Love at First Fish

by Anne Beaudreau & Chris Sergeant

Editor’s Note: The University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (UW-SAFS) will celebrate its centennial year in 2019. As alumni, my husband Chris Sergeant and I were asked to write an article for a series about partners who met each other at UW-SAFS. Our article below was published as part of the Centennial Story series, along with other contributions from our friends and colleagues: https://fish.uw.edu/2018/08/centennial-story-24/. We have lots of great memories from that time and enjoyed reminiscing about the early days of our relationship as graduate students in Seattle.

♦♦♦

“Hey, what does your Leslie matrix look like?”

During my final quarter as a Master’s student in 2004, Anne and I had already become good friends and regular study buddies. We shared mutual embarrassment when Dr. Don Gunderson looked over our shoulders and could barely hold back his disappointment as we struggled to fill in an age-structured Leslie matrix. Our early days as friends shaped our future together. Anne likes to believe she shifted my dreams of semi-pro bass fishing and lure testing to PhD fisheries researcher. In turn, I honed Anne’s research acumen by increasing her acceptance of salmon and freshwater ecosystems as legitimate and interesting study subjects. –Chris

“Have you ever tried a drop-shot rig for lingcod?”

This was said during Chris’ intensive bass fishing phase, when he tried to bring his warmwater recreational sensibilities to a marine reserve in the San Juan Islands. It turns out that the drop-shot rig worked great, as did sight fishing for aggressive lingcod in the kelp canopy. I had many volunteers help me fish for science over the years – around 60 in total – but Chris was the cream of the crop. He had the highest catch per unit effort of any volunteer (yes, I kept track) and also picked the best snacks. We wrote a rap together about the life and times of Jethro, one of my acoustically tagged lingcod, as we tracked his stealthy movements through the night. It was in the field where we really got to know each other. Chris helped me hook lingcod in the San Juans, I helped him pull gillnets on Lake Washington. In the early days, we debated (only half-jokingly) about the merits of fresh- versus saltwater ecosystems; in the end, we have found shared curiosity and wonder in both places. –Anne

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Safety first for Anne and Chris at Friday Harbor Labs, circa 2004. Photo by Danny Garrett.

“We can move wherever you want, except to an island.”

It was time for Anne to realize her years of hard work and find a fulfilling faculty position. I did my best to keep an open mind about potential locations. Juneau – with no connection to a continental road-system and surrounded by impassable icefields (i.e., basically an island) – was pushing the limits of my comfort zone. But we did it, and seven years have flown by. Anne is an associate professor of fisheries at University of Alaska Fairbanks and I am an ecologist with the National Park Service. We still go fishing and even write the occasional paper together. In 2014, we welcomed James Neil Sergeant to the world and have enjoyed watching him become a resilient, puddle-loving Alaskan kid with an intense interest in everything around him. –Chris

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Fishing is a family affair now. Photo by Eric Ward.

“Hey Dad, the velcro star has a lot of pedicellariae.”

Our stomachs dropped. Was our only child going to become an invertebrate biologist? Until recently, our almost-four-year-old was not a big fan of boats and we would have to lure him (pun intended) onto ours with donuts. Fortunately, young James seems to enjoy all manner of aquatic creatures – the finned, the spiny, the squishy, and the slimy. Chris and I both still do a lot of fieldwork, so James is often parented by one of us at a time in the summer while the other is off doing “fishy work.” It’s just a matter of time before he’ll be right alongside us in the field, teaching us how to identify sea stars and reminding us of the joy we felt when we held our first fish. –Anne

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With fish nerds for parents, James is already learning the tools of fisheries ecology. Photo by Cheryl Barnes.

 

Sharing our love of science during UA Fisheries Days

by Anne Beaudreau

University of Alaska students and faculty in the fisheries program kicked off spring with a science extravaganza for the public. Billed as UA Fisheries Days at Lena Point, the two-day event featured the 22nd Annual Student Research Symposium on Friday, April 6th, 2018, and a Fisheries Open House on Saturday, April 7th. The events were held at the Juneau Fisheries Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

Chris Sergeant (20)

Kids and adults loved the opportunity to climb aboard our 27-foot research vessel, the R/V Ishkeen. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

Opening our doors to the public

To find UAF’s Juneau Fisheries Center, you head “out the road” away from downtown Juneau. You drive along the wetlands, past the populated Mendenhall valley, and on towards Auke Bay, which is your last chance for coffee and snacks before you head out along the last 30 miles of the Juneau road system. Plenty of Juneauites head out the road for a hike on a nice day, but not many visit our building on their way there. After all, we’re not very easy to find – our building is tucked away on Lena Point, out of the public eye, about 5 miles past Auke Bay.

The Juneau Center has been co-located with NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories on Lena Point since 2008, but our Saturday event was the very first open house for the public. One of our goals for the open house was to increase awareness of the UAF fisheries program within the broader Juneau community. Many of the people attending our open house said they hadn’t known about us and were thrilled to discover the extent of the fisheries research and education taking place in Juneau.

“I’ve always, always, always wondered what was out here,” one visitor said with excitement, “and now I know!”

Most Juneau residents we’ve talked to are surprised to learn that UAF has a presence here. In fact, there are around 10 faculty and 40-60 graduate students, depending on the year, based out of the Juneau Center. The Juneau Center moved from the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) to UAF in 1987, when the School (now College) of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences was created1. To this day, we work closely with faculty and students at UAS, which is just down the road from our facility. UAS marine biology undergraduate students and faculty provided an incredible touch tank experience for the open house visitors.

