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.”

Resilient Fisheries, Resilient Alaska

Resilient Fisheries, Resilient Alaska

At the Kachemak Bay Reserve, Alaskan fishermen and their families discover how landscape impacts on salmon affect their livelihood.

Seafood directly engages more workers than any other industry in Alaska, employing on average 56,800 people each year. As in many natural resource dependent industries, fisheries jobs are threatened by the impacts of climate change. When the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, it underscored the need for Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve to help these businesses build their current and future resilience, not only in the face of climate change, but other disasters.

“The COVID-19 crisis hit hard and taught us many things about the importance of emergency preparedness and resilience,” says Coowe Walker, manager of the Reserve. “We know that even as we recover from the pandemic, there will be other challenges, many driven by climate change. By helping fisheries-dependent businesses build resilience now, we all can better weather these challenges and keep Alaskan communities healthy and thriving.”

Salmon spend their juvenile phase in small upland streams, including those conserved and protected by the Reserve.

Fish Need Land Too!

Alaska’s salmon—a $744 million harvest in 2020—are caught at sea, but they begin their lives in small upland streams, some only a foot wide. Juvenile salmon can spend three years in these habitats, where they are vulnerable to the impacts of development and other human activities. For many fishermen who rely on a healthy fishery for their livelihood, this was a threat they didn’t see coming.

“We realized many fishermen had never seen a baby salmon before,” says Walker. “Most had no idea their industry depends on what we do as individuals on the landscape.”

In response, the Reserve partnered with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to launch Fish Need Land Too—a field-based program that helps fishermen and other community members understand the impact of land use on salmon, the most valuable catch in Alaskan waters. 

Through this program, the team has provided how many fishermen—including members of the Alaska Fishermen’s Network, United Fishermen, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association—with an up close look at juvenile salmon in their natural habitat. Guided by the same Reserve naturalists who monitor and study these streams, these trips are an opportunity to hear about the latest science on the health of the fishery and how conservation can protect salmon at a critical point in their life cycle.

Members of the North Pacific Fisheries Association were so inspired by their experience  that they purchased conservation land to protect salmon spawning streams.

“Because Alaska has little regulation, much of the resilience work is driven by grassroots action,” says Walker. “That’s what our programs inspire. We see fishermen say to their kids, ‘this is your future, you’re going to catch this in a few years.’ As a Reserve we want to be here to support these families, and the salmon, long into the future.”

The Reserve coordinates a network of volunteers who monitor shellfish for toxins.

Keeping Tabs on HABs

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS) are an increasing concern in Alaska, and the state saw its first paralytic shellfish poisoning fatality in more than a decade last year. The impacts of HABs on shellfish threaten public health and Alaska’s economy, which includes an estimated $12.8 million in output related to the annual commercial and wild shellfish harvest. 

The Kachemak Bay Reserve initiated an ongoing HABs community monitoring  program that is helping citizens, businesses, and the state respond to the challenge. When the flow of imported food to Alaska became restricted due to the pandemic, the Reserve joined with the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the Alaska Ocean Observing System to form the statewide Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network. This collaboration is helping to understand and track HABs and their impacts on a harvest that yields 36 million pounds of wild food annually.  

The Reserve also works with local shellfish growers, tribes, and resource managers to support phytoplankton monitoring, shellfish sampling, workshops, risk communication training, public service announcements, and weekly monitoring reports

Understanding Risk, Preparing for the Future

Harmful algal blooms, ocean acidification, increasing water temperatures—the impacts of climate change are reshaping Alaska’s coasts at a speed that makes it hard for the state’s many fisheries-dependent businesses to adapt. Yet in a recent CNBC survey, only eight percent of local business owners considered the environment critical to their bottomline.Thanks to the Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Fisheries Resilience Index project, awareness of these risks, and what to do to prepare for them, is growing.

“At least 40 percent of small businesses never open their doors again following a natural disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” observes Walker. “Fishermen, processing plants, restaurants, aquaculture farms—when these businesses suffer so do the surrounding communities. This project is about strengthening local fishery-related businesses so they can continue to buoy communities in the face of natural disasters.”

This need rose to the top in a series of climate resilience workshops hosted by the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program in 2016 and 2017.  These conversations underscored how important it is for fisheries-dependent businesses to have the tools to understand and plan for the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

Through the Fisheries Resilience Index, businesses conduct a self-assessment focused on locally-specific issues and relevant science. This process helps them predict whether they are prepared to maintain operations during and after disasters.  

Originally developed by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, this process was adapted for Alaska communities through a grant from the NERRS Science Collaborative. It was adapted for Alaska based through a series of focus groups with industry leaders, resource managers, business owners, non-profits, and resilience experts, and shared through workshops and trainings. 

