Thursday, September 16, 2021

Making changes: A new vision for Assateague State Park

By Kate Vogel, Coastal Management Fellow

In my fellowship experience with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, I’ve truly learned the importance of collaboration. Whether I am working within different units in the DNR, or partnering with community organizations, I’ve learned that innovative partnerships are going to be the epitome of climate change adaptation and resilience. The focus of my work is to write climate change adaptation and resilience plans for three state lands: Assateague State Park, Browns Branch Wildlife Management Area, and Pocomoke State Forest. My project stemmed from maps created through a partnership with the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative at Salisbury University, which showed areas on these state lands that were vulnerable to climate change, or ranked highly in ecological value. Using these maps allowed me to guide conversations with land managers to identify problem areas and adaptation opportunities on site. Assateague State Park, despite being the smallest of the three, has proven to have a wide variety of areas where climate change is a concern.

Climate vulnerability map for Assateague. Climate vulnerability is on the left, and ecological value is on the right, with darker colors representing higher scores.

As I continued my research and dialogue with partners on climate change threats and opportunities for adaptation, I decided to break down climate threats by their impacts: infrastructure, natural resources, human resources, cultural resources, and recreation. Each of the sites that I am working on is very different. Browns Branch Wildlife Management Area has historically been managed as an agricultural area with a small stream running through the site. Pocomoke State Forest is 18,000 acres of non-contiguous forest lands across the eastern shore of Maryland, offering many recreational opportunities, but not many recreational facilities. Assateague on the other hand, is a two mile stretch of dunes, beaches, and campsites on the Atlantic Ocean. It receives over 700,000 visitors every year and is host to many amenities including the beach itself, a restaurant, bike paths, public restrooms, changing areas, a nature center, ranger station, and boat launches. This makes Assateague unique in terms of recreational and infrastructure challenges -- Assateague’s facilities need to support large numbers of visitors while being resilient to worsening storms, increasing hurricanes, changing wind patterns, and increasing temperatures.

Map of park regions.

I’m not a coastal engineer, nor am I a geologist who knows how Assateague’s dunes will migrate over time. The more we analyzed maps and climate threats, we realized that campsites would be underwater or under sand, and that buildings would only continue to break down as they faced the brunt of intense winds and flooding. I was able to suggest moving roads and using mobile, elevated buildings in my site plan, but without tangible graphics and a site-based analysis of feasibility, I realized I did not have much evidence for why or how we should redesign the buildings and roads to be climate resilient, especially when many of the roads were recently redesigned in 2018. I was the new girl in the office who was saying “we should change the way you have historically done everything, even though I’ve never done it before… even though repairs were just made a few years ago.”

Sand covering the walkway at Assateague State Park. Photo: Kate Vogel 

So I decided to bring solutions with the help of my mentor. She suggested we could work with the University of Maryland (UMD) Architectural Studio. They have a program, the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS), which connects students with real life projects and aims to find innovative ways to address climate change. We were able to get matched with two architectural studio classes: one to create designs for Assateague State Park’s ranger and camper registration building, which is slated to be reconstructed soon, and the other to redesign the concession stands and day use area, which also need updating. The first studio is taking place this summer, and has already been very eye opening, not only for me as it relates to my project, but for leaders in DNR Parks and Recreation, and Engineering and Construction. Good decisions take time, and that includes formulating plans to create innovative designs and determine which projects should be prioritized first over others. We were lucky in that right before the students visited Assateague, we had actually received the first draft of the state contractors’ designs for buildings. In very traditional drawings, the buildings were elevated and rectangular in addition to appearing more modern than the current building. They were exciting to see - and the students took the drawings even further.

The ranger station at Assateague State Park. 

In presentations that occurred once every 1.5 weeks, the four UMD students presented their diagrams to a multidisciplinary team of UMD professors, MD DNR staff from Engineering and Construction and Chesapeake and Coastal Services, and JRS architects. Our climate change mission at Assateague State Park is to “to conserve and foster an appreciation of the natural resources of Assateague State Park and to continue to provide substantial recreational opportunities for as long as possible in a sustainable manner.” The students rose to the challenge of making this a reality. Their ideas conceptualized dune migration over time, and they showed how it would be possible to change campground layouts without compromising campsite availability, while allowing dunes to migrate. They proposed new solutions for increasing shading in the day use area, an increasing concern of park staff as temperatures increase and heat stress becomes more common. Students identified opportunities for educational landscapes, where visitors could learn about the history of the land, dune processes, biodiversity, and more. Building designs included passive ways to harness wind and solar energy, while creating an engaging, welcoming, and natural landscape for visitors. Creative elevation designs showcased opportunities for reducing impervious surfaces and increasing ADA accessibility, so that the building will be inclusive for all guests and utilize techniques to reduce flooding on site. Building designs referenced indigenous architecture and prioritized connectivity and flow among office spaces and public spaces.

