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!
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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