Bipartisan Digital Coast Act Passes

Bipartisan Digital Coast Act Passes

On December 3rd, the bipartisan Digital Coast Act, introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (WI) and Lisa Murkowski (AK), passed the Senate. This action was taken after last month’s House vote to pass this bill, after previously passing a House bill sponsored by Representatives Dutch Ruppersberger (MD) and Don Young (AK). This act will help communities along the coasts of the oceans and Great Lakes better prepare for storms, cope with varying water levels and strengthen economic development. The bill now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

“The risk of coastal floods for our most vulnerable communities is on track to triple by 2050,” says Rebecca Roth, executive director of NERRA. “The Digital Coast Act will ensure that critical information is not only available to coastal communities around the country, but also reaching the communities and people who need it so they are better prepared to manage this risk. We are deeply grateful to Senators Baldwin (WI), Murkowski (AK), Sullivan (AK), and Cantwell (WA) and to Representatives Ruppersberger (MD), Young (AK), Huffman (CA), Bishop (UT) and Gonzalez-Colon (PR) for supporting this important legislation.”

The Digital Coast, hosted by NOAA, is a collaborative and publicly accessible online database of the most up-to-date coastal data and tools. NERRA, along with seven other non-profits, are part of the Digital Coast Partnership, which ensures that its operation is of the greatest use to the NERRS and the communities we serve.

The Digital Coast Act will authorize the next phase in coastal mapping at NOAA, critical information to address bluff erosion, high lake levels, and economic development needs. The bill also supports enhancing the current database to increase access to uniform, up-to-date data to support emergency response, long-term coastal resilience, and water resource management.

“The Digital Coast Partnership is government done right,” says Roth. “It provides statutory authority for a proven approach to creating community access to data, planning tools, and training that improves the capacity and skills needed to enhance our collective resilience and better manage our nation’s estuaries.”

Indigenous Knowledge Nourishes Restaurant Workers

Indigenous Knowledge Nourishes Restaurant Workers

Pictured: ‘Ulu (breadfruit) waffles were one of dozens of delicious recipes created with ingredients from Heʻeia Reserve as part of a new professional development program for food service workers impacted by COVID-19. Recipe and photo by Dilyuns Michael.

Food, land, and people are closely interwoven in the mission of Hawaiʻi’s Heʻeia Reserve. Now a new Reserve program is tying these threads together to help food service workers who have been hit hard  by the COVID-19 pandemic with a training on  the history, production, and use of Indigenous foods and the invasive species that compete with them. From mangrove-smoked Samoan crab chowder to ‘ulu custard pie, their work has our mouths watering!

The seven-week professional development program provided 15 participants with education on Indigenous cuisine including history, cultural practices, cultivation and harvesting techniques, and methods to prepare and preserve foods. Students worked with Indigenous cuisine experts, including Native Hawaiian agriculture and aquaculture practitioners. 

Each week focused on a different ingredient sourced within the bounds of the Heʻeia Reserve. Participants picked up the ingredient and then attended a virtual education session and cooking demonstration. From there, they used the ingredient and their newfound knowledge to develop a recipe of their own. The final weeks of the course were focused on refining these recipes for inclusion in a special, limited-run cookbook.

Two dishes created by Alicia Nunez, a program participant. Left:‘Ulu (breadfruit) tostada. Right: Samoan crab pasta.

“What I enjoyed most was being able to handle fresh, native Hawaiian ingredients that I have never handled before,” says one participant. “I cleaned and cooked my own he’e, ku’i’d my own kalo, and gutted my own kākū for the first time. I have always wanted to cook with these ingredients and this course allowed me the opportunity to do that, as well as share my experiences with others.”

The food service industry has been one of the hardest hit in Hawaiʻi during the pandemic, with a 58% loss of full-time employees between January and April 2020. In addition to professional development, the program aims to support employee retention within the industry, increase public understanding of local foods, and strengthen partnerships between Indigenous food practitioners and local restaurants. By providing a stipend to participants, they also provided a short-term source of income to workers facing unemployment or underemployment due to the pandemic.

“Many of these workers interact with huge numbers of people, including tourists, and are then able to share the knowledge they have gained of this food with others,” says Katy Hintzen, coastal training program coordinator at the Reserve. “They act as informal educators by introducing and explaining native foods and preparation techniques to the public.”

The Heʻeia Reserve education and coastal training programs developed the program in partnership with Paepae o Heʻeia, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, and the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program.

“This course took a lot of different skill sets, backgrounds, and networks to pull off,” says Fred Reppun. “The Reserve is set up as an organization that can bring all those different peoplewe’re able to be the connector between the Heʻeia community, academia, funding partners, and nonprofit partners.”

Revitalizing Indigenous food systems and associated food culture is a central component of coastal and marine conservation in the Hawaiian Islands. 

“The connection between local and indigineous foods and conservation at Heʻeia is really tight,” says Hintzen. “Not only did this program let us support the restaurant industry, but it also perpetuates the cultivation of Indigenous food at Heʻeia.”

Left: Hawaiian he’e (octopus) was one ingredient program participants learned to prepare. Photo by Alicia Yamachika. Right: Samoan crab and seaweed ramen, a dish of invasive species created by Dilyuns Michael.

