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Diving Deeper: Recreation in our Nation's Estuaries

Episode 42 (September 26, 2012)

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Today we will talk about some of the many recreation activities available in America's Great Outdoors, specifically our National Estuarine Research Reserves. From kayaking to boating to swimming and fishing, our nation's coastal waters are a great source of recreational opportunities.

To help us explore this topic, today we will be joined by Laurie McGilvray. Laurie is the Chief for the Estuarine Reserves Division with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. Hi Laurie, welcome to our show.

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Thank you, it's great to be here.

HOST: Laurie to start our little chat today, can you remind everyone what an estuary is and why it's important?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, we like to say, estuaries are where rivers meet the sea. And I guess if you're in the Great Lakes, it where rivers meet the large water bodies of the Great Lakes. But it's really where there's mixing between that freshwater system that comes from the land and the salty ocean water from the sea or those big Great Lakes waters. But that's kind of how you think about it technically.

Another way to think about it is, probably many of your listeners have been to the coast, they've been to the beach, Ocean City Maryland or Atlantic City, New Jersey. And when you're going to the beach, often times, you're driving over a long bridge and there's this kind of marshy area as you look out both sides of the car and that's an estuary! Where that sort of marshy area where the rivers come in and meet the sea, but that's not how all estuaries look. Some have mangroves in them, some look a lot different, almost like the ocean. And it really just depends on where you are around the country.

HOST: Great, thank you. So, can you tell us, I mentioned this in my introduction, about the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and the role of your office, the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, with that system?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, the Estuarine Reserve System is a network of 28 coastal, protected areas around the country that are set aside for long-term research and education. And it's under what we call the Coastal Zone Management Act that has a way of comprehensively managing coastal places. And it's a partnership between our agency and office NOAA and coastal states to really help with the protection and management of coastal areas.

HOST: So you mentioned that there's 28 of these reserve sites and you said that they're kind of all throughout the country. Can you tell us a little bit about, are they different, are they all the same?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Every one is wonderful and different. Absolutely. They're setting aside about 1.3 million acres of coastal lands and waters, but they can range in size from just over 500 acres in Ohio to 365,000 acres in Alaska. And so the range is not just in size. Each one is completely different in terms of size, the way it looks, and even the partners that we work with there.

HOST: So Laurie, what is the purpose then of the reserves? You talked a little bit about some of the land that these encompass, is it more that these sites are designated for conservation and preservation of coastal lands and coastal areas or is it used more for research?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: So certainly, Estuarine Research Reserves conserve and set aside and protect really important habitat on the coast, but they are so much more than that. They are what we call living laboratories places that reserve staff and other scientists can learn about these really important coastal systems.

But we don't just stop there at learning about them, we have other really great ways of sharing that information with all kinds of different people whether students and teachers or the public and also what we call coastal decision makers, those are the sorts of folks that may work at the county or city level or with state agencies that make decisions that affect coastal resources. Even a landscaper or a farmer can be a coastal decision maker in the way that they do things that affect coastal resources.

HOST: So Laurie, from what we've talked about so far today and about the reserves, would you say, are reserves like national or state parks that we might visit?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, it's funny you should ask that because some look a lot like parks, they may even seem in many ways like parks where the public can go and visit them and learn about them, but they really are so much more than that. Because they're set aside for long-term research and education, it isn't just about conservation or the kind of recreational experience that people can get there, it's really about that deeper understanding of why these places are important and then sharing what we've learned with all kinds of different people.

HOST: Thanks so much for everything you've done to kind of explain to us what the Reserve System is like how many reserves there are, where they're located, but let's go back to our topic today which is recreation and just talk a little bit about that. Can folks visit the reserves?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Absolutely. That's one of the important aspects of it is the public has to be able to access these. These are a public resource. So most reserves actually have a visitor's center or interpretive center where the public can go and you can actually go to our website and find out about where they're located and how to get there.

HOST: Laurie, you just mentioned to us about visitor centers at some of the reserve sites. Do all of the reserve sites have visitor centers or can you just tell us a little bit about what these are like?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, almost every reserve has some kind of visitor education/interpretive center that's a way to introduce the public to the reserve. But the other cool thing about their facilities is they actually use them as a way to teach about different subject matter so they may have exhibits in them that are very interactive, they may have trails and interpretive displays and then some of them increasingly have used the way they design and build their buildings to teach about the things that are important for protecting estuaries. So they may have rain gardens or native plant gardens or other kinds of ways of building their buildings in a sustainable way with solar power, geo-thermal energy that's really teaching the community about how to build and live sustainably.

HOST: And when you say teaching the community, I imagine there's a lot of good educational activities that go on at these visitor centers. Are they more activities that are geared towards a K-12 classroom and a teacher going in there with a student or do the staff really interact with everybody and just families that might come through on a weekend? What kind of activities do they do?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, it varies from reserve to reserve, but in really all cases, they are interacting with a formal education audience, so that's students, that's teachers, some do a lot with students and have programs almost throughout the year. Others may spend more of their time training teachers and then they can bring that information back in the classroom.

But then as I said, they interact with the general public. And I was just looking through different reserve's websites and seeing the amazing things that they offer in the summer and it's everything from guided hikes to seining/pulling a dip net to learn what's in the water, or bird walks early in the morning, or lectures from some of the scientists on what they're doing. So, lots of really cool stuff to do at reserves.

HOST: Great, I'm ready to get out there myself. Sounds wonderful, thank you. So Laurie, can you tell us a little bit about the staff that are at the reserves that are working out there for us every day?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well Kate, I have to say that the people that we work with in reserves are some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated people I've ever met. They actually don't work for NOAA, they're state or university employees, but we have a great working relationship. And so they range from the kind of people who are doing the science themselves to being educators to stewardship coordinators who are actually managing the land or removing invasive species.

And then there's a whole other group of folks that we don't necessarily think of as staff at reserves, but they're a really important part and that's the volunteers. It's amazing at how much time people will give to working in the gift shop or leading tours and being docents of the program. And their level of dedication is amazing, I've actually met volunteers that worked in New Hampshire at the Great Bay Reserve, but they winter in Florida, there they were at one of our reserves near Jacksonville. So, they're enthusiastic partners in the system as well.

HOST: Very good. It's good you have that strong network of people that are out there helping to keep things going day to day. I'm sure that this also varies quite a bit by site, but what are some of the recreational activities that folks might be able to engage in at some of the reserves?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, interestingly, I think all reserves have birds, so if you're a birder, reserves can just be amazing places to go experience and watch birds. But then a lot of them too because they're estuaries and water, you can get on the water and experience kayaking, canoeing, being out in small boats, some reserves actually do tours on the water, and when you're on the water you can also do fishing or other kinds of activities.

HOST: And Laurie because these are protected areas, as we've talked a little bit about, are there some things that people shouldn't expect to be able to do when they're visiting the reserves?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, probably like other protected areas or parks, removing plants or animals that are restricted, probably each of the reserves have some kind of restriction on that. But then there may be unique things to the sites that they may cordon off an area during a bird nesting season or a turtle nesting. So there may be some restrictions and really the best thing to do is contact the reserve directly and find out what things that they do encourage folks to do and things that they might have more restrictions on.

HOST: Do you know approximately how many people visit the 28 reserve sites each year?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: For the visitor centers we think around 600,000 people visit the visitor centers, but that's really only a fraction of the folks who experience the reserve. We think there's well in excess of one million people who enjoy and experience the reserve, whether it's on land or on water.

HOST: That's wonderful, that is quite a number. So far you've taken us through a lot of the different recreational activities that folks might be enjoying when they come and visit the reserves. My next question for you is more on the impact that the reserves have to the local economy, to that local business community. How does the local economy and businesses in the community, how do they benefit from having the reserves there?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, that's a great question and I'd say probably in two ways the business community in and around reserves benefit from having a reserve in their community. The first way is really very directly in those businesses that enable the public to get on the water. So lots of reserves have eco-tour operators that may rent kayaks or boats or actually take people out to experience the resources of the reserve and they're great partners with the reserve and they work really closely.

But then the second way is kind of an interesting one where by bringing science to different businesses in the community they're actually fostering best practices that may have an economic benefit to the business. One example that comes to mind is landscapers around Rookery Bay in Naples, Florida. They were trained and had their staff trained and certified in application of fertilizers and how to have best practices in lawn care and it actually ending up saving the company money so really in two ways they're benefiting the community.

HOST: That's wonderful, thank you. I imagine that your answer to my next question has a lot to do with location and accessibility, but I'm curious out of your 28 sites what is the most frequently visited reserve site?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Frequently visited. Well, it does vary probably by proximity to urban areas and how accessible reserves are, so I would probably guess that the most visited reserves are, or among them are the, Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve that's near St. Augustine, Florida, or the Kachemak Bay Reserve in Homer, Alaska, which just has an amazing facility, or perhaps the Tijuana River Reserve in San Diego, California.

HOST: And Laurie, since we have listeners from all over the country who tune into our podcast, and some of our listeners today might not be able to travel to a reserve site, is there a way that they can experience the reserves?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, one great way I might suggest is our more educational website,, has a fantastic video collection. So they're both videos that kind of tell the reserve story in total, but a lot of also little different snipets and clips and that'll give you images and a sense of what reserves look like and what kinds of things happen there and what's important to the reserves.

HOST: Laurie, on a more personal note and given your role, what is your favorite recreational activity at one of the reserves?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Well, it's like asking me what my favorite ice cream is or which one of my daughters is my favorite daughter those are really hard questions to answer! So I'd probably talk about two that I've spent the most time or really had the most personal experience with. One would be canoeing at the Maryland Reserve on the Chesapeake Bay, Jug Bay. It's only about 20 miles from where we work in Silver Spring, so it feels like it's the reserve in our backyard. It's a beautiful system with wild rice and freshwater wetland plants and a great place to canoe.

But then the other one that I have a real soft spot for is the ACE Basin Reserve in South Carolina because I had the opportunity to spend some time there and going out and seeing the wood storks flying across the reserve in the early morning and getting to look at birds is something really special.

HOST: Great, thank you. And Laurie, my last question for you today, do you have any final, closing words to leave our listeners with?

LAURIE MCGILVRAY: Kate, you know I might actually end where I started and that's to hope that listeners really take the time, that we piqued their interest, and that they'll learn something about estuaries. They're really special places and I think often people think about the beach, but they don't necessarily think about those really wonderful places that are behind or near the beach. So I'm hoping folks will take the time to learn a little bit more and then just get out there and visit them if you have a chance. They're incredible places, they're wonderful opportunities for learning and you and your children can get really excited about science and the outdoors and research reserves are just a wonderful place to do that.

HOST: Great. Well, thanks Laurie for joining us today on Diving Deeper and talking about recreation and our National Estuarine Research Reserves. To learn more, please visit the site that Laurie mentioned,

That's all for today's show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if you're on social media, don't forget you can find us, it's usoceangov, on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. We will be taking a short break from Diving Deeper for the remainder of 2012. Please join us again in 2013 for more interviews on the ocean topics and information that are important to you.