Talk NERRdy to Me: Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers
Talk NERRdy to Me follows leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. In early March, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Tonna-Marie Surgeon Rogers, manager and acting CTP coordinator at the Waquoit Bay Reserve.
Nik: You are now officially, instead of acting, manager at Waquoit Bay NERR. Are you sorry?
Tonna-Marie: Haha! There’s a piece of me that’s sorry about moving away from the Coastal Training Program, but I’ve discovered there’s a lot of “being out with the people” and “meeting needs” in this position, too. Meeting the needs of staff and the Reserve requires using a CTP skillset, as does working with partners. I’m truly honored to have this new opportunity to work with my colleagues to do good things for the Reserve and the communities we serve.
Nik: You’re still facilitating the solving of problems.
Tonna-Marie: Yeah! And there’s a whole lot of collaboration that happens at the manager level, which is a big piece of how CTP carries out work. And I’m still actually serving as CTP Coordinator too, which makes this period a bit of a crazy time. But so far, I like it.
Nik: Have you cut out sleep, or have you cut out family? [Ed.: Interview completed pre-pandemic.]
Tonna-Marie: Haven’t cut out either, but I’m definitely time-deprived in both areas! I’m hoping we can bring on a great CTP coordinator in the near future.
Nik: Does Cape Cod really need a Coastal Training Program? I was just down there for a regional meeting; it seems pretty nice.
Tonna-Marie: Cape Cod is wonderful. The weather is beautiful, the landscape is beautiful, the people are great. But it’s no different from other areas—communities are struggling to address coastal management challenges. For example, on the Cape, the impact of pollution is evident in many ways, and the CTP is targeting this and other environmental challenges the region is dealing with. We bring science that can help inform solutions—the work is definitely needed.
Nik: What are some of those challenges?
Tonna-Marie: Degradation of water quality is a big one. The impact on our beaches, bays and ponds is huge and it’s not good for tourism on which the region’s economy depends. And it’s not good for year-round residents either. We’re also thinking about coastal resilience and reducing disaster risk, how we prepare our communities to deal with extreme weather events and other climate impacts.
Nik: Have people been asking for these workshops more over your decade on the Cape?
Tonna-Marie: Definitely! We’ve become a recognized and trusted source for high-quality trainings and workshops. People look to the Reserve to provide educational programs that help to advance their learning and they ask us for them. This happens formally and informally. There’s a lot of word of mouth. And we’re linked into a whole network with our community partners so we can keep a finger on the pulse of community needs.
Nik: So even if you can’t do it yourselves, you can connect people to those who can. And solutions take this full-court press from all these different disciplines?
Tonna-Marie: Yes, I love the “full-court press.” We’re focused on helping communities address problems, not just telling them the problems exist, but really bringing them information on the pros and cons of different solutions. And we’re also a place to test potential solutions as well. When you can say “ok, we tested this at the Reserve, or in this town, and this is what the research shows,” decision-makers respond to that. Making things locally relevant is so important.
Nik: Local people want local solutions. How does that inform one of the Waquoit Bay Reserve’s most well-known projects, Bringing Wetlands to Market? And, more importantly, how much can I sell our marshes for?
Tonna-Marie: That project helped to launch innovative science and tools related to carbon and greenhouse gases in coastal wetlands. These can be applied nationally and even internationally, but it all started by doing investigations right here at the Reserve and then in other places on the Cape.
All of this helped to build awareness of blue carbon and highlight how it can be used as a driver to restore wetlands. One of the many benefits of wetlands is that they store carbon and help to mitigate climate change. When we began the project years ago this was an under recognized benefit. Combined with all the other services wetlands provide, man, are these places important to conserve and restore!
Nik:You grew up on the wonderful island of Jamaica. How did you get to Cape Cod?
Tonna-Marie: I met my husband while I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, and after graduation he moved to Cape Cod for work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After we got married, I moved here from Jamaica.
Nik: But wait, how do you get from Jamaica to Connecticut? I’m from Connecticut, I would want to be anywhere but there.
Tonna-Marie: When I finished my undergraduate studies in Jamaica, I received a Fulbright Ecology Scholarship, and I was matched with U Conn to carry out my graduate studies which was a great fit. I had an interest in working on a topic that could be relevant in the U.S. and the Caribbean as well. And that was water quality.
Nik: What’s your first water quality memory?
Tonna-Marie: As an undergrad I studied marine ecology. In one of our field trips on the Jamaican coast I was able to view pristine places, but I was also able to see first hand the negative impact of pollution on water quality and on our beautiful beaches and coral reefs. I realized how badly pollution could affect Jamaica which also has a tourism dependent economy. Seeing that real-time was really powerful. It gave birth to a desire in me to help solve these kinds of problems.
Nik: What do you tell your kids about what you do?
Tonna-Marie: They think I’m in meetings a lot. They’re like, “another meeting, mom?” I tell them I love science, I love the environment, and my work is to bring people together to use science to understand how the environment is doing and how we can take care of it better because our lives depend on a healthy environment. When I bring them to the Reserve with me, they can see some of the issues I work on and I ask them, “how do you think you would address this problem?” And it immediately becomes a very complicated conversation.
Nik: You immediately have a meeting!
Tonna-Marie: We have a meeting! I was telling my son about the Bringing Wetlands to Market Project recently as we were doing a walk near a salt marsh, and I said, ‘Actually, Colby, this project has been going on for 9 years.’ And he’s nine, and he said, ‘You’ve been working on this project for as long as I’ve been alive and you never told me!?’ That was a really poingnant moment for me. It just struck me. So I seized the moment to tell him about blue carbon. He thought it was pretty cool.
Nik: Lightning round. I’ve heard that you sing. You’re in a choir?
Tonna-Marie: Yes, I sing. From an early age I was involved in choral singing.
Nik: C-O-R-A-L or choral?
Tonna-Marie: Choral, yes, in my church. I’m not in a formal choir now, but I still sing; it brings me immense joy. I’m exploring singing with my teenage daughter. That’s been a treat.
Nik: Favorite animal?
Tonna-Marie: I don’t know if I have one… but I really like otters, I think they’re so funny.
Nik: Everyone always says @#$#$ otters. I’m done doing these interviews. Salty or fresh?
Nik: You have four names. I always meant to ask about that. You have the longest email on the NERRS list.
Tonna-Marie: It’s true. And that’s not even counting my middle name.
Nik: What’s your middle name?
Tonna-Marie: Oh, it’s atrocious.
Nik: Tonna-Marie Atrocious Surgeon Rogers, thank you so much for talking with us.