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keith 180Dear Friends of the Reserve,

As I write this, I am looking out my office window through the mangroves and buttonwoods to Henderson Creek, the lifeblood of the Rookery Bay estuary.  Every tide and every year brings new currents, changes and opportunities, and I am reminded of how exciting 2016 was for Rookery Bay Research Reserve. 

Our Stewardship team was awarded $231,000 to control invasive plants on the Snail Trail across Henderson Creek from the Environmental Learning Center (ELC). We entered into a strategic partnership with Florida International University (FIU) that will help us expand our Research, Education and Coastal Training programs. We also welcomed a new Research Coordinator, Dr. Brita Jessen, to the Rookery Bay family.

We continue to keep up with new technology on many fronts, such as updating our water quality monitoring program with new data sondes (YSI EXO2), implementing digital education tools in the ELC, using Facebook Live to engage the community in events like National Estuaries Day, conducting real-time habitat mapping in the field and sharing digital “Storymaps” to show change through Geographic Information Systems. Check out our maps here.

All of us are working to put more research into this reserve as we work closely with many partners including FIU, Florida Gulf Coast University, Mote Marine Laboratory, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Friends of Rookery Bay to improve efforts to monitor sharks, sea turtles, water quality and our dynamic coastal ecosystems.  

We hope you enjoy this first edition of the Rookery Bay Review, and look forward to keeping you informed with future editions.

Keeping up with the tides,
Keith Laakkonen

Nicole Brita SET 300We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Brita Jessen as our new Research Coordinator! Brita is a coastal systems ecologist whose work has focused on the effects of cultural change on ecosystem function and services. She received a B.A. in biological sciences from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, where she studied with Drs. Scott Nixon and Candace Oviatt. At URI, Brita was also a fellow with the Coastal Institute IGERT Project, a collaboration of natural and social scientists focused on critical issues faced by coastal communities.

Brita’s graduate work forged a bond with the National Estuarine Research Reserve community. She was a graduate research fellow at the Jobos Bay NERR, where she established a nutrient enrichment experiment in the coastal mangroves to examine the effect of urban and agriculture run-off on mangrove production and carbon loss.

Hailing from Lexington, Massachusetts and Rangeley, Maine, Brita has found Rookery Bay to be a fascinating place of natural wonders and ongoing change. “As an ecologist, I engage in projects that focus on how coastal ecosystems function as well as how human modifications change natural communities. I'm also passionate about ecosystem science as a public service, and my goal is to help ensure that natural systems provide services and resources for a thriving community.”

Learn more about our research program

Aerial image of Second Chance CWARookery Bay Research Reserve and Florida International University (FIU) established a new partnership in 2016 that will serve the students of FIU as well as citizens of Collier County and surrounding areas. This partnership will open the door to many new opportunities as it aims to enhance scientific understanding and stewardship of estuaries and watersheds within the Reserve’s 110,000 acres. FIU research and education positions based at the Rookery Bay Research Reserve were created, enabling both FIU and the Reserve to continue development of science-driven monitoring and management approaches to these issues.

“Scientists from Florida International University have long been involved in generating information vital to managers of many of the marine protected areas and parks in the region,” said James Fourqurean, director of the Marine Educational and Research Initiative in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education. “FIU is looking forward to using this new partnership to increase it research collaboration with the local universities as well as the Reserve.”

Florida International University is classified by Carnegie as a “R1: Doctoral Universities - Highest Research Activity” and recognized as a Carnegie Community Engaged university. It is a public research university with colleges and schools that offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in fields such as business engineering, computer science, international relations, architecture, law and medicine. 

 Learn more at

Rusty Zipper crewHundreds of volunteers play vital roles in the preservation, restoration and management of reserve lands and waters through their collective donation of roughly 18,000 hours each year. From students to seniors, volunteers come from all walks of life, many with invaluable life experience that is very beneficial to our staff. We could not meet our mission without the dedication of these individuals who assist with tasks and projects in every department. 

