Experts Gather to Discuss Future of North Carolina’s Wetlands at Student-Led Symposium

March 8, 2016

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084,

By Nathan Miller, MEM ‘16
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – More than 80 scientists, policy experts, students and conservation practitioners from around North Carolina gathered at Duke Gardens on Friday, March 4, to participate in Duke University’s first student-organized wetland symposium.

Organized by the Student Association of Wetland Scientists (SAWS), the daylong symposium, “Wetland Resilience in North Carolina”, brought together representatives from North Carolina’s business, political, and academic sectors to discuss the current status of the state’s wetlands and how better management practices and economic approaches could optimize societal benefits from these ecosystems.

Anna Braswell, the SAWS special events coordinator and a PhD candidate at the Nicholas School, spearheaded the event. 

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  SAWS event coordinator, Anna Braswell. (Photo: Lyndsi Lewis)

“We wanted to create an event that features the array of approaches professionals are taking towards wetland stewardship throughout the state,” said Braswell, “and we’ve designed the symposium so that students especially have a new channel to connect with people working in wetland science, business and policy.”

The symposium started with opening remarks from Braswell and Curt Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetlands Center and professor of resource ecology at the Nicholas School, followed by Dean Alan Townsend, who offered light-hearted anecdotes about his own wetland fieldwork to highlight why he finds these ecosystems so fascinating.

Morning presentations covered a wide range of topics. Marcel Ardon of East Carolina University discussed his research on the historical ecology of North Carolina’s coastal wetlands and the threats they face from climate change.  Tom Looney, counselor to the president of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, followed with a pitch for the state’s oyster farm industry.  

“With our state population and stature as a food hotspot growing,” Looney said, “we have a perfect opportunity to showcase the quality of our seafood. Through the proper management of our coasts and estuary systems, North Carolina could become the Napa Valley of oysters.”

The two afternoon panels addressed wetland restoration challenges and the threats sea level rise poses for wetlands and coastal communities.  The experts on the sea level rise panel spoke with particular urgency, citing how middle-class and working-class households  – which comprise the majority of people living along the N.C. coast – will be much more vulnerable to rising tides than affluent households because of their limited incomes and restricted access to adaptive resources.

In between the panels and presentations, students were given opportunities to network with the symposium’s speakers.  

Ashley Gordon, a Nicholas School Masters of Environment Management student, took the opportunity to speak with Rob Lamme of the N.C. Coastal Federation about possibly visiting the state legislature in Raleigh through his organization.

“I’m a part of the Ocean Policy Working Group on campus,” said Gordon, “and, as someone whose studies focus on coastal issues, it’d be great to have some exposure to the process that turns science and ideas into working policies that affect our shores.”

The symposium concluded with a series of shorter presentations, the final one delivered by Braswell, and a brief poster session. Attendees and speakers were invited to mingle over drinks at an informal mixer held at Full Steam Brewery that evening.

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  Dean Alan Townsend (Photo: Lyndsi Lewis)

“The SAWS team and I have been preparing for this event since September,” said Braswell, who added that she hopes the symposium will become an annual event.  “I hope that attendees made new connections and heard novel ideas from other experts. Also, I hope they walked away with a better understanding of the excellent wetland work going on in the state of North Carolina.”