Day in the Life of a N.C. Coastal Reserve Research Biologist - Part 2
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

Missed Part 1? Read it here!

Friday morning greeted us with balmy 80-degree March weather and clear skies. Our research coordinator, Justin Ridge, has come up from Beaufort to join us for the day. New, like me, he is also learning more about the System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) program.

The first stop is Research Creek to retrieve the Disco and the 13 water samples it collected. Left out overnight, the “Disco” autosampler collects regular samples across the tide, which provides another dimension of water quality data. Now SWMP data show how the water quality changes across one full tidal cycle.

Byron and Justin collect local water quality measurements

Today is also when the water quality instruments, called sondes, get replaced. Sondes measure turbidity, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and salinity. At the Research Creek station in the Masonboro Island Reserve, Byron replaces the sonde, and Justin helps record the local condition. This makes sure the current sonde captures the right data. Next, Byron pulls out the sonde that has been in the water for the past month and assesses its condition to see if it may be overly fouled or have other issues. Later, he will examine the data, taking note of anything that will help explain what was collected. If the sonde comes in perfectly clean and looks like it is operating well, that’s fantastic. Other results from looking at the data later may not be desirable, and he can begin to rule out “was it biofouling, was it stuck in the mud, was there a fish in it?”, or other issues. Byron then takes the freshly calibrated sonde, hooks it up to send the collected data to the telemetry station, and then puts it in the deployment tube. He tries to do that between one of the 15-minute recording windows so the process looks seamless in the final data. When he’s back in the office analyzing the data, he checks to ensure the newly deployed sonde is collecting data correctly.  Maybe the data look normal, but when the freshly calibrated sonde goes in, the data seem to have changed. Byron says this is when this “forensic process begins, trying to figure out what went wrong, was it a bad calibration? Was it a bad sonde out there?”

Now I understand why he said he spends a lot of time troubleshooting!

After completing duties at Research Creek, we zip down the waterway over to Loosin Creek to swap sondes and collect local water quality measurements. Justin leans over the side with the YSI, a portable water quality instrument, which measures dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, and other critical parameters. Meanwhile, Byron records the information that the YSI reports. Water samples at the sites are collected to measure nutrients and chlorophyll. When Byron pulls this sonde out of the water it drips with algae, seaweed, and marine life. I listen as Justin spouts the scientific names of the creatures he sees. I’m enthralled with all the mud snails falling off the sonde and finding a new path to travel on the surface of the boat. Twenty or so dark snails, less than an inch long, start moving in different directions. Though slow, they seem confident in where they’re headed. I’m entertained by watching before plopping them back in the water from where they came. It is lunchtime when we finish the SWMP duties at Masonboro Island Reserve. We head back to the boat ramp, unload, and take our lunch break at the office.

Byron swapping the sondes

Time to do it all again at a different reserve site.

The ride to Zeke’s Island Reserve takes about thirty minutes. Byron is a fabulous tour guide on land as well, as he points out exciting areas in Wilmington and Carolina Beach. During the ride, I learn Byron has his master's degree and is currently working on his Ph.D. while simultaneously working full-time. Byron’s drive, wealth of knowledge, and passion for his work are amazing.

As soon as we pull up to the boat ramp at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, a collective groan fills the car as we glimpse the water. Whitecaps have taken over the basin, along with windsurfers and kiteboarders. I immediately put on another layer and thicker socks to prepare for a chilly, wet, and choppy ride.

One of the four North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserves, Zeke’s Island Reserve, is 22 miles south of Wilmington, NC, and is one of the most unusual areas of the N.C. coast, with more than 220 acres of uplands and 1,400 acres of estuary habitats. Byron tells me the large basin of water we are flying across is only about four feet deep. To the right is a long rock revetment. Installed in the 1880s, the revetment created the lagoon-like estuary complex at Zeke’s Island Reserve. Once we reach the creeks between the marsh, Byron says we don’t want to get stuck out here at low tide because much of the water disappears and becomes a mudflat so wet it is too mushy to walk across. You’d be 100 percent stuck!