Sample graphic from Yan Konon, a student with the University of Maryland Architecture Design Studio

Credit: University of Maryland Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability

The students were able to build off of the coastal program’s climate change research by showing that it is possible to be innovative and still create feasible construction designs that will withstand a changing climate. Coming to our design teams empty-handed, and not as an engineer or architect, would have made me ill-prepared for explaining how our climate change adaptation vision could be implemented. After listening in on calls, park leadership and members of engineering and construction said the designs were “surprising” and “inspired ways for E & C to get more creative.” We were also told that an amendment to the design timeframe may allow for student designs to be considered by the professional JRS architects, and might allow for the inclusion of an educational landscape for visitor engagement, which was not originally in the design plan.

Good things take time. Good things also are made possible by collaboration and resource sharing. Climate change is going to require that we think outside of typical design requirements and recognize the need for adaptable designs. As we analyze project designs to respond to climate change, we should think about engaging new and different partners and remember that there is so much more room for creativity, connectivity, and education in our lives, as long as we embrace it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Sampling Lake St. Clair's Bioswales with Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro

By Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro

My name is Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro. I am the first (hopefully of many more) University of Detroit Mercy student to become a Michigan Sea Grant Intern.

My project evaluates levels of Fecal Indicator Bacteria (specifically E. coli and coliforms) with respect to invasive plant species in a network of bioswales at Lake St. Clair Metropark.

In 2013, Lake St. Clair underwent a 5-million-dollar green space renovation in order to create a network of 8 bioswales that would redirect stormwater runoff into Point Rosa marsh.

Bioswales are networks of green space infrastructure designed to mimic natural systems and redirect storm water runoff to Point Rosa Marsh at Lake St. Clair Metropark.

Collecting water samples and water chemistry data of bioswales-network at Lake St. Clair Metropark. Photo: Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro

Invasive plant species, Phragmites australis (Common Reed) and Hydrocharis morsus-ranae (European Frogbit) have overtaken the bioswales and marsh. We know from primary literature that invasive species can alter bacterial communities.

My research has shown that the bioswale network is failing to sustain fecal indicator bacteria levels at EPA limits for recreational water regardless of the presence or absence of invasive plants. All bioswales scored (statistically) at or above EPA limits for both E. coli and coliforms.

My project is in collaboration with Lake St. Clair Metropark and Wayne State University. One of the most enjoyable parts of my summer internship is the collaborative experience I’ve had with other researchers. 

Running into Brittany Bonnic-Khalil, lab manager at Wayne State University's HEART field station at Lake St. Clair. Photo: Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro

Analyzing IDEXX results after 24-hour incubation period. A yellow appearance in the Quanti-tray sleeve results positive for total coliforms in the sample. Photo: Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro

Using IDEXX sealer housed in WSU's HEART lab to quantify total coliforms and E. coli. Photo: Cynthia Gutierrez Navarro  

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Adventures in electrofishing: A fish modeler gets a feel for the real world

 By Emily Morgan Liljestrand, @fishmodeler

Emily with a white sucker in her net. Photo: Emily Liljestrand

My girlfriend’s primary concern was for the safety of the fish.

My biggest worry was getting electrocuted.

We were discussing my plans the following weekend to assist a colleague on an electrofishing trip. Despite the intimidating and dangerous sounding name -- spoiler alert -- no fish were harmed and no humans were shocked! Both of us, it seems, were quite ignorant of what is actually involved in this common fisheries science technique.

As a political scientist, my partner had never even heard of electrofishing, and though I am a fisheries science PhD candidate at Michigan State University, I’m more of an “indoor” researcher. My dissertation project involves re-working stock assessment models of Lake Whitefish. But when my colleague, Josh Hoekwater, asked for my help with his research on resource competition between slimy sculpin and round goby, I jumped at the opportunity to get outside for once.

If Michigan can be approximated using one’s left hand, the Jordan River is approximately at the cuticle of the ring finger. After the 3-hour drive from Lansing, we parked near a bridge overcrossing the river. While I grabbed a hand net, Josh donned his “proton-pack” style backpack electrofishing unit.

