Postdocs link south Florida and Puerto Rico for hurricane research

For over a decade, FIU has built a collaborative partnership with the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) through the Institute of Water and Environment. They share access to water quality data, resources and are enhancing environmental understanding to manage the natural reserve.

Danielle Ogurcak and Jobos Bay with a group

Currently, Drs. Danielle Ogurcak and Rolando Santos, postdocs in the FIU Institute of Water and Environment’s CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, are advancing research on hurricane resilience for mangrove ecosystems in south Florida and Puerto Rico through the partnership with Rookery Bay NERR.

They are building a team of researchers and resource managers from Jobos Bay NERR in southern Puerto Rico, the University of South Florida and Duke University to develop research on mangrove conservation and management in both Rookery Bay and Jobos Bay NERR. Out of more than 1.4 million acres protected by the NERR system, both Rookery Bay and Jobos Bay are the most alike, dominated by mangrove forests and suffering similar effects due to hurricanes.

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria occurred approximately one week apart, tremendously impacting both Puerto Rico and west Florida. After the hurricanes hit, Rookery’s Bay Research Coordinator, Brita Jessen led a multi-reserve proposal between Rookery Bay and Jobos Bay to bridge communication between the two locations. This effort allowed for the two NERRs to share concerns, discuss best practices and collaborate in their responses to the damage the hurricanes dealt to the areas. They received a capacity-building grant, funded with the idea to run meetings between both reserves, analyze the impacts and participate in workshops with stakeholders.

In February 2019, Ogurcak, Santos and Rookery Bay managers visited the Jobos Bay NERR to learn about impacts and recovery from Hurricane Maria. They investigated the damage the hurricane had on the natural resources in the area, as well as the community. Puerto Rican colleagues visited the Rookery Bay Reserve in May 2019 during a cross-exchange visit to observe the impacts and recovery process from Hurricane Irma.

The team also participated in stakeholder workshops to better address the needs of the affected communities.

In addition to the collaborative efforts put forth, the research also incorporates remote sensing data and mapping to detect areas of both reserves that need management.

With this multi-reserve approach, “It enables practitioners, like me, to gain a broader understanding of concerns and impacts of the estuaries, and any future research that results from the collaboration will have wider applicability to mangrove-dominated coastlines,” Ogurcak explains.

Mangroves play a critical role in ecosystems by providing storm protection from hurricanes, filtering capacity from water contaminants and acting as fish nurseries. With Ogurcak’s interest and experience in mangrove forests and Santos’ knowledge of Puerto Rican fisheries, both can contribute to and grow the project’s effort toward mangrove resilience.

The Institute’s relationship with Rookery Bay NERR facilitates research projects like Ogurcak’s and Santos’, supporting a larger initiative for cross-collaborative efforts that protect coastlines and the people that rely on them.

Arianna Maxwell contributed to this article.