Ultimate Classroom at Kachemak Bay

Ultimate Classroom at Kachemak Bay

Former Kachemak Bay Reserve interns Grace Allan and Chris Guo identify streams that provide habitat for juvenile salmon. Chris is now the Reserve’s lead technician for nearshore studies.

With sweeping fjords instead of desks and babbling streams instead of whiteboards, Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve is not your typical classroom. Likewise, its high-quality education programs and partnerships offer opportunities that Alaska’s students can find nowhere else.

“Students join us in the field to participate in real science and data analysis,” says Coowe Walker, manager at the Reserve. “They get to be part of scientific work that is used by the community. They’re not just learning about sciencethey’re doing it. It’s a win-win: powerful for them and useful for us.”

The Reserve supports a diverse range of students with field-based opportunities that “provide a foundation for them to become community leaders and scientists who are prepared to meet the challenges of Alaska’s changing coasts,” according to Walker.

Helping Alaskan Native Students Go to College

The Kachemak Bay Reserve partners with the Alaska Native Science and Education Program (ANSEP) to support indigenous students starting in middle school. 

“For many of these students, college is not something they think of as possible,” says Walker. “It takes a huge amount of emotional, financial, and educational support to help them get there. You really have to make that commitment to them in middle school.” 

Students take accelerated courses through ANSEP and participate in internships. In 2020, the Reserve took on two virtual ANSEP interns to conduct watershed research—the most highly rated experience of the intern cohort.

Bringing Middle Schoolers Into the Field 

Each year, the Reserve takes seventh and eighth grade classes from Homer into the field to collect water samples. As many as 200 students get to run their own experiments using those samples and then present the results to the Kachemak Community Council. 

With the Council’s encouragement, the Reserve is expanding their middle school field program to include nearshore fish studies and to develop a network of “stewardship schools” to get students involved with the entire watershed—from the headwaters to the sea. 

“In an area where there’s not a lot of field-based programs for middle school students, we’re able to fill that gap,” says Walker.

High school students from the Tebughna School in the remote Alaska Native village of Tyonek (Qaggeyshlat) joined the Reserve to learn about techniques for studying juvenile salmon through Project GRAD.

Building Graduation Rates in Remote Communities

The Reserve also partners with Project Project Graduation Really Achieves Dreams (GRAD) to reach students in remote communitiesthose which are fly- or boat-in only. These include many Alaska Native and Old Believer Russian communities, both of which tend to have low graduation rates. 

GRAD allows educators to work with students from these communities who want to finish high school and go onto college. Through GRAD, Students from the remote Alaska Native village of Tyonek (Qaggeyshlat ) work with Reserve scientists and educators, a relationship that has continued to expand during the pandemic through virtual platform.

Connecting University Students with Research Opportunities 

In the past few years, the Reserve has supported more than 50 university students as fellows and interns. Some are sponsored through national programs like the Hollings Scholarship program or the newly established, Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Research Fellowship

“Leveraging these national programs helps us provide unique opportunities to students, and advance collaborative science here at the Reserve,” says Walker. Research completed by fellows is now used to guide management decisions by partners like Alaska Fish & Game.

“Because we emphasize stakeholder engagement, student science gets used,” says Walker. “We emphasize this engagement in our own work and with the students. I hear this from colleagues around the country: really intentional and adaptive stakeholder engagement is what makes Reserves so special.”

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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Bringing Estuaries to You

Bringing Estuaries to You

Photo courtesy of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Reserve.

We are all looking forward to being together again on the coasts. But for now, many Reserves must protect the safety of staff, volunteers, friends, and community members by closing public facilities and rescheduling public programs. (Check in on your Reserve.)

In the mean time, you can bring the beauty and wonder of estuaries into your living room, thanks to Reserve educators. Virtual walkabouts and tours, live “ask-a-naturalist” sessions, videos, story maps, lesson plans, wildlife discovery stories, e-libraries—NERRS educational resources are responsive to a range of interests and learning needs.