Joshua Hoekwater, doing his best ghostbusters impersonation. Photo: Emily Liljestrand

The “backpack,” seen in the picture, is connected to a handheld electrofishing wand. When Josh pulled a trigger, the metal ring of the wand would emit a low frequency and nonlethal electric current to stun fish. Reclusive tiny species like the sculpin or goby, which hide under submerged detritus, would float to the surface. That’s when I came in. Net in hand, I would spot the disoriented individuals and scoop them up before the river could carry them downstream. Once we confirmed the fish identity, we could toss them back to their homes to recover and resume their mid-day activities.

Occasionally, when I splashed my hand into the water while the electrofishing unit was active, I could feel the gentle buzzing that the fish were experiencing. Far from the sensation of touching a power outlet, the feeling conjured mental images of eating pop rocks or sitting in a vibrating massage chair. And though Josh’s pack had a heavy, scary-looking industrial battery attached to the bottom, there was a safety mechanism such that if the unit even touched the water, the entire thing would disconnect, eliminating the possibility of electrocution. Ultimately both my and my girlfriend’s worries were unfounded!
A sculpin netted by the author. Note that the two pelvic fins identify it as a sculpin, and not a round goby. Photo: Emily Liljestrand

Though Josh and I identified about five of the endangered slimy sculpins that day, no invasive round goby made it into our net (there’s always the chance that one of the few individuals that got away from me may have been the latter). This was a great finding for the environment, but a bad day for Josh. He was hoping to find sections of the river that were only occupied by sculpins, areas only populated by goby, and regions where they coexist. Once he does so, his next step is to strategically place submerged cameras to monitor how they compete for space with the long term goal of better understanding the ecosystem and how to maintain our fisheries.

So, alas, the following Monday found Josh back at the drawing board, revisiting the maps and planning new exploratory outings. And I was back to my desk, my three monitors, and my air conditioning, combing through computer code. But I was happy for the reprieve in the “real world” of fisheries science. Sometimes looking too long at numbers on a screen can make a gal forget what those numbers represent, and I was grateful for the reminder.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

An otter ate my homework: Updates from intern Rachel London

Meet Rachel London, one of Michigan Sea Grant's 2021 summer interns! Rachel is an undergraduate student at Michigan State University. This summer, she is working with the MSU Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory and Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division to explore the potential causes of reported skin lesions in smallmouth bass. Here's an update about her project:

Skin lesion on a smallmouth bass. Photo: Rachel London

I recently traveled to Sault Ste. Marie to coordinate with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I learned how to boom shock [a method of using electricity to temporarily stun and collect fish] and found 7 "amazing" lesions on 7 different fish. I utilized the non-lethal sampling techniques that I have been piloting on all 7 fish. 

Boom shocking equipment on a sampling boat. Photo: Rachel London

Unfortunately, when we returned to the net pen the next morning, 5 of the fish were missing from what we believe to be an "otter attack." So, an otter literally ate my research. Fortunately, we still lethally analyzed the remaining 2 fish, and I am hoping to return to Sault Ste. Marie again within the next few weeks to find more fish.

Ready to scoop up a fish -- or fend off an otter. Photo: Rachel London

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Work in Progress: Reflections on Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2021 and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice in the Ocean and Great Lakes Policy Sphere

By So-Jung Youn, Knauss Fellow, Policy and Constituent Affairs Division, NOAA National Ocean Service 

Note: This post was originally published on NOAA Sea Grant's Knauss blog and is republished here with the author's permission.

So-Jung Youn
Even after half a year of remote work, I still get nervous when logging onto a virtual meeting. Somehow, my internet always seems to cut out right before an important meeting or deadline. So, with a quick plea that my internet connection would remain stable, I clicked on the link for the Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2021 breakout session (Leading JEDI from Within) that I had spent weeks planning as part of my Knauss Fellowship. And...the internet held out! For a few minutes anyway. Then I lost all video input, but at least I could still hear the panelists. Such are the joys of attending a virtual conference.

Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), annually convened by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF), gathers people from around the U.S. and across sectors to engage in dialogue about how to sustain the health of our ocean and the Great Lakes. Since 2001, scientists, policymakers, scholars, businesses, and conservation leaders have attended CHOW to learn about current ocean and Great Lakes policy issues. For the past 2 years, CHOW has been a completely virtual event. 