1 https://www.uaf.edu/cfos/about-us/locations/juneau/

Sherry Tamone, a University of Alaska Southeast professor and joint faculty member at UAF, shows off the octopus to an eager crowd of visitors. The octopus was easily the star of the touch tanks! Photos by Gabrielle Hazelton (left) and Chris Sergeant (right).

Variety is the spice of life (and research)

The student research symposium on Friday featured talks by graduate students that highlighted the breadth of UA research on freshwater and marine ecosystems and its contributions to sustainable fisheries in Alaska. The student organizers in Juneau and Fairbanks provided a videoconference connection so that presenters and audience members could tune in from all parts of Alaska. The symposium drew around 70 attendees in Juneau and 20-30 in Fairbanks and other locations. It was sponsored by the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, the St. Hubert Research Group, and the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (CFOS).

Anne Beaudreau (5)

The 22nd annual student research symposium drew a good crowd in Juneau. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

A striking aspect of the symposium was the diversity of research being done by fisheries students, faculty, and their colleagues from the Arctic to Southeast Alaska and beyond. Projects range from kelp aquaculture to public perceptions of whale watching, predator effects on young salmon to monitoring of rapidly changing rivers and coastal habitats. A cross section of the research was highlighted in a Juneau Empire article that promoted the symposium.

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Several students won awards for their presentations. From left: April Rebert (1st place, Long Talk), Ali Schuler (3rd place, Long Talk), Justin Priest (Best Introduction), and Matt Callahan (1st place, Short Talk). Not pictured: Caitlin Forster (2nd place, Long Talk). Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Something for everyone

Our open house on Saturday mirrored the diversity of research and interests that students showcased during the symposium. Nearly 500 visitors of all ages circulated to different activity stations that provided hands-on opportunities to explore the work we do in fisheries and ocean science. There was something for everyone, from toddlers to retirees.

In one of the labs, visitors learned about how we study the inner lives of fish, from determining their age using ear bones (otoliths) to uncovering clues about their nutrition from the contents of their stomachs. The How Old is That Fish? station wasn’t just about fish; our guests also learned about how researchers age crab and geoduck. (Hint: it’s all in the shell!) At the Diet Detectives station, kids got to do a bit of fish forensics by identifying “prey” (i.e., paper and pipe cleaner creatures) using dichotomous keys. Some of the kids loved the game so much that they identified every type of prey and, in one case, went through the whole process twice. Several parents were commercial fishermen who connected with the research, saying that they often look inside stomachs of fish to get clues about where, when, and how to target them.

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The photo booth was popular with kids and adults alike. Here, one of our guests showed off her catch of the day. Photo by Megan McPhee.

At the Marine Mammal Extravaganza station, there were many marine mammal pelts, baleen, teeth, and skulls to touch. Kids played a sea otter foraging activity game to learn about how otters use their sense of touch to find the right food. They also got to test their humpback whale identification skills, matching photos taken of humpback whale flukes with a Fluke ID Catalog. The Microscope Discovery station not only gave visitors the opportunity to view teeny tiny Arctic cod otoliths and baby crabs under the microscope, but guests could also take a photo through the scope and create a customized button from the image!

Marine Mammal Station_photo by Chris Sergeant

Microscope Station_photo by Megan McPhee
Graduate students shared their knowledge of creatures great and small: Jenell Larsen presented some marine mammal skulls (top) and Zane Chapman provided a close-up view of baby crabs (bottom). Photos by Chris Sergeant (top) and Megan McPhee (bottom).

Meanwhile, on the second floor an intense computer game called So You Want to be a Salmon Manager? was underway in which participants were tasked with managing a salmon fishery in real time. Down the hall, at The Crazy Life of Kelp, the public learned about and saw every stage of the amazing life cycle of kelp, from live swimming spores to mature kelps. Master’s student Annie Thomson, who led the activity, said that a family who visited had one child who was thrilled by the kelp station and another who would not leave the salmon management game. “It was really cool to have so much diversity in activities,” Annie said. “There really was something for everyone!”

Megan McPhee (10)

Chris Sergeant (15)
Young learners explore the tiniest life stages of kelp (top) and try their hand at salmon management (bottom). Photos by Megan McPhee (top) and Chris Sergeant (bottom).

We lucked out with a beautiful bluebird day, which enticed people to explore the outdoor Science Show-and-Tell station, where they got to test out and try on the tools of marine ecology. Visitors toured the R/V Ishkeen, our 27-foot research boat, and learned how to measure temperature and salinity off the side of the vessel. A few brave kids donned SCUBA masks and dunked their heads in a tank of cold water.

Chris Sergeant (7)
One of the most popular activities was the touch tank station, where people had an opportunity to get up close and personal with some very brave marine invertebrates. My son James especially loved the “sticky anemone.” Photo by Chris Sergeant.

When our guests needed a break, they could enjoy a snack and watch a slideshow of our adventures in the field and lab. The younger crowd had lots of opportunities to get creative by coloring and creating their own humpback whale fluke patterns.

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Angie Steeves and Judith Rosellon Druker kept everyone refreshed with snacks aplenty. At one point, we nearly ran out of food and our administrative manager Gabrielle Hazelton made a heroic grocery store run to replenish provisions. Photo by Megan McPhee.

My job was arguably the most fun, because I stationed myself at the table in the front lobby and got a chance to welcome every guest and hand out bookmarks, pens, magnets, and other fun CFOS items. Some of the kids reported back to me about their favorite experiences: “The octopus!”, “The salmon management game – there were 8 million salmon and I’m on the leaderboard!”, “Microscopes – I had no idea that crabs started out looking like that!” One of the parents said to me as she pointed to her young son, “I’m probably more excited than he is!” Needless to say, I got to witness a lot of excitement from kids and adults alike and more crushed Goldfish crackers on the lobby floor than I thought was possible.

