Reaching Out: Diversifying Steward Experiences and Reaching New Audiences Away from the Boat Launch

By: Nicole Smeenk, Watercraft Steward Program Coordinator, Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Throughout the summer, our stewards are able to participate in community outreach and education throughout the region. These opportunities allow the Watercraft Steward Program to have further reach in their messaging about aquatic invasive species. This year, eight of our stewards participated in one or more outreach events. So what do stewards bring to a tabling event? It depends on what the event is, but typically we start with basics: table, chair, and tablecloth. Our tablecloth has all relevant logos and acts as a cue to help the community start to build recognition of our mission. Whether the event is a general introduction to invasive species or a focused look at a particular species, understanding the purpose of the event will influence our interactions, direct what forms of information are present and drive our take-away messaging. Regardless of the venue, our stewards make a point to encourage the public to be vigilant to know, observe, and report AIS to the proper authorities.

Another benefit of our participation are our displays which draw the attention of people at the event. We have preserved samples of invasive species, from sea lampreys to water chestnut nutlets to Brazilian elodea, that captivate even the saltiest attendee. People often exclaim: “What is that!?” (KNOW), which is a great way to start the conversation about how to identify invasives (OBSERVE), the effects on an ecosystem and discuss information about their waterbody. If people want to be more engaged, we hand out contact information, direct people to our websites (REPORT).

Figure 1. Outreach events attended by FLI stewards during the 2019 season, and numbers of people reached. Estimated Total People indicates the estimated number of attendees for an event, and the Estimated Interactions shows the number of attendees engaged by stewards at an event.

During the 2019 season, watercraft stewards attended numerous events (Figure 1) where they are able to keep track of direct interactions with the community and provide the number of attendees for reporting. This allows us to look at how many interactions occurred at various events.

One of our stewards participated in the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Outdoor Expo at Mendon Ponds Park. Our involvement was meant to help introduce people of all ages to a number of outdoor activities at beginner and intermediate levels. We prepared to engage with outdoor enthusiasts who would likely care a lot about invasive species that might degrade their experience. Our stewards are versed in, and can answer questions about, AIS identification methods, aquatic ecology, growing seasons of AIS, and of course, best practices for stopping the spread of AIS. Over a thousand people attended and our steward spoke with more than 200 of them!

Watercraft Steward Jarod Ruffle tabling at the 2019 4-H Expo at Ontario Beach Park in Rochester, NY. This location is less than a mile from Jarod’s main launch, and a short drive from his house in Greece. Displayed on Jarod’s table is a typical assortment of outreach materials including pamphlets, brochures, giveaways, and even some real samples of aquatic invasive species!

Stewards also attend annual meetings for lake associations. This year we had presence at three: the Otisco Lake Preservation Association, the Honeoye Valley Association, and the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association. These events were smaller and more focused than some of our other events. Attendance ranged between 50 to 100 people, but the audience is very tuned into what is going on in their lake. At this kind of event, stewards provide further information for anyone interested in identification of aquatic invasives, folks concerned about what invasives neighboring lakes might contain, or even what launches on their lake have steward coverage. These events offer an opportunity to incorporate information about the FLI and the FL PRISM, in addition to watercraft stewards in general into the landscape of a watershed.

We also like stewards to be an active part of fishing tournaments and derbies held in the region. For example, we had a steward at the 2019 SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Cayuga Lake. This is a national, televised fishing event that brings thousands of visitors to the village of Union Springs. Our steward inspected many of the boats that competed when they launched and he talked to many of the event-goers. The FLI WSP management also teamed up with the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network to provide steward coverage at a 48-hour tournament at Myer’s Point Park on Cayuga Lake. This event coverage was arranged at the last minute due to the recent findings of Hydrilla at the marina next door to the park. Offering such an immediate response to the recent Hydrilla findings demonstrates the value of partnerships. By tapping into the network of partners and stakeholders specific to Cayuga Lake, the WSP was able to coordinate strategic coverage. The audience for this kind of event was primarily anglers and fans of the sport, which means that we were prepared with tailored information about how aquatic invasives can impact fisheries.

Community outreach is an important part of marketing for any industry, but it is especially vital for anything related to science. It is an esential way for the public to learn about what the WSP does, and the issues we’re concerned about. Stewards become local educators. When we get the opportunity to spread our messages during these events, we can provide updates on current projects and the status of their local launches. Which launches have AIS disposal stations? Which waterbodies have Hydrilla? Do I need to worry about Eurasian watermilfoil? Our stewards are kept sharp, and are eager to help answer your questions about AIS! The greatest part of the outreach, however, is the interaction. Having our table at an event provides the public with a face that they can ask their questions and raise their concerns to. This is one of the many ways our program is cementing the Finger Lakes Institute and Hobart and William Smith Colleges into the boating culture of the Finger Lakes Region.

Outreach events benefit stewards in many ways. Most are just starting their careers in the environmental field, and outreach is key for many of their career paths. By tabling at events, stewards get valuable public speaking experience. They aren’t just memorizing a speech, but learning to educate while listening to questions and complaints. Effective communication is essential.Not only do these events help with public speaking, but participating in multiple events helps a steward learn how to adapt and improve their outreach strategies for different audiences. Different approaches are needed for different ages and cultural backgrounds as well. The AIS examples used for children who grow up around lakes may not register with someone who lives in a city. These opportunities for stewards provide valuable experience with interpersonal communication, a valuable skill for any young professional. Outreach events can also help in building a professional rapport. At these events, stewards represent the Finger Lakes Institute and HWS in a more formal situation than at a boat launch. They are expected to conduct themselves professionally; speaking with organizers and attendees, networking with fellow presenters, and keeping themselves and their area clean and presentable creates a work experience distinct from the typical steward day.

The FLI has watercraft stewards in 7 counties, and many stewards come from the communities surrounding their main launches. With the training and knowledge from the FLI and their eagerness to deliver community outreach and education, our stewards are all set to continue providing an important service to the Finger Lakes region and beyond.

For more information about how you can have a Watercraft Steward table at your event, please email beck-andersen@hws.edu

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