The theme of CHOW 2021 was Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Sustaining our Ocean and Great Lakes. Over three days (June 8-10), attendees heard from diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) advocates and leaders throughout the United States, U.S. territories, and Indigenous nations. While most speakers were optimistic about current efforts and future progress, the panels highlighted how, in a lot of ways, we are still at the beginnings of DEIJ in ocean and Great Lakes spaces. Many panelists highlighted the meaningful change that could occur if each attendee decided to intentionally do one thing differently as a result of the talks they heard at CHOW. Speakers also emphasized that DEIJ is ongoing, continual work that never ends; but we shouldn’t let perfection or the fear of falling short get in the way of making progress, however small. 

Another key theme was the importance of relationships in creating change and making a difference. Many speakers discussed the importance of mentorship and support in their own journeys. They urged attendees to find someone they could mentor and influence, and most importantly, stay with those people throughout their career (Thanks to Senator Cantwell for mentioning Sea Grant’s fellowships and the need to continue growing these opportunities!). 

One of the responsibilities of my Knauss Fellowship position was to help coordinate the National Ocean Service’s (NOS) participation during Capitol Hill Ocean Week. We decided to host a panel discussion on the progress NOAA has made toward DEIJ efforts and the work that still needs to be done. The panel was moderated by Nicole LeBoeuf, the Acting Assistant Administrator for NOS, and featured DEIJ advocates and leaders throughout NOAA. The panelists noted that while DEIJ is an organizational value of NOAA that is championed at all levels, there is still work to be done in keeping individuals engaged and making sure DEIJ efforts are visible and opportunities are available to all employees. 

I’ve struggled my entire life with whether, and how, to engage with DEIJ efforts. On one side, I know firsthand the importance of being a DEIJ advocate at the individual and institutional levels. I’ve been fortunate in my opportunities because of the people who took a chance on me and the people, past and present, who worked to realize their vision of a more inclusive and equitable society than the one they live in. On the other hand, as one CHOW speaker noted, “The biggest challenge is always fighting.” DEIJ work is exhausting. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve been very involved (Asian American and Korean American groups in college, DEI committees and initiatives during grad school), and then burned out, refusing to have any involvement whatsoever. The reality, however, is that as someone whose name and appearance are obviously non-white, I always have to be a DEIJ advocate, no matter how tired I am, regardless of whether I want to be an advocate or not. And, as exhausting as that work can be, listening to the speakers at CHOW renewed my energy for engaging in DEIJ work. 

So-Jung Youn and other executive board members of the Korean American Students Association (KASA) display posters about KASA's activities and events during an event welcoming new students to the College of William and Mary.

There’s something to be said for the strength and comfort you find in being surrounded by a community that’s passionate and dedicated to the same issues you care about. Listening to these speakers, I was inspired by their stories, dedication, and perseverance. These talks reminded me of why I wanted to go to graduate school and participate in the Knauss Fellowship: my interest in human connections to our natural resources and to each other. As so many speakers emphasized, relationships should be transformational, not transactional. In looking to increase DEIJ in our own spheres, it’s important to remember that we are all where we are now because of key people in our own pasts. So that’s the message I’m taking forward from CHOW 2021: DEIJ is always a work in progress, but there’s a wide community of support out there and each person, no matter where they are in their career, can make a difference in their own spheres of influence.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Down the street from the office: A tale about teleworking and how to make new fellows feel welcome

Hello, all! My name is Kate Vogel, and in May 2020 I was paired to work with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as their Coastal Management Fellow. I had just received my M.S. in Conservation Ecology and Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, and I was eager to start something new. After a week of intense interviews, zoom calls, and pacing back and forth in the kitchen with my parents, it was my turn to hear the news… “Congratulations, you’ve been paired with Maryland DNR!” Now, a year later, I definitely feel like the luckiest fellow. Teleworking in the times of COVID isn’t easy, but with a good team, anything is possible.
Kate Vogel, Michigan Sea Grant Coastal Management Fellow

Within just a few weeks, I already felt like I was part of the team. My mentors sent me the most amazing care package -- a National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) shirt, Bergers Cookies, crab-seasoned potato chips, and a postcard with some Assateague ponies on it. I was invited to staff meetings, virtual happy hours, and even the NOAA 312 program evaluation, the five-year NOAA evaluation of the MD Coastal Program. I have to admit, at first it was nerve-wracking to show up in meetings with strangers, but the persistence of my mentors in introducing me to people, asking for my opinions in meetings, and treating me as an equal has been the key to my success. Everyone always has their cameras on in meetings, they never fail to introduce their pets, and they love asking questions about Michigan and sharing their own experiences in our beautiful state. Before I had even moved to Annapolis, it felt like I was starting to recognize people’s faces… my new coworkers even noticed when I got a haircut!