Kids K-5 can learn about the ways in which Reserve biologists study, track, and protect sharks! This virtual program explore the paths of these apex predators and discuss why they are an essential part of our estuarine and ocean ecosystems. Students will also examine fossilized teeth to determine identifying characteristics between shark species. Happening December 3, 9-10AM EST. Sign up here.

Wherever you are, here are a few simple ways to join the Reserves’ online learning community, deepen your understanding of what makes estuaries special, and prepare for when we can all experience them safely again.

1. Take a virtual tour of our Reserves.

Reserves are remarkable places that protect 1.3M+ acres of public land and water. They are home to hundreds of species of birds, fish, and plants that are endangered or of concern, as well as precious cultural resources. Find the Reserve closest to you and plan a future trip.


2. Stay in touch & access online learning.

NERRA is tracking how the COVID-19 is impacting Reserve facilities and collecting links to online resources created by Reserves around the country and our friends at NOAA. We will update this resource every week. If you are from a Reserve and would like to update the information for your site, please contact us info@nerra.org.

3. Share your story.

Nothing would make us happier than being outside, enjoying spring at one of our 29 Reserves. The next best thing is to hear from you—do you have a favorite estuary moment you want to share? Something to keep us going until we can all be together outside? Contact us at info@nerra.org to share.


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Tech Brings Hudson River into Student Homes

Tech Brings Hudson River into Student Homes

Educators seine for fish in the Hudson River estuary for students to identify in a series of virtual activities.

Teamwork and technology are keeping the New York’s Hudson River estuary alive for students, teachers, and caregivers in 2020. This fall, the Day of the Life of the Hudson and Harbor field education program connected thousands of children to the Hudson River Estuary and New York Harbor through a series of vibrant educational resources, videos, and safely-held live programs.

Now in it’s eighteenth year, this event is a collaboration of the Hudson River Reserve, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC), the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and dozens of environmental education organizations throughout the region. Since its inception in 2003, the program has helped more than 56,000 students and educators explore their local estuary.

“Day in the Life is often the first time our students are exposed to the environment outside the classroom, and they are able to learn about what is in their own backyard,” says Janet DeStefano, a teacher in the Newburgh City School system. “When they are provided hands-on experiences with the Hudson River, they become stewards of the environment.”

This year’s program was designed to support students unable to go into the field due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 35 partner organizations helped to compile an online data set on water quality, weather, fish, and other aquatic life in the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Three interactive videos—narrated by professionals and educators from waterfront communities and available on YouTube—bring this data and the day’s adventure into the schools and student homes. The videos are designed to help students identify fish and compare the diversity of sites and conditions in New York Harbor, the lower estuary from Yonkers to Newburgh, and the upper estuary from Poughkeepsie to Troy, with a special glimpse of the Adirondacks! 

“This year, our older students were excited to mentor younger peers who participated for the first time in Day in the Life,” says Grace Sanvictores, STEAM educator at Hudson Montessori School in Jersey City. “Our upper elementary students enjoyed creating ‘how to’ videos for their younger friends that show them how to use scientific instruments to measure different parameters of the Hudson River. They also were excited to digitally meet the partners who recorded what is happening on their side of the river. They were all very curious about the different fish caught that same day!”

Day in the Life of the Hudson and Harbor encourages students to have a “hands-on” experience with the estuary and discover it for themselves—even if they’re unable to visit the field.

NYSDEC, Lamont Doherty, and other partners provided extra support to teachers this year with pre-trips and post-trips that put the videos in context for students at home and in the classroom. These programs introduce students to the estuary before they access the videos, and help them discover the wonderful diversity of sites and stories they can explore online.

“Even though many schools can’t have the same field experiences as in past years, Day in the Life partners are excited that these online resources can be used beyond the event itself,” says Chris Bowser, education coordinator at the Hudson River Reserve. “It’s a great opportunity for the many voices of environmental education to reach more students than ever.”