Some of our helper groups even have special names for themselves, including “Fish Heads,” who help keep our aquarium residents fed and healthy; “Rusty Zippers,” who are invaluably handy to our facilities department; and “Net-Menders,” without whom our fisheries research would come to a grinding halt. No matter which team they’re on their enthusiasm paves the way. 

At the end of 2016, 13 individuals had surpassed the “1,000 hours of service” milestone, and their names are engraved on a wall plaque in the Environmental Learning Center. We look forward to adding more names to our wall of fame in the coming year! View the latest volunteer milestones.


Spending time in a classroom is one way to learn, but immersing students in nature using a hands-on approach usually reinforces an educational experience that won’t soon be forgotten. Each year, roughly 3,000 local students get a taste of our estuary as part of Rookery Bay Research Reserve’s field trip programs. 

Teachers on the EstuaryIn 2016. our educators extended that reach exponentially through NOAA’s “Teachers on the Estuary” program. This two-day workshop for teachers is organized by education coordinators at Florida’s three research reserves, with help from staff at Weeks Bay Reserve in Mobile, Ala. and Jobos Bay Reserve in Puerto Rico. 

Teachers are taken out on the water to practice water quality and plankton sampling techniques, learn about marine life, experience a mangrove basin forest and earn about estuarine habitats and their connections to the land.  Supplemental onsite sessions provide access to online tools and other resources available for use in their lesson planning.

Back by popular demand, the Girls in Science Slumber engages up to twenty girls ages 8 – 14 in the nocturnal side of nature. This overnight adventure, hosted a few times per year, typically includes a plankton lab, a night hike and a sea turtle obstacle course that simulates what female sea turtles encounter when they come ashore to lay eggs. 

Kids Free FridayWe also reached hundreds of local families through Kids FREE Fridays. This summer education program provides free admission for children ages 12 and younger every Friday from June through August. Programs focus on weekly themes such as fish, invertebrates, predators and plankton. Scheduled activities include marine life touch tank, face painting, story time and a feature film.

The Environmental Learning Center has become a destination for many new residents and visitors to the area. In 2016 we welcomed more than 24,000 non-student visitors to explore hands-on exhibits, attend art and photo classes, enjoy the bridge and trail or participate in a special event. 

2nd chance 2After more than a decade of monitoring, the emergent sandbar located southeast of Cape Romano known as “Second Chance” has been designated as a Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).  The entire sandbar was officially closed to public access for the first time in 2016, which will continue annually from March 1 through Aug. 31 for the protection of beach-nesting birds. 

“Protecting Florida’s wildlife and natural resources is our first priority,” said reserve Director Keith Laakkonen. “Taking steps to protect this habitat during the nesting season will increase the likelihood of successful breeding and help preserve threatened Florida species such as the Least Tern.” 

The area has been closed annually since 2001 to protect nesting habitat for Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Wilson’s Plover. This is the first year that the CWA rules are in place prohibiting vessels, in addition to people and dogs, from visiting the sandbar during summer nesting season.

Read the press release


Keith Laakkonen, Ted Below and Brad CornellRookery Bay Research Reserve, together with Audubon Florida and Audubon of the Western Everglades, hosted Ted Below Day on Dec. 9. Ted’s special day initially came about in 2014 when the Board of Collier County Commissioners officially recognized Ted for his many accomplishments. Read their proclamation. A plaque was presented to Ted by Reserve director Keith Laakkonen and Brad Cornell of Audubon of the Western Everglades.

Following his tenure as Audubon warden (see photo, above left), Ted was employed by Florida Department of Environmental Protection as part-time OPS staff at Rookery Bay Research Reserve for three years. He later donated more than 10,000 hours as a volunteer to continue his coastal bird monitoring work, providing invaluable insights on coastal birds as indicators of estuarine health. Ted retired in 2015 at the age of 91. 

Ted’s longterm datasets were key in the designation of Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area, and re-designation of the Reserve’s namesake islands in Rookery Bay as a Critical Wildlife Area by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Read the full story.

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