One of two SWMP sites at Zeke’s Basin, East Cribbing Creek, was used to collect monitoring data, but the sonde went missing during Hurricane Isaias. Since the device is expensive to replace, we now only collect water manually once a month until the station can be replaced with an improved ‘storm resilient’ platform design. The second stop at Zeke’s Island Reserve was for a sonde closer to the marsh and the mainland. Three stone crabs sought shelter in this sonde’s housing. I played with them as Byron and Justin swapped the sondes and recorded data. Our final responsibility at Zeke’s Island was checking the telemetry station. Byron confirmed everything inside the box was running correctly, all the lights were blinking and the solar panels were not completely covered in bird guano. Then, he replaced the desiccants, which suck moisture out of the air. This process makes sure all the electronic instruments stay fairly dry. This is extremely important since the salty estuary is a very hostile environment for electronics! After that, our day in the field was done.

Justin and I prepare to head back to our office in Beaufort, but Byron’s work is far from finished. He will inspect the instruments that came back from the field and post-calibrate them to see what may have changed during their deployment, such as a problem with the sensors. Basically, he examines how well they measure up to their first calibration so there’s another layer of information to help describe data in the future. Then, he will do a thorough cleaning. Next, he’ll go sensor by sensor to make sure they are still calibrated correctly and attempt to address any problems that arise.

After that, he will filter the water samples we collected in the field. The filtered water is sent to the Virginia Institute for Marine Sciences (VIMS) where the nutrient analysis is performed. Byron and Heather keep the filter used in processing the samples in order to measure the chlorophyll.

And he’s not done yet! Another process is data management, where he begins the quality assurance and quality control (QAQC) process of the data. This is a big deal. Every single National Estuarine Research Reserve in the country has at least one research biologist who follows the exact same SWMP protocol. Every reserve’s instruments are programmed to record data at the exact same 15-minute interval. 

So, if you compare data Byron collects in North Carolina, with data from Elkhorn Slough, one of three reserves in California, you are comparing apples to apples in terms of how those data have been collected and checked for quality. If anything does not make sense, the data can be ruled out as being an error. With all the QAQC done, I think Byron can confidently state the data are accurate, right?

Apparently, that is his least favorite question to answer. He’s come up with the answer that data validation is almost never done. “It doesn't matter how many times I look at the data, I feel like a fresh set of eyes on it can see ‘ah this did or didn’t make sense’, so the more times you can go through this process, you're flagging more and more little hiccups here and there.” When he begins the data validation process, which is the QAQC process, he first uploads the data. From there there’s an automated process. “We take a look at it to see if there's anything obvious, and then data get processed and highlighted for routine and obvious problems.” Then they look at it again on a quarterly basis, and again on an annual basis. Finally, a year or so later, “the Centralized Data Management Office (CDMO) sends us back all of our data for that year and a bunch of questions like ‘can you explain this?, what does this mean?, this looks like a mistake,’ so there’s an additional layer of scrutiny where Heather and I take a look at the data and try to come to a consensus with the CDMO. It never fails that we find some things then as well, and then sometime down the road I might take a look at something and think ‘I think I know what’s really going on here.’ But I’m very confident that we have very HIGH-QUALITY data by the time we’re through.”

Research Creek SWMP Station at Masonboro Island Reserve

You have multiple sets of eyes looking at the data multiple times to make sure the data are as accurate as possible. So, if you were an educator or researcher who downloaded these data, it’s cleaned up and validated.

A lot of time and effort goes into creating these high-quality data that are available for free. However, these data are underutilized compared to their potential! Understandably, Byron wants even more people to use this resource. “SWMP data are a truly remarkable resource. With a dataset that has been around for decades now, and collected every 15 minutes, we can look at tiny trends across very small timescales and up to seasonal, yearly, and even decadal scales. And the data that we can examine is constantly increasing.”

Ask Byron for help! He loves this part of his job. One of his favorite things about SWMP “is finding researchers or educators or other end users that don't actually realize that this exists and then they understand they can have access to it. I get excited when someone realizes ‘You mean all of this is available and I don’t have to do anything except download it and I can ask you questions?!’  It's a little bit like being a teacher, where you're working with some students and on some difficult material and you see it not necessarily sinking in, but you work with them, and all of a sudden they get that "aha" moment, and you see the moment they understand it. I love seeing that happen with our data, where you can show them, this is how you can use it or this is how you can benefit from what we have. It's really fun to do that with students and with adults.”

If you would like to access these data or are interested in talking with Byron, please check out these resources below! If you’re interested in working with the N.C. Coastal Reserve, pay attention to our social media for future job opportunities.

Learn more:

NC Coastal Reserve website
SWMP Education Resource: Grades 4-8

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