“Any student anywhere can look at these videos and explore their estuary,” he adds. “They can see what their estuary looks like and understand that it ranges from a waterfront park in Albany, to a beach under the Brooklyn Bridge, to a creek in Duchess County, and into the East and Harlem rivers.”

Remembering Dr. Ru Morrison

Remembering Dr. Ru Morrison

NERRA is sad to acknowledge the recent passing of Dr. Ru Morrison, former Director of the Northeast Regional Association for Ocean Observing System (NERACOOS), past Chair of the IOOS (Integrated Ocean Observing System Association (IOOSA), and a great friend to many in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS).

Ru was an extraordinary person and colleague, and his leadership and innate kindness reached beyond his IOOS family. “Ru’s work was a testimony to the idea that science-based coastal and ocean management depends on strong partnerships that serve ecosystems, communities, and industries,” says Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. “He was an example for many and epitomized what we all need to do to expand coastal and ocean services work to the public.”

Ru also was an important voice for focusing academic oceanographic interests on the needs of coastal management. He helped them think beyond navigation to other issues that Reserves often focus on, according to Cory Riley, manager of the Great Bay Reserve in New Hampshire.

“He was always thinking of how the Northeast Regional Association could link to the issues that are most critical to our communities,” says Cory. “He wanted to make sure that users could find all observational data easily and address true coastal issues. He went out of his way to include coastal partners in decisions made about where NERACOOS would focus efforts and resources.” 

Because Ru was a professor at the UnIversity of New Hampshire, his influence in the New England region was especially significant, and his work was recently acknowledged by Senator Jeanne Shaheen in the congressional record. Close to home, he partnered with the Great Bay Reserve to integrate System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) data into the NERACOOS portal, helped the Reserve hold decision maker workshops, and integrated management perspectives into the Northeast Coastal Acidification Network (NECAN) effort.

“For me, Ru was an important mentor,” Cory says. “He taught me how to think big picture about joint messaging between coastal and ocean programs and how to find and amplify complementary efforts between the NERRS and IOOS.”

Above all, Ru was dedicated to his family—his wife Ann Michelle and children Alistair and Marin. His insights, wit, and camaraderie will be deeply missed. IOOSA is collecting remembrances. If you would like to contribute, please add them to this file and they will forward them to his family.

Volunteers Give & Gain at Jacques Cousteau

Volunteers Give & Gain at Jacques Cousteau

Photo and story courtesy Pat Filardi, a volunteer at New Jersey’s Jacques Cousteau Reserve.

I’ve been a volunteer for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Rutgers Marine Field Station here on the Jersey Shore for twelve years.

As a field volunteer I’ve been involved in many facets of scientific research. My first field work was tracking flounder on the Navesink River in the winter, which was very cold but very enjoyable. I’ve been involved in the ongoing collection of larval fish sampling, the taking of bottom samples to evaluate benthic life, trawling sessions in the Reserve—and my favorite—tracking the herring run in the Pineland rivers and streams. Most recently I’ve been kayaking with Ken Able in the Mullica watershed as he researched for his latest book Beneath the Surface. I not only enjoy the work, but also the people and all I have learned from them.

Being involved with these projects has been truly eye opening. I always find it incredible that after all the scientific study there is still so much to be discovered. Meeting so many great people who are willing to share their knowledge was beyond all expectation. To see the abundance and variety of life in our vast marshes is enlightening. It takes many people on all levels to collect and catalog all this information over many decades.

As a citizen scientist, I believe I have truly gained more than I have given. To be involved with the Reserve’s community has been both educational as well as personally fulfilling and I would recommend volunteering on some level to all. To be a part of the community made up of the JCNERR’s Education Center and Rutgers Field Station personnel have really made for a worthwhile retirement. 


Every Reserve is special. And everyone has a Reserve story to share. Why do you care about your Reserve? How has it made a difference in your life? Have a few minutes today? We want to hear your story.


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