Elkhorn Slough scientist Kerstin Wasson honored as 'wetland hero'

An adjunct professor at UC Santa Cruz, Wasson will receive the 2018 National Wetlands Award for Scientific Research

Kerstin Wasson

Kerstin Wasson with a sea hare at Elkhorn Slough Reserve. (Photo by Kiliii Yuyan/ESF)

Kerstin Wasson, research coordinator for the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) and adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, will receive the 2018 National Wetlands Award for Science Research, to be presented by the Environmental Law Institute in a ceremony May 9 at the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C. The prestigious award recognizes Wasson’s extraordinary commitment to the conservation and restoration of our nation’s wetlands.

“The recipients of the National Wetlands Awards are on the forefront of protecting wetland resources in the face of development and climate impacts,” said Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute. “Through their dedication and achievements, they inspire wetlands protection across the country and worldwide.”

For more than 18 years, Wasson has distinguished herself as a researcher, conservationist, and mentor at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, one of California’s few remaining coastal wetlands and the largest tract of tidal salt marsh south of San Francisco Bay, and as a leader of collaborative projects that span the network of National Estuarine Research Reserves.

Secret weapon

“We have a secret weapon to help protect our nation’s estuaries—Kerstin Wasson,” said Elkhorn Slough Reserve manager Dave Feliz. “She thinks deeply about estuarine issues, initiates and implements investigations into these issues, applies the findings toward solutions-based actions, and communicates all aspects of the process in an engaging and effective manner.”

Wasson’s work at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve includes developing and implementing comprehensive long-term monitoring programs, facilitating research by other scientists, mentoring student researchers, informing coastal decision-makers, and guiding an ambitious ecosystem-based management initiative to restore vanishing tidal wetlands. In addition to these responsibilities, Wasson also maintains her own active research projects in wetland conservation, focusing on threats to estuarine ecosystems and species.

“I’m passionate about taking care of Elkhorn Slough, one small, special wetland. But a lot of the joy in my work comes from being part of a collaborative network of folks who are passionate about their special wetlands, across the 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves,” Wasson said.

With her counterpart from the Rhode Island National Estuarine Reserve, Wasson led a national assessment of salt marsh resilience to sea level rise, synthesizing consistently collected data from 15 reserves in a publication that received national attention. Now Wasson and her colleagues are conducting replicated restoration experiments at eight of these reserves to test strategies for enhancing salt marsh resilience in the face of climate change.

Pioneering work

Wasson also leads pioneering work on the ecology and restoration of native oysters in California bays and estuaries, and she has developed a network of collaborators on the Pacific coast, from Baja California to British Columbia, who have authored a series of publications for scientific and management audiences.

“Science is essential not just for detecting threats, but for testing solutions. Both matter, but focusing on the former leads to pessimism, while the latter fosters hope and moves us forward,” Wasson said.

As a key part of her work at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, Wasson coordinates a comprehensive long-term monitoring program for Elkhorn Slough, engaging volunteers in all aspects of the work, from collecting water quality data to counting migratory shorebirds to tracking nesting at a heron rookery. With Wasson’s support and guidance, two of these citizen scientists recently published a peer-reviewed paper on sea otter behavior and ecology in an esteemed scientific journal.

“Some of my finest colleagues are volunteers. It is an honor to work with these citizen scientists, and without this community support we could not keep our finger on the pulse of the wetland,” says Wasson.

Mentoring students

Dovetailing with her work at the reserve, Wasson also mentors graduate students at UC Santa Cruz on thesis subjects ranging from threatened red-legged frogs to sea otters, from eelgrass restoration to salt marsh ecology. With her students and colleagues, Wasson has published five papers in the past two years, as well as coordinating research performed by others. Her evolving effort in conservation science continues to inspire the next generation of researchers and land stewards.

“Dr. Wasson provided mentorship for these projects and students that could not have been provided by anyone else in the department,” said Pete Raimondi, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

Since 1989, the National Wetlands Awards Program has honored more than 200 champions of wetlands conservation, recognizing individuals who have demonstrated exceptional effort, innovation, and excellence in wetlands conservation at the regional, state, or local level. In 2013, Mark Silberstein, Executive Director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, was honored with the National Wetlands Award for Wetland Community Leader.

The National Wetlands Awards Program is administered by the Environmental Law Institute and supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, NOAA Fisheries, and the Federal Highway Administration. A committee of wetlands experts representing federal and state agencies, academia, conservation groups, and private sector organizations selects the Award winners.

The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) with funding support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Established in 1972, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a national network of 29 sites along our nation’s coasts. Reserve-based monitoring, research, education, outreach, stewardship, and decision-maker training programs provide much needed information and services to coastal communities.

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation (ESF) is a community-supported non-profit land trust whose mission is to conserve and restore the Elkhorn Slough and its watershed. ESF protects nearly 4,000 acres of rare habitat including oak woodlands, maritime chaparral, and wetlands. Since 1982, ESF has been the non-profit partner of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR). For more information on Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the Reserve, visit www.elkhornslough.org.