At Assateague Island National Seashore in March to learn about their adaptation efforts.

When I finally moved to Annapolis, I realized I was just a ten-minute walk away from my office, which was my dream, but we were still teleworking. Nevertheless, on my first day of work in August I picked out a cubicle, worked with IT to get my laptop set up, ordered supplies, and explored Annapolis with my fellowship mentor. Working from home in a new state with a new job can be lonely, but starting my job already knowing some of my coworkers has completely changed the experience for me. Since starting, my mentors and coworkers have made it a priority to introduce me to new projects and opportunities in addition to my fellowship project. My main assignment is to write climate change adaptation and resilience plans for Assateague State Park, Pocomoke State Forest, and Browns Branch Wildlife Management area. I am really lucky in that I have been able to go on some incredible site visits to these areas to learn more about the climate change threats and opportunities, in addition to going on monthly hikes with my mentors. Other projects that I have gotten to work on include designing a “Walktober” campaign, planning Nature Play and NatureCity Conferences, participating in the Maryland Commission on Climate Change and in climate change coordination meetings, and many more! Having multiple responsibilities has made me feel very valued as someone new to the unit, and has given me the opportunity to learn about all of the great projects DNR works on!

Often, I am asked what starting a new job virtually was like and how people can support new hires virtually. In my office, we might not go back to work until late fall or early next year, so I think there is a lot of value in asking these questions. Here are my tips:

For Fellows

For Mentors

  • Sign up for new opportunities 

  • Go to the virtual coffee chats, happy hours, etc… even if you don’t participate, it’s great for associating people’s faces with their names! 

  • Research who you are working with to familiarize yourself with the work of your coworkers

  • Ask questions! 

  • Invite your fellows to everything and anything 

  • Use your cameras in meetings

  • Reach out to your new hires and check in on how they are doing, professionally and personally 

  • Introduce new employees to your coworkers! My mentors have done this via 20-minute “hallway chats”

I now live even closer to my office than I did before, and I am grateful to know that when we get to work in-person again I won’t feel like a stranger. Instead, I’ll get to walk by friends and coworkers as I walk down the decorated hallway to my cubicle that overlooks the garden. Starting a new job during a pandemic wasn’t easy, but seeing the development of my climate change plans and getting to collaborate with 25+ people on a new project for the state has been totally worth it, and I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

From Finalist to Fellow: The beginning of my Knauss journey by So-Jung Youn

My name is So-Jung Youn and, starting February 2021, I will be part of the newest cohort of John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellows. I’m currently a PhD candidate at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. My advisor is Dr. William W. Taylor and my dissertation research is focused on the ecosystem services that the lake whitefish commercial fishery provides to Great Lakes coastal communities in Michigan.

Whether in the field or at outreach events, fisheries biologists like So-Jung often spend plenty of time outdoors. Photo: Julia Whyte

Ever since I heard about the Knauss Fellowship from previous Fellows in my graduate lab, back in 2013 when I first started graduate school, I was interested in working with Sea Grant locally (Michigan Sea Grant) and nationally, hoping one day to become a Knauss Fellow myself. The first step toward that goal was getting selected as a 2021 Knauss Finalist. While Placement Week sounds like it’s always an intense experience, this year’s shift to an all-virtual setting presented some unique moments. After navigating the challenges of technology glitches, random interruptions in internet connectivity, and the fatigue of staring at a screen for hours, I was placed with the Office of Policy and Constituent Affairs in NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS). I’ll be working with Glenn Boledovich as an Ocean and Coastal Policy Analyst.

I’m very excited to be a Knauss Fellow and hope the experience will further my interest in how science is translated into policy creation and implementation in order to enhance and conserve our natural resources. While I’ve had some exposure to this process during my graduate school experiences, the Knauss Fellowship will give me the opportunity to observe, and engage with, the process at the federal level. For my career goals, my host office seems like the perfect fit.

I’m excited to start this position and learn more about policy at both the executive and legislative levels of the federal government. And of course, I’m excited to hopefully meet my host office, as well as my Knauss cohort, in person later this upcoming year. 

Lake whitefish, which So-Jung studies, are an important native species in the Great Lakes. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant