Day in the Life of a N.C. Coastal Reserve Research Biologist - Part 1
System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP)

Follow along as Byron Toothman, Research Biologist for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve, teaches a co-worker about the System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP). Read on to learn more about SWMP!

Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist

Working for the Reserve as a Research Biologist for the past 16 years, Byron Toothman did not expect to be here so long. “I thought I’d be in the job for 4 to 5 years. But I did not know I’d love a job this much.” Not only does he love his job, but he is also quite skilled at what he does. 


Early Thursday morning, I left the NC Coastal Reserve headquarters in Beaufort heading towards the Reserve office at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. Byron told me to get there by 9:30 AM since we needed to be out on the water during high tide. 


By 10 AM, Byron has gotten us, the 19-foot boat, and all the equipment we needed for the day on the water. I stand idly off to the side, offering my assistance, but knowing Byron has this handled. In fact, he did all this while holding a mug of coffee. He didn’t spill a drop. 


Person holding sonde standing on a boat in the marsh.
Byron holding a sonde at the Research Creek station in Masonboro Island Reserve.

Due to a couple of years of the pandemic and isolation, Byron has gotten this solo routine down to a tee. Byron acknowledges that COVID made everything more difficult. He had to learn to do all this on his own when COVID guidelines prevented coworkers from being in close proximity. He tells me that he and his coworker, fellow Reserve Research Biologist, Heather Wells, “were working in tandem. [They’d] split the work up so Heather would do a lot of the in-lab and office-based things, and then [Byron] would collect the instruments” in the field. He and Heather have been working together a long time and have grown used to the ability to double-check each other. Though both are capable of doing the fieldwork solo, it is a longer process. When there are multiple people out there, you’ve got people to keep an eye on stuff. This job is “definitely a two-person, probably more than a two-person job, so doing it solo is difficult.” Despite the fieldwork being less than easy, Byron volunteered to take me out in the field and teach me about what he does out there. 


And what does Byron do? He tells me that “the typical day can be pretty untypical. 

System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) 

“Sometimes it can be difficult to know what's going to happen from one day to the next. But the bulk of my job is to make sure that the system-wide monitoring program, or SWMP, is running smoothly, and sometimes it seems like it never is. So, it's a little bit of a constant battle. In a nutshell, SWMP is the environmental monitoring that we do here—water quality, weather, biological monitoring, and evaluating vegetation trends. The next largest part of what I do is to encourage researchers to take advantage of the data that we collect and to treat the reserve sites as living laboratories where we can help them perform their research and assist in locating appropriate locations or provide additional resources when possible. I try to encourage people to site their research where they can take advantage of our monitoring data. That way we can offer a large, relatively comprehensive dataset that is useful across timescales. That way they do not have to spend their hard-earned grant dollars trying to replicate things we've already spent a lot of time and effort to do very well."



Man looks at biofouled equipment in a marsh setting.
Byron services a fouled sonde in June 2023.

The passion in his voice was tangible. I couldn’t wait to get out on the water and see the work in action. This trip was an opportunity for me to learn more about the Reserve’s System Wide Monitoring Program, referred to as SWMP (pronounced “swamp”). A program that has been occurring for over 20 years, it encompasses all 30 reserves that are part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. With an outstanding network of data, each reserve participates in SWMP. They collect nutrient, weather, and water quality data every 15 minutes, 24/7, and they make this information publicly available. Not only do they collect the information, but they analyze it, and ensure its quality. This program is Byron’s life and soul of the job. He estimates he spends about 60-70% of his time on SWMP. Some of that time is spent in the lab working with the instruments and troubleshooting things. The rest of the time he is out in the field servicing the equipment there. It's a lot of maintenance and it's different from season to season. All the equipment behaves differently in different conditions. In the summer the scientific instruments get fouled with the biofouling community much faster. The biofouling community describes all the organisms that rush to colonize artificial surfaces underwater. It includes things like barnacles, sea squirts, algae, and other organisms competing for the fresh space. In the wintertime, there’s less biofouling, but we do a lot more data analysis and work to ensure the data is high quality. 


Person on boat in marsh trying to unlock a metal caging.
Byron servicing a sonde in March 2023.

Due to his 16 years on the job, his familiarity with the reserve sites he works with most, Masonboro Island and Zeke’s Island, is truly impressive. He recognizes this strength telling me that I could “easily find a number of scientists that know more about estuarine ecology or water chemistry than me. But, if you want to know what’s happening here, I can tell you better than most because I’m immersed in it in a way that not many other people are.” He wants people to ask him about SWMP. He visits the sites often and can help users accelerate the hunt for data. “I’ve been here since 2008! If you have questions about what you’re seeing I’d love to help you.” Lots of people are using the data all the time, but it could always be used by more! Since May 2018, 830 users have downloaded SWMP data, mostly for research and class projects. Half of those users were either researchers or graduate students. [Calling all researchers and grad students – make your life easier! Talk to Byron!]


Calling all researchers and grad students – make your life easier! Talk to Byron!

Byron’s work ethic, skills, and knowledge base continue to astound me throughout the trip. Given his familiarity with the site, he can identify most flora and fauna we come across. Within minutes of reaching our first destination, scientific names of seagrasses and algae were tumbling from his mouth as he pointed to the marine life around the boat, singling out some invasive species. 


Wooden structure with electronics mounted on it in a marsh.
SWMP telemetry station

Our first stop was Research Creek in Masonboro Island Reserve. We pulled up to a wooden stand in the marsh which is one of the SWMP telemetry stations that automatically and wirelessly transmits the data collected in this remote location. We are here to set up an autosampler to collect water samples overnight. But then, I’m told it is Disco time. I know what you’re thinking, not so scientific? The Reserve’s other Research biologist, Heather Wells, has an affinity for music and dance. When you walk into the Wilmington Reserve office, you will find a 3D-printed tardigrade attached to a disco ball hanging above a table, in the area they like to refer to as the cafe. You will also find minuscule disco balls hanging on the knobs of a few drawers in the labs. The ambiance is fabulous! So, when they acquired the ISCO autosampler apparatus, which takes automatic water samples, they aptly nicknamed it the Disco.

Person standing on wooden platform setting up scientific equipment
Byron setting up the Teledyne ISCO autosampler.


It is a Teledyne ISCO autosampler, essentially a great big barrel with a motor in it and a little computer with a teeny tiny brain that Byron instructs to collect water from a long clear tube he places in the water. Inside the barrel is a series of tubes that will be filled with water samples that we retrieve the next day. He places the long tube in the water, directly next to another device, a water quality instrument called a sonde, that takes water quality measurements. We are replacing the sondes at each station, which is a monthly task for Byron. The sonde is connected back to the telemetry station on the wooden stand, which sends data up to a satellite every 15 minutes. The satellite collects data from every reserve in the country and posts that data online every hour. Byron says “It never gets old that we are collecting data in the water now, and within the hour, I can look at it on my phone.” It is pretty awesome. 


When Byron is pleased the autosampler is running smoothly, we untie from the platform and head out to find our co-worker, Elizabeth Pinnix, the southern sites manager for the Reserve. She is going to join us for the rest of the day in giving me a tour of Masonboro Island Reserve. 


Otter tracks in sand
Otter tracks

Hopping off the boat into one of the many dredge spoil islands that line the Intracoastal Waterway, and make up the sound side of Masonboro Island Reserve, my tour guides immediately start pointing out flora and fauna. Elizabeth quizzes me on the tracks I see. She identifies them as otters! Apparently, they push together debris to make their bathrooms! Elizabeth walks across the island pointing out more otter bathrooms. Meanwhile, Byron has squatted down to examine some plants. He introduces me to sea lavender flowers (Limonium carolinana) on Masonboro Island Reserve and pickleweed (Salicornia virginica). Their enthusiasm for where they work is infectious. We explore this patch of land a bit more until we’re ready to hop back on the boat. 


Close up of small purple flowers
Sea lavender flowers (Limonium carolinana)

Next, we zoom off to the East. The tide is high, so Byron can maneuver the boat through shallow creeks that would be impossible to reach during low tide. We disembark at Masonboro Island on a landing close to the oceanside and wander across the dune to a pristine, untouched stretch of beach. We are the only people as far as the eye can see. As we walk, Byron points out peat patches that disclose the island's history. Where we are standing used to be marsh, but the nature of barrier islands is that they retreat inland. The peat, which is an old marsh, is evidence of this. It shows that as the island moves back toward the mainland, the beach moves over the old marsh. I swerve my head towards the dune when Elizabeth calls out. She’s identifying bird tracks. Since it is shorebird nesting season, she has been out on the Reserve the past few days posting bird nesting signs to deter Reserve visitors from disturbing the nests.

Close up of pickleweed, a stick straight, thin green plant in mud.
Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica)


We turn back to go to the boat. I’m surprised to see how quickly the tide is going out. The boat is the tiniest bit stuck. Byron and Elizabeth push it around in the water eager to get out before we can no longer escape the marsh and the tide. Once turned around, Byron’s confidence in the area is apparent as he steers around tight turns in the marsh. I watch fish dart away and humble, graceful egrets lift up and out of the marsh. 


The tour finishes after a few hours of exploring the Northern side of Masonboro Island. After such a beautiful day on the water, I’m thrilled to get back out tomorrow to finish the monthly SWMP field duties.



Stay tuned to hear about our exciting SWMP adventures the following day at Zeke’s Island Reserve.


Related Topics: