A conversation with a Coastal Ecologist

Tara Nye Lewis

Horsley Witten is the leading environmental consultancy in our region, working on projects internationally, as well as right here on Cape Cod. We were so humbled to chat with one of their consultants Senior Coastal Ecologist Tara Nye Lewis, who is doing incredible work in the field protecting and restoring coastal systems, as well as educating the public about the importance of doing so.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you end up going into the environmental field and how did you end up on Cape Cod?

I originally studied cell and molecular biology as an undergraduate.  After graduation I worked in a lab in Boston and although I loved the job, I really didn’t want to be in a lab all day every day for the rest of my professional career.  I wanted to be outside more, so I went back to school to get a master’s degree in an ecology-based program.  After grad school I applied for a job at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Falmouth.  I’d been to Cape Cod a few times before, but really didn’t know much about the Cape and what an incredible place it is to live and work.  Since then I’ve been working as a coastal ecologist at various organizations, including thirteen years at the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

What does it mean to be a Senior Coastal Ecologist?

My position basically means my professional experience and my focus are in coastal systems.  Coastal systems are communities of plants, animals, and the surrounding physical environment along or close to the shore.  Like a salt marsh, that’s a coastal system, a community of plants, animals, bugs, and bacteria that have complex and sometimes interdependent relationships. 

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Education and outreach are also important parts of my job.  So, I try to take advantage of opportunities when I can to provide information and education at conferences, in newsletters, or in schools.  Over the past few years, I have been involved with a career day at the Sandwich STEM Academy.  It provides a great opportunity to talk with 7th and 8th graders about the environment and a career as a biologist.  It is fun to hear their questions and to share my experience as an ecologist. You never know when you might meet the next aspiring scientist!

Describe a "typical" day in the field, or some recent projects you've been working on.

There rarely are “typical” days in the field because each site or project is unique.  Some days I’m paddling around a pond assessing the health of aquatic plant communities or documenting shoreline erosion.  Other days I’m mapping sensitive areas on a site so that a project can be designed in such a way as to avoid damaging those areas. Sensitive areas can include wetlands, specialized habitat for endangered species, or other fragile pockets in the landscape. Vernal pools, salt marshes, and dunes all provided unique opportunities in the coastal ecosystem that would be lost without them.  

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Some of my favorite projects involve working with towns to conduct watershed assessments or coastal resiliency solutions.  For example, the Town of Kingston had a failing stone revetment that was a significant public safety concern and was causing beach erosion.  After presenting a few conceptual designs to the Town, they decided not to replace the revetment and instead selected a “living shoreline” option consisting of dune and salt marsh.  This option mimics biological and physical conditions that naturally exist along the coast which will enhance habitat, restore natural shoreline processes, dissipate wave energy, filter pollution, and provide shore stabilization.  These types of sustainable environmental solutions are exciting and cutting edge projects to work on.   

From your perspective, what is the largest environmental issue facing the Cape right now?

This is a tough question to answer as there are numerous issues facing towns on Cape Cod.  One of the largest environmental issues is protecting our towns, people, and infrastructure from flooding and other impacts that are happening due to climate change.  Our work in this area can include mapping areas of future inundation and developing management solutions that will help towns adapt to a shoreline that could look very different decades from now.

Another big issue is clean water, including the water where we swim and boat, the water we drink, and the water that supports rich coastal ecosystems.  Restoring, improving, and protecting fresh and salt water from nutrients and pollutants continues to be a regional focus on the Cape. 

What can we, as individuals do about it?

As local residents who vote and attend town meetings, it’s important to understand that coastal towns need to make some difficult decisions and possibly take dramatic actions to protect residents and businesses.  Some of these may not be advantageous for us in the short-term, like less parking at beaches.  However, these actions are ultimately for our benefit, either in tax savings or public safety.  Be supportive of these actions or at least try to learn why they are taking place before taking a stand one way or the other.

As for the clean water issue, understand that the things we do on the land impact the water around us.  For example, it’s important to keep your septic system operating well by having it pumped every 2-5 years (depending on your family size and your system).  Or when it comes time to upgrade your septic system, consider alternative septic systems that will do a better job at removing nutrients.  If it’s an option in your area, look into hooking into a centralized sewer system. Moving forward, it’s important for residents and business owners to understand that long-term sustainability will include costs. Taking the time to understand these complex issues may be the most important thing each citizen can do. Trade-offs are inevitable, so it is critical that we all make informed decisions.

Horsley Witten Group is an engineering and environmental consulting firm founded on the principles of sustainable water resource protection. Their mission since 1988 has been the conservation, preservation and protection of our most valuable natural resources.

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