2023 NC Coastal Reserve Accomplishments

Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist

We're wrapping up an incredible year of research, education, training, and stewardship at our 10 North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve sites.

The N.C. Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve is a program of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, a division of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve is managed through a federal-state partnership between NOAA and the N.C. Division of Coastal Management. The Reserve is a network of 10 protected sites established for long-term research, education, and stewardship. This program protects more than 44,000 acres of estuarine land and water, which provides essential habitat for wildlife; offers educational opportunities for students, teachers, and the public, trainings for professionals; and serves as living laboratories for scientists. The NC Coastal Reserve sites are open to the public and visitor information can be found on the reserve site pages.


Students and educators experience coastal and estuarine ecosystems first hand at Coastal Reserve sites. 2023 was filled with excitement as school groups visited Coastal Reserve sites for nature hikes and field experiences to learn about estuaries through programs aligned with their grade’s teaching standards. Students from Carteret, Onslow, and Craven Counties traversed the Rachel Carson Reserve and the Masonboro Island Explorers program hosted fifth grade students from New Hanover County in partnership with Masonboro.org and Carolina Ocean Studies.

This year:

  • 1212 students learned about estuaries through hands-on experiences at the Rachel Carson & Masonboro Island Reserves
  • Summer camps were held again this year in partnership with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included field trips to the Rachel Carson Reserve. Over 50 students from 2nd to 9th grade learned about estuarine flora and fauna and the importance of estuaries to North Carolina. 
  • Over 40 educators received free continuing education credits through Reserve educator workshops. Fourteen Carteret County teachers took part in Teachers On The Estuary, or TOTE, exploring coastal habitats at the Rachel Carson Reserve, learning about local research projects, and conducting curricular activities for use in the classroom. TOTE is a teacher education program implemented at all 30 reserves in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Twenty-eight pre-service teachers took part in a virtual Coastal Explorations workshop to learn about estuaries and ways they can incorporate estuarine science into their classrooms. 
  • Our education coordinator, Lori Davis, attended the North Carolina Science Teachers Convention where curricular activities were shared with teachers from across the state.
  • 82 Spartina plants were planted by elementary school students as part of the Seeds to Shoreline project.


The stewardship program is dedicated to protecting and preserving the natural resources of the Reserve for coastal ecosystem research and education. Long-term monitoring and resource management of the Reserve serve as models of responsible practices for other organizations, agencies, and coastal communities. Site Steward volunteers help monitor Coastal Reserve sites. The Coastal Reserve’s Site Stewards Volunteer Program significantly enhanced the program’s capacity in managing the Currituck Banks, Kitty Hawk Woods, Buxton Woods, Rachel Carson, Masonboro Island, and Bird Island Reserves this year. 

  • Over 170 volunteers contributed over 1215 hours of stewardship work at Reserve sites. Site Stewards observe and record data in the field and report findings back to Reserve staff. Information collected may be related to general site conditions, marine debris items, visitor issues, infrastructure damage, and species found at the site. Thank you to our volunteers!
  • The Currituck Banks Reserve welcomed visitors back to its boardwalk this spring after a refurbishment project was completed. The boardwalk was constructed in 2002 and the refurbishment project replaced decking boards, railings and benches to continue to provide safe, ADA-accessible access to the Currituck Banks Reserve for all visitors for walking, photography, and nature observation. The boardwalk winds through maritime forest and swamp before ending at a deck offering views of the Currituck Sound, and also provides access to the trailhead of the Maritime Forest Trail at the site. 
  • Twenty-seven interpretive signs were installed along trails at the Masonboro Island and Bird Island Reserves and along the refurbished boardwalk at the Currituck Banks Reserve. The signs augment the educational experience of visitors as they enjoy the habitats the sites protect by highlighting the unique features of the sites, flora and fauna, ecological processes, and research conducted at the sites.

Community Science

  • The Terrapin Tally is a project created in partnership with the NC Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to help address questions about the overall population status and condition of the Diamondback Terrapin within the state. The Terrapin Tally is structured as a community science activity that aims to take a snapshot of the diamondback terrapin population numbers in a given area by conducting kayak surveys at specified times and prescribed routes. By doing this, we hoped to eventually allow for population statistics and trends to be understood over time.
    • The community science project to collect sighting data of Diamondback terrapins took place this spring and resulted in 509 volunteer hours with 71 routes paddled across the coast from Cape Lookout to Bird Island at Sunset Beach with approximately 119 terrapins documented.
    • Partners include Cape Lookout NPS, Hammocks Beach State Park, Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium, Audubon NC, Carolina Beach State Park, Fort Fisher State Park, and Bald Head Island Conservancy.
  • Chronologs are photo stations in natural areas that create crowd-sourced time lapses that monitor the environment and engage communities in science. Check out our video to learn more! The Reserve has five chronologs stations, one at each of the following reserve sites: Currituck Banks, Bird Island, Masonboro Island, Buxton Woods, and Kitty Hawk Woods Reserves
    • 594 Total Chronolog Contributors in 2023




The North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve sites serve as living laboratories to support coastal research and long-term monitoring, and to provide facilities for on-site staff, visiting scientists and graduate students. They also serve as reference sites for comparative studies on coastal topics such as ecosystem dynamics, human influences on estuarine systems, habitat conservation and restoration, species management, and social science.

In 2023, we

  • Collected over 2,349,052 water quality, meteorological & nutrient measurements as part of the Reserve’s System-Wide Monitoring Program 
  • Collaborated with 10 partner organizations to conduct and support 20 active research projects at Reserve sites up and down the coast

Coastal Training Program

Over 500 professionals receive science-based information to protect our coastal resources. This year our Coastal Training Program (CTP) offered workshops and partner engagement meetings for decision-makers throughout coastal North Carolina.

This year, our Coastal Training Program,

  • Served communities throughout coastal N.C. by offering 7 different workshops.
  • These seven events served 533 professionals including real estate agents, local government staff, federal and state agency staff, and land use planners. 
  • Real estate agents were offered five trainings on barrier island development rules, living shorelines, and water quality protection. These events were held in partnership with Cape Fear Realtors and the Brunswick County Association of Realtors. Permitting considerations were presented by DCM regulatory staff at these workshops. Real estate workshop evaluations reflect the participants' new awareness of these issues, that they will share this information with their clients, and that these trainings should be mandatory for all agents selling property along our coast.
  • The CTP also worked closely with staff from the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience and DCM’s Resilient Coastal Community Program to host the Resilience Funding Forum. This forum, with nearly 200 participants, brought together local government staff, non-profits, and funding agencies to help with grant writing and securing funds for local resilience projects.

Scuppernong Engagement Strategy Informs Regional Water Management Study

The Coastal Reserve, Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, and N.C. Sea Grant partnered to develop the Scuppernong Engagement Strategy to support local engagement for the Scuppernong Regional Water Management Study, which is funded by the Division of Water Resources’ Water Resources Development Grant Program. The Study was requested by local governments and land managers to help with water related issues in the Albemarle-Pamlico region.  The Engagement Strategy, funded by the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership, is supporting a collaborative community engagement process that is recognized as a need by the Study partners and is centered around equity and inclusion. Outreach events to increase awareness and gather input included a booth at the Scuppernong River Festival and a community meeting at the Eastern 4-H Center in Columbia. At these events, participants shared what they value about the region, learned about the water management study, and shared local knowledge about flooding hot spots. A kid fun zone with environmental education activities was part of both outreach events, so they were fun for the whole family!



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