle tissue of fish that we’re eating.

Jace Tunnel shows off a nurdle—a raw plastic pellet—found on a Texas beach.

Nik: Y’all just won a big settlement award to expand your Nurdle Patrol, right?

Jace: Yeah, Formosa Plastics was found guilty of discharging these pellets. They settled for $50 million, and Nurdle Patrol got $1 million. We’re going to use the money to host a Texas Plastic Pollution Symposium and to expand the patrol. We’re making kits for organizations that want to start their own patrols. They can put their data into nurdlepatrol.org, see what their community looks like, and take that to local representatives, political leaders, and state agencies. We’re making good improvements, including videos to help get people more active. 

Nik: I knew you were going to budget yourself more filmmaking time. Jace Tunnell is the Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas of the Reserve System all rolled into one. 

Jace: Videos were cool before, but videos are really cool now that everyone’s stuck in the house. We’ve been trying to reach people who are not able to make it to the beach with a series called Beachcombing.

Nik: You’ve also got a series on your volunteers, including Tony Amos. Seems like he was a really important figure for you guys and the area. What would he have thought of finally getting a handle on the nurdle problem?

Jace: Early in the 1970s, Tony started doing his beach surveys every other day. He was counting all the trash and where it came from, every other day for 40 years. So I think he’d be really behind the whole nurdle thing 100%. If zero pellet loss can be done in Texas, it can be done anywhere, right?

Nik: I’m sensing some enthusiasm. Why’d you get into this work? Why the coasts? Why clean water and animals and estuaries?

Jace: My dad was a marine biologist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. So I just grew up at the beach all the time doing bird surveys and looking up shells and looking at oil spills.

Nik: So… you don’t know how to do anything else?

Jace: It’s all I know! Actually, I went into journalism. I was going to be a writer. But then I went into the science field and never looked back.

Nik: What’s your favorite part of the job?

Jace: Getting to be on the beach. Now what’s my least favorite? Can you guess?

Nik: Sitting in the office? 

Jace: Doing budgets!

Nik: Budgets aren’t important; you’ve got more than enough money between oil spills and nurdle grants! Salty or fresh?

Jace: I like both, but salty.

Nik: You like everything. What’s next for you guys?

Jace: Nurdle Patrol is a big deal. We’ve got 29 partners now. We just announced an international partner over in Scotland. We’re also doing our 312 evaluation and our management plan. I mean, who doesn’t like that?

Nik: Yeah, but you get to do it all remotely! It’s much easier.

Jace: Yeah! We’re really trying to expand our reach. We’ve done a lot of work within our boundary, but we’re seeing that we can have a huge impact outside our boundary and even into other states, so we’re working towards that. 

Nik: Texas isn’t big enough for you?

Jace: We need more!

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