Shellfish Monitoring Goes Statewide

Shellfish Monitoring Goes Statewide

Rose Masui, harmful algal bloom monitoring program coordinator at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve, trains Naomi McMullen of Port Graham, Alaska on phytoplankton sample collection protocols.

The impact of the Kachemak Bay Reserve’s harmful algal bloom (HAB) monitoring program has spread far beyond the shores of the bay. In addition to ongoing community monitoring, the Reserve has been facilitating the statewide Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network over the past year, which provides educational resources and public service announcements and facilitates connections between public health officials, social service workers, and communities from the Arctic to Southeast Alaska.

“In 2016, I was having to call as far away as North Carolina for the support we needed,” says Rose Masui, who directs the Reserve’s program. “Now, we can easily connect people with someone locally who can answer their questions if they feel sick or notice something strange.”

Consumers of HAB-affected shellfish can experience paralytic shellfish poisoning with symptoms that include tingling, lightheadedness, numbness, and even death. The impacts on shellfish threaten public health as well as the state’s economy. Alaskan shellfish generate an estimated $12.8 billion in economic output and 36 million pounds in recreational and subsistence harvest each year.

This year saw Alaska’s first paralytic shellfish poisoning fatality in over a decade. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed incredible strain on public health officials, making the Reserve’s work more vital than ever. Alaska is the only Pacific coastal state without a state government-administered monitoring program.

“With the lack of a statewide monitoring program, there would be no information going to communities about the safety of wild shellfish in Alaska if our program, and others like it, were not operating,” says Masui. “We want to work with and support state efforts, and we want to do whatever we can to keep people safe.”

“We try to help by providing resources to warn people as harmful algal blooms spread to new communities, many of which are very isolated. If something happens, you want to make sure the word gets out, but also that communities have something they can do about it.”

Kachemak Bay Reserve staff partner with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to collect razor clams for toxin analysis in Lower Cook Inlet.

Supported by 25 community monitors, the Reserve publishes weekly monitoring reports for communities, the state’s shellfish-poisoning communication team, and recreational and subsistence shellfish consumers. During a harmful algal bloom event in 2017—which saw the most toxic shellfish ever recorded in Kachemak Bay—the Reserve was able to issue an early warning for Homer Harbor. While there were six reported illnesses potentially connected to poisoned shellfish, experts suggest it may have been much worse without the warnings.

“We’re grateful to be community monitors—it’s become an important resource for us to learn more about the health of our environment and subsistence resources,” says Stephen Payton, a community monitor with the Seldovia Village Tribe.

As with so many Reserves, Kachemak Bay’s work would not be possible without partnership. In addition to the community monitors and partners within the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network, the Reserve partners with the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation on their HAB programs. 

The program is also supported by researchers from other states: “Impacts of HABs include fish die-off and seizures in marine mammals,” says Masui. “We’ve seen that in California and now we’re seeing it in Alaska, too. We have researchers from other places who tell us what we should look for and provide information about the impacts beyond shellfish.”

“The Reserve is a really great unique resource, but we don’t do this alone,” says Masui. “We’re a Research Reserve—I’m not a nurse! We’re able to do this work partly because we are a monitoring resource, but largely because we partner so heavily. Everyone benefits.”

Role Play Accelerates Climate Action

Role Play Accelerates Climate Action

Participants roleplay community climate action in South Carolina.

In South Carolina’s Georgetown County, climate action takes a village. Supported by the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve and partners, more than 300 community members came together in role play workshops to better understand risks like intensifying storms, rising sea levels, and extreme heat—and weigh the trade-offs of various policy solutions. 

“This training was eye-opening for me,” says Yolanda McCray, a workshop participant and president of the Georgetown community nonprofit Black River United Way. “I remember saying, ‘What are they going to do about it?’ but quickly, in the simulations, ‘they’ became ‘me!’”

For a community that has endured increasing high tide flooding, thousand-year-rainfalls, and Hurricanes Matthew, Irma, and Florence in the last four years alone, solidifying community understanding and participation in climate action is more vital than ever.

“That’s what this was all about,” adds McCray. “We’re able to create a vision and come together and work together and find a solution that is not only beneficial for the other, but beneficial for the whole.”

The workshops immersed participants in fictional Riverway County, where they role played a realistic climate planning process informed by climate projection data at a relevant scale and a consensus-based approach. The Georgetown Climate Adaptation Project team led the workshops, which were adapted from a model first used by the New England Climate Change Adaptation Project and funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative.

For many, the experience helped demystify the role of government in hazard planning as well as foster empathy across community divides. Relationships forged during the workshops enabled the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Research Reserve to craft a resilience training for the Georgetown County Department of Public Services that made emergency response and planning abilities even stronger.

Other communities can use the project’s simulation tools and briefing document to fine-tune their own hazard planning processes.

The workshop team included the NOAA-sponsored Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments and Georgetown RISE, which was recently designated a United Nations Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. The work was sponsored by the NERRS Science Collaborative, a program that’s managed in partnership with the University of Michigan.

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