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Get to Know Teal Waterstrat, Biologist—Working to Restore and Recover Aquatic Ecosystems in Washington

Get to Know Teal Waterstrat, Biologist—Working to Restore and Recover Aquatic Ecosystems in Washington

Posted December 22nd, 2023

Teal has been working on aquatic conservation efforts for 20 years, 13 of which were with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In his current role as the Washington Coastal Program Coordinator, his work includes voluntary coastline and coastal watershed restoration projects.

Teal grew up bouncing between Washington and Mississippi. He reports there are no snowcapped mountains or emerald seas in Mississippi,  but there are lots of amazing species and wonderful people. In the late ‘90s  he moved to the Pacific Northwest for good.  He studied at the University of Washington and earned a BS degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, and later received his Master’s in Environmental Studies from The Evergreen State College, with a focus on Chehalis Basin native freshwater mussels.

“I have always been very curious about how nature works, and starting as a child, was trying to puzzle it out. I would ask myself, why is this turtle on this one log?” shared Teal. “I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the start of seeing large impacts of climate change, and the loss of aquatic biodiversity, which resulted in the degradation and dramatic shifts in large ecosystems. I saw an opportunity, and a way to use my curiosity as a way to serve local communities, the state and globally. I knew that nature is cool, but also to share the understanding that nature benefits all of us.”    

Today, Teal leverages partnerships and project funding through the USFWS’s Coastal Program (https://www.fws.gov/program/coastal) to implement restoration work that is the most beneficial and can reduce the unintended effects. He greatly enjoys the opportunity to guide a good restoration project, which range from replacing a failing culvert to the restoration of dunes and coastal meadows that support native plants and pollinators, to restoring eelgrass beds previously shaded by the over water structures, and the improvement of forage fish habitat, which include beaches used for forage fish spawning habitat.  

“It is frequently said that ecosystem degradation is often death by a thousand cuts – our work helps to heal those cuts,” shared Teal.   The Coastal Program takes science and ideas of countless passionate and brilliant scientists and conservationists and apply that to actionable restoration projects.  When they implement restoration, the goal is that there will be an improvement of overall ecological conditions. such as work to“Hopefully with time, partnerships, and coordination we can rebuild ecosystem resilience.”

Teal didn’t originally think he wanted to be a biologist who focused on salmon. “There were like 8 million passionate budding salmon biologists at UW, and I thought, ‘The salmon don’t need me, what about the other cool fish, invertebrates, and amphibians like toads and frogs?’ Years later, I finally understood that salmon and their immense reach is what ties our local ecosystems together. The ‘big wet blanket’ of floodplain restoration provides for healthy salmon spawning habitat and protects off-channel habitat, which are critical for the less known Olympic mudminnows, and amphibians like the Oregon Spotted Frog. I discovered that these connections led me back to salmon, and allowed me to talk about other key aquatic species including native freshwater mussels.”   

Teal remains active with the Pacific North West Native Freshwater Mussels Working Group. Native freshwater mussels are known as natural filters, filtering suspended materials and bacteria from the water. They are also an important source of food for many fish, mammals and birds, and help to stabilize the bottom of a rivers and streams and help to mix it as they burrow, increasing oxygen exchange. They are indicators of good water quality and habitat stability. Ten years ago, the Chehalis River at the Wakefield Bridge in Elma was home to a couple of species of native freshwater mussels that numbered in the tens of thousands. Today, the former huge bed of robust mussels are gone.

“There was no smoking gun, when I look at the river today, it doesn’t look different. It’s startling, not knowing why,” said Teal. It is known that mussel populations are declining globally, but despite recent studies, the factors contributing to these local declines are largely unknown.   

In discussing his work, Teal shared that after working on  research and policy , most of the work that he does now is habitat outcome driven, always asking ‘what can we do better?’ “When we work with local landowners, we collectively work to meet specific habitat objectives and goals. Before the approach was ‘how many trees can we cut down and still protect a particular species?’ Today, we ask ‘how do we ensure that there are enough pollinating plants for invertebrates, or ‘how do we have enough nearshore sediment to support forage fish?’ The work that is done today is very research-based, and partnership driven. The information collected helps to drive policy, and shows how restoration data matters and information gained is applied back into protecting and restoring landscapes.”

In his close work with local landowners, Teal always wears his ‘listening hat’, as the landowners live on the land through all the different seasons and have a lot to say. A landowner may share, ‘oh yeah, we get lamprey here,’ or we could learn that a landowner may have one of the last Puget Lowland breeding populations for Western toads,” shared Teal.   Listening carefully to understand what the land is eventually leads to healthier, and more durable restoration of the land.

In returning to the discussion of salmon, and asked what he has learned from salmon, Teal said, “I’m fortunate enough to have worked in Alaska in the Tongass National Forest where salmon flooded through the forest, just like salmon once flooded through forests in Washington State. I saw directly what vital nutrients salmon are to the forests  – I saw the immense footprint of marine-derived nutrients to temperate forests. I observed how salmon were not just food for people, but how they support an incredibly complex biodiversity of plant and animal species.”

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Teal can be reached at Teal Waterstrat, USFWS Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Tel: (360) 951-2560;  or via E-mail:  Teal_Waterstrat@fws.gov.

To learn how you can be involved in projects that support salmon recovery, visit the Chehalis Basin Lead Entity website: www.chehalisleadentity.org. Or contact Watershed Coordinator, Kirsten Harma: (360) 488-3232