Anne _ Ashley_photographer unknown

Associate professor Anne Beaudreau (left) and Master’s student Ashley Bolwerk (right) took a lead role in coordinating the open house. Photo courtesy of CFE Lab.

Connecting through science

This was truly an “all hands on deck” effort—undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, staff, faculty, and volunteers worked together to make our inaugural open house a success. Every member of our Juneau CFOS community who was able to participate contributed their creativity, energy, time, and excitement to the day. But, as many of us experienced that day, outreach is not just about giving your time and energy; you get as much as you give, if not more.

Rhea Ehresmann, who is completing her Master’s degree while working at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, explained it best:

“My normal work duties involve lots of tense and stressful conversations with fishermen and the public as restrictions are being implemented for fisheries. I forgot how wonderful it is to interact with kids and people who have a genuine interest in our fishes, oceans, and science that we do. I’m pretty sure I left the open house feeling as inspired and filled with positive energy as many of those who attended. It was a great opportunity to share what we do, why we do it, and how we do it with the public.”

Thinking about all those happy kids, grateful parents, and an energized fisheries community, I agree wholeheartedly. We can’t wait to do it again in April 2020!

Chris Sergeant (22)

Rhea Ehresmann teaches the next generation of scientists how to identify what’s in a fish’s stomach. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

 

Thanks to the entire UA fisheries community for sharing their photos and experiences, which helped shape this story.

So you want to be a fishery manager? Working in the complex world of Alaskan fisheries management

by Rhea Ehresmann and Natura Richardson

If a pot gear fleet averages 1 million pounds of Pacific cod harvest in a day but harvest rates have been increasing the last week, and a huge storm is projected for the next three days, and four boats are down for a mechanical, how long will it take to harvest the remaining 5.6 million pounds?

A. To answer this question, I need to know swimming speed and spawning stage of Pacific cod, direction of ocean currents, water temperature, and abundance of predators

B. Let me get my Magic-8 ball

C. Around 7 days

D. My model fails to converge when I include mechanical breakdowns

If you answered C, you might be cut out for fisheries management! As fisheries managers, we are faced with questions like this regularly and have to make our best guess at the answer with the data and information we have at hand.

What is fishery management?

Fishery management aims to maintain sustainable production of fish stocks over time while promoting the socioeconomic well-being of fishers and fishing communities 1. In Alaska state fisheries, management actions are wide-ranging but generally involve establishing a harvest target or limit for a species using time, area, and gear restrictions. Harvest limits may be established by the managers, often with input from many other research or dockside staff and in consultation with other agencies and treaties. Harvest limits can come in many forms, such as individual quotas, total allowable catch (TAC), and area, gear, or season allocations. Managers are responsible for hitting the harvest limits without going too far over or under. Best would be to hit a bullseye.

While methods for management may be similar among fisheries, each fishery is unique and managed differently. For fisheries with high participation and harvesting power, it is hands-on, requiring rigorous in-season management methods, such as daily calls to fishermen to get real time estimates of harvest. Sometimes fisheries are managed down to the last fish or hour. Other fisheries are slower paced, require minimal communication with the fleet, and can be entirely monitored through records of how much fish was caught (“landings”). Fisheries might close when landings indicate the harvest limit is reached or when the fishing season has ended. We use many tools to make decisions: biological samples collected from harvested fish, catch records, information from the fleet, logbooks, data from on-board observers, aerial surveys, electronic vessel monitoring systems, weather websites, and lots of Excel spreadsheets.

Stacking net_photo by Anne Beaudreau.JPG

Fisheries like this salmon purse seine fishery in Southeast Alaska depend on real-time decisions by managers about when and where to open and close the fishery. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

A day in the life of a fishery manager

The typical morning routine as a fishery manager looks something like this: pour coffee, look at current harvest for open fisheries, and examine daily harvest rates and areas. We pore over weather webpages to determine which areas are fishable and which vessels are capable of fishing under current and future conditions. This helps us anticipate increases or decreases in daily harvest and the number of remaining days for fishing. If the fishery warrants, we do a daily call out to fleet to get the most recent harvest reports and see if fishing is improving or dropping off. After this morning routine or during slower times, we work on written reports that describe plans for prosecuting the fishery or summarize the last fishing season, including number of boats, total harvest, areas of harvest, revenues, and so on. When we are not working on a report (and there is always a report), we might be running data requests or reviewing old reports and preparing materials for upcoming management meetings.

Yet, the pace of our day is largely determined by the incoming phone calls or visits from fishermen who have questions to ask or information to share. Inquiries may come from a captain wanting to know the harvest limits in an open fishery, a greenhorn interested in breaking into a fishery for the first time, or an entrepreneur filing the paperwork to sell catch off their boat. Alaskan fisheries are dynamic, and as a result, life in fishery management is ever changing. The health of the stocks dictates how (or if) we will have a fishery, so fisheries and seasons may change from year to year. Fish move in, fish move out. Some weeks are very exciting and busy, other weeks are quite slow.

Rhea At Work_courtesy of Rhea Ehresmann

The life of a fishery manager involves lots of reading, writing, and data wrangling as Rhea can attest. Photo courtesy of Rhea Ehresmann.

Pros and cons of a job in fishery management

Two major pros of working in fisheries management are human interactions and learning opportunities. It is not an ivory tower position. The job and daily decisions are tangible. Every day we talk with someone who has touched fish, run fishing gear, or purchased fish and through these interactions, we learn. We learn from fishermen about the capacity and capability of boats and their gear. Fishermen are the eyes on the water who see things first hand. They share their observations of the environment, from whales to birds to pyrosomes to water temperature. From processors we learn about markets, products, and economics. From dockside samplers we learn about the biology of harvested species, such as signs of spawn, abnormalities, disease, and parasites. We not only learn from human interaction but also from attending management meetings, participating on stock assessment surveys, or reading and preparing reports. Rather than being the expert and learning a lot about one thing, we get to learn about a wide range of all things fisheries.

The pros of the job can also be the cons. While it’s rewarding to have good relationships and communication with the fleet or processors, that reward can diminish when fish stocks are down and conservation efforts must be taken. We are the bearers of bad news and we hear when difficult decisions impact many people. Additionally, because there is so much to learn, it can be frustrating to be speaking with someone and not have the answers or forget something that you just looked up for the fifth time. Information Overload. And lastly, because there is so much distraction in speaking with people or researching, it can take weeks or months to finish a report. Projects can drag on.

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Well-informed fishery management decisions are important for maintaining sustainable fisheries and strong working waterfronts. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Preparing for a job in fisheries management

If we’ve sold you on the job based on the daily routine, endless learning opportunity, and great relationships you’ll develop, then get ready. Hands-on experience is extremely important and what we valued most when starting in fisheries management. One needs to understand how fisheries work. Start gaining experience in fisheries however possible – as a deckhand, port sampler, fishery observer, field technician, or survey volunteer. Get an idea of what life is like for fishermen, how the gear works, how fish are caught and handled from the ocean to the dock.

However, what you can’t observe on the dock or deck is the regulatory process. Understanding how regulations are implemented, created, and how they can be changed is crucial for a position in management. The best way to learn about this is to go to fisheries meetings, such the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) or Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) meetings to learn about the federal and state processes. UAF offers a cram course on the NPFMC where students attend a week of meetings; this course was so insightful. Early on in our management positions, we entered into the BOF cycles, which also forced us to read, write, and prepare for intense regulatory meetings. These short, rigorous meetings taught us as much as can be learned from months on the job.

Natura's observer days_courtesy of Natura Richardson
Fishery managers need to have a working knowledge of fishery operations to make good decisions. Natura got her early training as a fisheries observer in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Natura Richardson.

Concluding thoughts

“Managing fisheries is hard: it’s like managing a forest, in which the trees are invisible and keep moving around.” 2 This quote rings true for fisheries managers. Not only is it incredibly difficult to predict the abundance of fish and where they are at any given time, we also must account for the movements and effort of the fleet in real time. While some parts of management may be exhausting and overwhelming, it is also rewarding when harvest targets are met, the fleet is happy, our resources remain sustainable, and we provide the best fish products for the world. These aspects of fisheries management get us out of bed in the morning and keep us on our toes.

References

1 Hilborn, R. and C. J. Walters. 1992. Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment: Choice, Dynamics and Uncertainty. New York: Chapman and Hall.

2 John Shepherd. ca. 1978. Unpublished lecture at Princeton University.

Rhea Ehresmann began her career in fisheries as a deckhand aboard a commercial troller out of Sitka, Alaska, before making a move into fisheries research and management with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in 2010. She is currently the assistant management biologist for the commercial troll fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Rhea is also a Master’s student in the CFE Lab.

Natura Richardson has been working for ADF&G since 2010 and currently is the assistant area management biologist for state managed commercial groundfish and shellfish fisheries in the Kodiak, Chignik, and South Alaska Peninsula Areas. Natura is a CFE Lab alum and earned her Master’s degree in 2016.

Tips on Data Management from Someone Who Learned It the Hard Way

by Rhea Ehresmann

Experiences in data organization and management

It was 2 AM the week before a fisheries conference, and I was attempting some last-minute analyses. Having added a couple hundred lines of new code for figures, my code would no longer run from the beginning and I had a hunch it was because I hadn’t set everything up correctly initially. Ten hours and 25 Stack Exchange posts later, I had the realization that no researcher wants to have: my data needed to be completely reorganized from the ground up. I should have organized my data months ago (or ideally from the get-go) but instead I ignored it until it became absolutely necessary. Further complicating this issue was that I am a remote student working in Sitka (most of the faculty and students are in Juneau or Fairbanks) so finding the solution was entirely on me. Data organization is like working out or eating healthy: we all know we should do it, but often it is given the “I’ll do that tomorrow” excuse. Out of this minor meltdown, I learned a lot about data organization and management and even how to overcome roadblocks independently.

R Error Message

The message you don’t want to see at 2 AM when you’re trying to finish a presentation. Source.

How things go wrong

It often feels that life as a remote student is all about learning things the hard way. Being on my own in Sitka, I can’t walk down the hall to talk with another student about a problem or spontaneously chat with a professor in passing or after class. Only having my screen in front of me, I don’t have much opportunity to compare other students’ code writing techniques or data management practices. With my complete dataset nearly 4 million lines long, bad habits were started without corrections: developing a “run the code until it’s broke” philosophy, overwriting and deleting code I didn’t think I’d need, and even naming files poorly by just tacking on another number or “new” at the end of the name.

While these are now commonsense practices I avoid, I learned these after much trial and error, as well as after reading other articles on data organization and management using R. There are many other struggles that come along with being a distance student, but I believe it ultimately pushes me to be a better researcher. And the best part of being remote is no one can see your meltdowns! But you don’t have to wait until you are in a panic to start some best practices.

Code Confusion

What typically happens when you don’t follow best practices for coding in R. Source: https://imgur.com/gallery/x0ml8

Five data management tips

Careful organization and management of data and code is essential for any analysis. Taking the time and initiative to make clear notations for code, to be consistent with code-writing techniques, and to organize script files in your directory will help with more than data management of the entire project. These steps also protect against data loss and analytical errors while allowing your analyses to run smoothly from one to the next. There are many tips and tricks for data management taught in classes and online, but here are the top five I’ve learned from my solo trek to good data practices with links to more information on each:

  1. Keep raw data as a “flat” table saved in an open data format (like .csv) with records saved in rows, using descriptive and concise names for the data files. Though it is tempting to quickly add in a new column or delete some rows of data in Excel, don’t do it in the raw data file (more here).
  2. Be diligent and consistent with notation, syntax, and commenting lines in script files. Comment often! This will help to remember what/why you did something when revisiting an earlier analysis, as well as helping others make sense of your code if you need to share it. Also, don’t delete code you think you don’t need. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone back to this “unused code” months later, only to tweak it a bit and make it useable. Keep separate analyses in their own script files. Style guides like Google’s and Hadley’s R Style Guides are great resources.
  3. Use Stack Exchange to solve an issue or google your R questions. I’ve developed a special knack for figuring out how to do obscure things in R by scouring these websites. My philosophy is that anything I’m trying to do in R has already been done, and usually that is the case. It just requires a bit more patience and persistence to identify the search terms needed for finding the solution.
  4. Back up everything and keep your folders organized. Time spent searching folders for an older version of a script or data file is not efficient. I save script files and raw data files on Google drive for ease of access at any computer, along with an external hard drive. Dropbox is commonly used because of its simplicity of automatically backing up files. There are other options for version control and backing up data like Git that I don’t currently use but are worth looking into (more here).
  5. Don’t cut corners to save a few minutes in the short term. It’s so easy to make quick-fixes to get that figure to run or to get to the desired output, but these shortcuts aren’t worth the time you’ll have to spend fixing the code or trying to remember what you did down the road. Take the time to establish a good workflow for yourself, and be consistent with this while working on your analyses. There are great resources for establishing a solid workflow (more here).
Rhea Hard at Work

As her code now runs flawlessly, Rhea can relax and enjoy tea while finalizing a figure in R over winter break.

Wrapping up

Even though data management ranks up there in fun with tasks such as doing your taxes, folding laundry, and weeding the garden, the short-term pain will save you a lot of headache and time by having a well-organized and accurate end result. As I move onto new analyses for the next chapter of my thesis, I now know how important it is to set things up correctly from the beginning. Being a remote student during all of this has been challenging, but it has ultimately made me a much stronger student and more self-reliant. Meltdowns not included.

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Rhea is a Master’s student in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab and is studying the movement ecology of juvenile sablefish near Sitka, Alaska.

Unexpected Gains

by Natura Richardson

Editor’s Note: Grad school is hard, there’s no question about it. It is a time of immense personal and professional growth, which can be exciting but is also challenging and intense. The process of learning to master a craft – whether in the sciences or arts – requires confronting uncertainty, climbing steep learning curves, and a deep and sometimes uncomfortable examination of one’s own strengths and limitations. It takes perseverance. Natura Richardson, a Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab alum and author of today’s post, would call it grit. It also takes a support system of peers and mentors, friends and family. (We will discuss the importance of mentorship in an upcoming post.) Even with that support system, many graduate students – and post-graduate professionals – face feelings of inadequacy. The term impostor syndrome was coined in the late 1970s to describe people who feel as though they are a “fraud” despite evidence of high achievement. There have been some excellent articles written about this phenomenon as it applies to early career scientists (e.g., here) and the importance of scientists from all career stages sharing their own stories. In this post, Natura reflects on how she confronted her own feelings of being an imposter and other stresses of grad school, and the strength and resilience she gained from her experiences.

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I officially graduated from the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab in May 2016, although that already feels so long ago. How can something that was only a year and a half ago feel like it happened way back during the Jurassic period? I’ll tell you how: because graduate school is HARD and you try to forget it. While in school, I had amazing support from my husband who drew a bath and put me to sleep, an employer that provided field support and reasonable use of work time, an advisor who knew how to encourage, push, and laugh with me, and fellow students and lab mates that would lend a listening ear or help me with analysis or R script. The deck was stacked in my favor, and yet, for me, graduate school was this weird alternate universe, where I worked harder than I ever had, yet I often felt inadequate and irrelevant. After graduation, I was ready to move on and never look back. But the truth is, I do look back. A lot. There are certain experiences and lessons that I continue to positively draw from for my personal and professional growth.

Everyone has a different experience and not all students struggle so hard, but for those of you who are in the throes of grad school and need a little pick me up, here’s what I have to offer for motivation: my unexpected but oh-so-great gains from graduate school.

Out-running the anxious stress monster

Over the years I practiced all the standard graduate student responses to stress and anxiety: crying, complaining, getting frustrated or angry, drinking, and avoiding my advisor and hoping she would somehow forget I existed. Shockingly, none of those worked.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in Juneau is located on Lena Point, with access to forested trails leading to ocean views, right out the front door. One day, rather than break down in the student offices, I put on my sneakers and went for a walk. After a few walks, I started to run (although it was more of a shuffle). Be it walk, shuffle, or run, whenever I did something, I felt better. I tried to be consistent in going outside and getting exercise but with a constant fear of deadlines, it was hard to justify 20-40 minutes away from the computer. So I did something else I feared. I signed up for a 50-mile race. I was not a runner, had never run a marathon in my life, yet somehow I thought running almost double the distance while working on my Master’s thesis was a good idea. Boy, grad school was making me really crazy. But that commitment forced me to take a break, get outside, and do something else every day. From that daily commitment, I improved my mental clarity, physical energy, and perspective, which in turn helped me to become a better student, researcher, and less of an anxious stress monster.

Without the relentless stress of grad school, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure out that doing something for myself everyday would have enormous impacts on my mental and physical health? I’m done with graduate school now, but I am not done with running. If I ever feel the anxious stress monster trying to come out, I pull out my sneakers and run away from her. If you’re familiar with the anxious stress monster, I recommend identifying your stress-relieving, non-school activity and figuring out a way to make it mandatory. Believe me, it will be there for you after you’re done with your thesis.

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Natura outruns the anxious stress monster on Kesugi Ridge Trail near Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by Michael Bach.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

While in grad school, I said to myself over and over, repeated like a broken record “I can’t,” just like a whiny adolescent child. As it turns out, I’m a liar, liar, pants on fire because I could do it. I am capable. Working on my Master’s thesis was the first time that I realized how often I play that broken “I can’t” record and how much wasted energy goes into that. It was also when I discovered how capable I am and that I need to quit lying to myself. So it is from my thesis days that I now frequently draw strength when I start to doubt my abilities.

Remember that 50 miler I signed up for? At mile 35 the “I can’t” record started playing, but then I thought, “If I can finish that thesis, I can do this!” I bucked up and finished that race…then puked.

I have accomplished other goals, big, small, professional, and personal. I applied for a competitive job that I didn’t think I could get, and then got it. I busted out written management plans and fishery summaries in very short time frames. I painted the exterior of my house by myself, when I was certain I couldn’t without my 6’6” tall husband or hired help. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that because I finished a Master’s thesis I am now Superwoman in disguise, but I do remind myself to quit wasting time lying to myself with the “I can’t” talk and get cracking on whatever it is I want to accomplish.

Go through the grits

Many individuals are capable, smart, and maybe they are Superwoman in disguise. But just because someone is Superwoman and she can do something difficult, doesn’t mean she will.

My thesis did not happen overnight, over a month, over a semester, or even over a couple years. It took several years of field work, lab work, data analysis, writing, re-processing lab samples, re-running data analysis, re-writing chapters, incorporating edits. Did I mention re-writing? There were feelings of failure, adversity, and frustration that came with what felt like only minor victories or successes. But for some reason, I just kept going. And going. And going. Relentless. Forward. Progress.

Post-graduate school, and thanks to psychologist Angela Duckworth, I have put a name to this determined behavior: Grit. Angela Duckworth says grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. Having grit means maintaining determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. How many folks actually hold to their new year’s resolutions? Or lose those 20 pounds? Or write the peer-reviewed journal article after the committee has signed off on the thesis? Not that many. It takes some serious will-power to turn down chocolate cake, or put on your running shoes, or close your web browser. Pick a goal that cannot be achieved in a few days (or even just a few hours), throw in a lack of willpower and some tough challenges, and I bet that goal is likely to sit by the wayside, especially when the new season of [insert popular TV show] is released.

Sandpaper grit is measured as the number of particles per square inch. Wood can start out rough, scratched, and blemished but sanding with increasing levels of grit removes the scratches from the previous grit until the scratches are so fine that the wood is smooth as a baby’s bottom. Like a woodworker, I had to “go through the grits,” starting with a stripping 80-grit, to a smoothing 150-grit, and finishing with a 360- to 600-grit. In hindsight, I recognize that all those perceived failures or setbacks actually gave me grit. Now when I get a report back from a colleague that is bleeding red with edits, instead of crawling into bed and hiding, I don’t think anything of it. That’s just the first stripping grit; I want to get to the polishing grit. When it gets hard and you want to quit, just remember to go through the grits.

Graduate school is arduous, but for all your sleepless nights and caffeinated days, you do gain some great skills. You might graduate with fluency in computer programs like ArcGIS or R, you might become a stock assessment modeling genius, or you might be the expert on Pacific staghorn sculpin reproductive strategies (a highly coveted title, by the way). But for me, it has been the unexpected gains of healthy life habits and recognizing my capabilities and grit, where I have found the greatest value.

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It takes a village to raise a child…and to get through grad school. Natura (3rd from left) gives her advisor a break from parenting duties and enjoys the camaraderie of labmates.

♦♦♦

Natura Richardson received her M.S. in Fisheries from UAF in 2016 and is a groundfish and shellfish management biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, Alaska.

Critters

by Nina Lundstrom

Editor’s Note: Nina Lundstrom has been working with us since July 2017 and was a core member of our beach seining team over the summer. She arrived in Alaska already a seasoned seiner, having learned the tools of the trade during her internship in the San Juan Islands, Washington, the summer after graduating with a degree in biology and ecology from Colorado College. In this post, Nina writes about her work with the Kwiaht Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea and the people and places she got to know. Incidentally, I (Anne) also worked with Kwiaht nearly a decade earlier and helped train volunteers in the delicate art of inducing fish to regurgitate their meals (for science!). I was proud to be there at the start of the wonderful citizen science monitoring program that continues today. Nina’s story perfectly captures the feeling of working in the islands.

♦♦♦

“You have to see this picture I just took of the most gorgeous little earwig, sipping on some Yarro nectar!” My boss, Russel Barsh, had just come pounding down the trail towards me, brandishing his camera and looking nothing short of gleeful. This was undoubtedly the first time in my life anyone had ever used the words gorgeous and earwig sequentially. I stood up, brushing dirt off the knees of my pants, and took the camera, Russel still gazing lovingly at the photo. Through the course of the summer, I would get used to these reverential descriptions of some arguably repulsive creatures. It takes a special kind of person to see the beauty in something like a clam worm: a sickly pink annelid that moves like a cross between a snake and a centipede and can administer a nasty bite to the unsuspecting clam digger, but Russel had a gift for recognizing the nuances and charm in just about every living thing.

I was living and working on Lopez Island off the coast of Washington, and there was no difficulty in recognizing the nuances and charm of the place itself. The island was small, only 15 miles long and 8 miles wide. One main road ran from end to end, appropriately named Center Road. The island was covered in thick forests of douglas fir, some of which were over 500 years old, and each edge of the island looked out on Mount Baker, or the Olympic Mountains, or the Cascades, depending on where you stood. I was a research apprentice for Russel and his partner Madrona Murphy, the directors of a non-profit research organization, Kwiaht. I worked seven days a week, between six and twelve hours a day, split evenly between the field and the lab. My primary project involved fish genetics, but my daily tasks ranged from digging up square meters of frozen muck and determining the species and ages of the clams living in said muck, to monitoring the comings and goings of the bees on wild blackberries. Russel and Madrona had an unparalleled love for their jobs and for the natural world, and I never got the impression that the hours we spent collecting data felt like work to them.

The best days were the “seining days” on Waldron and Lopez islands. Russel, Madrona, several buckets of equipment, and I would load up into a 20 foot boat driven by the designated boatman of the day, my favorite of whom was Tom*. Tom was a middle-aged man who always wore Wrangler jeans tucked into his Wellingtons and cheerfully passed his time on the boat, fishing for lingcod while we worked. He loved to rant about the fishing industry and “the bureaucracy,” and he shared his freshly trapped Dungeness crabs with me. He would motor us to Waldron Island or the south side of Lopez, where we would set up the net, a contraption 120 feet long and six feet deep, with floats on the top and weights on the bottom. The boat would pull one end in an arc through the bay and back to shallow water. There, someone on each end would swim out and grab it and pull it in with the somewhat unwilling help of strangers who had unknowingly picked our research spot on the beach as their relaxation location. The minutes following the pull were nothing short of chaotic, as we held the net in the water and sifted through its occupants. I grew accustomed to blindly plunging my hand into the depths of the submerged net to grab a jellyfish, a crab, or a sculpin that could harm one of the smaller fish or, consequently, my fingers. These predators were casually tossed over our shoulders and swam happily away. Russel and Madrona both possessed an incredible ability to snatch swimming fish out of the water with their bare hands and identify them with a single glance. We counted and released gunnels, sticklebacks, perch, flounder, snake pricklebacks, pipefish, pink salmon and chum salmon, but temporarily kept the king salmon to extract their stomach contents.

*name changed for this story

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Beach seining on Lopez Island. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

It was easy to fall in love with king salmon, or Chinooks, as a species. The fish we studied were only about five days out of the river in which they were born, and they were charming and beautiful babies. Their glowing green backs sported cheetah-like black spots, and they swam less with their tails than with their tiny pectoral fins, alternating strokes. Most of them still had their par marks, perfectly spaced oval spots running down their sides, signifying their young age. We cheered for the fish whose stomach contents were full of smaller fish, and gently encouraged the ones who had only eaten an insect or two. I have never seen a pair of people so connected to and invested in fish vomit, but Russel and Madrona’s love for the Chinooks was infectious. Russel cooed to each individual fish, practically cuddling it as he plunged a blunt ended syringe down its throat to collect stomach contents. I was taught to perform “fish CPR” if any began to float, and someone was always closely watching the “recovery bucket” to ensure the well-being of the salmon. We didn’t have a single fatality all summer.

Chinook salmon_photo courtesy of Nina Lundstrom

Performing gastric lavage (left) and taking a small fin clip (right) from a juvenile Chinook salmon. Photos courtesy of Nina Lundstrom.

On one exhausting day, the first pull of the net yielded only smelt, a silvery fish that is a popular food source for island residents. A second net pull brought in herring, their rainbow scales flashing in the sunlight. A third pull seemed pointless and time-consuming on an already long day, but we did it anyway. Much to our surprise, thirty sizeable Chinooks were brought in, and we set up our “lavage station.” As we started our machine-like process of measurement, fin clip, scale collection, gut lavage, and recovery bucket, Russel whispered lovingly to one particularly large fish, “Oh, you are a little fatty aren’t you?” I did my best to disguise my laughter as a coughing fit.

My job was to sift through the stomach contents of each salmon and collect the sand lance, a small needle-nosed fish often eaten by juvenile Chinooks. I then extracted their DNA, amplified it with a set of primers (known gene sequences), and ran it through the genetic sequencer to try to formulate a population structure. It initially sounded like a straightforward process, and I dove in enthusiastically. Eight weeks of viciously whispered profanities followed. The monstrous machine had daily malfunctions, and as soon as things seemed to be running smoothly, some outside factor would throw the data off, forcing me to start over. Twice during the summer, all of the power in the school went out because of ongoing construction, and the whole machine crashed. All of the frozen polymers, buffers, and primers defrosted, became useless, and had to be reordered. While we waited for them to be shipped, I got the pleasant task of sorting through bags of poorly preserved dead fish, some of which had been partially decaying for three years. Oh, how I longed to work on the horrible machine in those days.

Seining on Waldron_photo by Nina Lundstrom

Setting up the beach seine on Waldron Island, a northern neighbor of Lopez Island in the San Juan Archipelago, Washington. Photo by Nina Lundstrom.

Near the end of my time on Lopez, Russel, Madrona, and I went out to the spit to check on some oysters that had been planted there the year before. We were knee deep in mud, cutting into the oyster bags to count the living and the dead. In the span of a year, the bags had become tiny ecosystems, kelp growing on the outsides and critters making their homes among the oyster colonies. Several crabs had crawled through the plastic mesh when they were small, made their homes, and grew too large to ever leave. They showed their appreciation for our rescue mission by vigorously pinching us as we returned them to the ocean. Russel opened one shell to find a spaghetti worm camping out in the enclosed space. Spaghetti worms are small and dark pink, with seemingly endless tentacle feelers that closely resemble angel hair pasta. They are the stuff of Fear Factor, the antithesis of charming. Russel beamed down at the worm. “You wonderful, smart spaghetti worm, how innovative of you to make your home in that shell,” he crooned. I turned back to my oysters, grinning.

Several hours later, hands caked in mud, and feet sunk fully and permanently into the mud, I found another shell housing a spaghetti worm. I released the worm into the water and watched it sink to the bottom and crawl away. “Good little spaghetti worm,” I whispered, in spite of myself.

Nina Lundstrom with sculpin_photo by Doug Duncan

Nina with one of the critters we love in Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Doug Duncan.

Things we’re thankful for

In honor of Thanksgiving, the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab took a moment to reflect on the many things we are thankful for.

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We are thankful for the scientific adventures waiting right outside our door and the people we get to share them with. ♦ We are thankful for the new experiences and amazing opportunities that Alaska has to offer. ♦ We’re thankful for the absolutely wonderful people that we’ve gotten to know while working with Juneau’s fishing community. The generosity they’ve shown with their time, knowledge, and resources have greatly improved our research. ♦ We are grateful to share our love of science with students of all ages, who make us feel forever young at heart with their endless energy, curiosity, wonder, and joy. ♦ We’re thankful for the continued enthusiasm of research assistants who have helped out in field and lab. ♦ We are thankful for the wonderful group of people we’ve had the chance to work with in the course of our research. ♦ We’re thankful that we get to live in a pristine place with such a presence of wilderness. ♦ We are thankful for the hospitality and warmth of Alaska and its people. ♦ We are thankful for the kind and generous people and breathtaking landscapes that make Juneau home. ♦ We are thankful for the wonderful people and beautiful places that fill our lives with happiness.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our colleagues, friends, and family across the world!

-Anne, Cheryl, Doug, Joe, Maggie, Matt, Nina, Rhea, and Veronica

A 5-star field extravaganza!

by Anne Beaudreau

There are many measures of success in fieldwork. The first, and most obvious, is whether you catch fish. They can’t just be any fish; they have to be the right fish to meet your study objectives. A second measure of success is whether the crew gets along. Luckily, most everyone I know in the field of fisheries loves to be outdoors. But you never know how personalities and expectations will mesh when everyone is wet and cold. Of course, the most important measure of success is whether everyone stays safe (and staying safe also means protecting the boat!).

Since 2012, the Coastal Fisheries Ecology lab has been studying the ecology of juvenile sablefish. Two weeks ago, before our team left for Sitka to begin a new phase of our sablefish field research, we were facing a lot of unknowns: Would we catch fish? NOAA researchers had caught juvenile sablefish in October during the 1980s and 1990s, but that was a while ago and every year is different. Would the weather hold up? This was fall in Southeast Alaska after all. Wind could be a real threat. Would there be any issues with the rental boat? We were pretty sure that the 22-foot Hewescraft would be just what we needed to get the work done, but hadn’t worked with the company before.

Pre-fieldwork uncertainty can be stressful. But uncertainty brings with it the promise of discovery, of seeing something new even in a place you have visited countless times, of learning something about the system you are studying. So, how did we do? Were we successful? If you read the title of this post, you’ll probably guess the answer: a 5-star week on all counts! Here’s a recap of the highlights, with reflections from the whole crew.

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The quest for sablefish begins. Even when it’s overcast, raining, or sleeting, St. John Baptist Bay is an idyllic place.

Catching the right fish and learning on the job

We were hoping to catch a range of ages and sizes, to understand whether young sablefish at different life stages store energy differently before they enter the lean winter months. Matt Callahan, the lead MS student on the project, and I had been planning this work for months and were eager to find out if, in fact, we would catch the “right fish.” Within the first moments of fishing we had our answer. As Matt said,

The most memorable aspect for me was the first day, or really the first thirty seconds of fishing. After months of planning and uncertainty as to whether we’d even catch fish, we finally put our hooks in the water and BAM! Our hooks barely hit bottom before getting swarmed with hungry, hungry sablefish.

Triple Sablefish_courtesy of CFE Lab

It was so exciting to reel in 3 or 4 sablefish at once! We caught nearly 300 all together.

Joe Krieger, a postdoc and collaborator on the project, was amazed to see the behavior of the fish in the wild. He said,

I’ve been feeding young-of-the-year sablefish in the lab so I had some appreciation for their lustful appetite and piranha-like feeding displays, but that was nothing compared to looking over the boat and seeing a swarm of 20-30 sablefish streaming to the surface in pursuit of my jig. Their voracious appetite and apparent generalist feeding strategy certainly help to explain why these fish are able to grow as quickly as they do.

Justin Priest, a MS student studying Arctic fish ecology, agreed:

The way that the fish were so clustered really surprised me. Fishing 100 feet in either direction yielded almost no fish, but when on top of them, there were a lot down there…how voracious they were really surprised me.

We retrieved the stomach contents of the ravenous sablefish using gastric lavage, a non-lethal technique that involves flushing out the stomach of a sedated fish with a gentle stream of water. I have lavaged thousands of fish, from 30-pound lingcod to baby salmon no longer than my pinky finger. Yet, I am still excited each time to see what ecological clues lie inside the stomach of a fish. Luckily, Matt, who will be doing a lot of gastric lavage over the next couple years, found it fun too:

I learned how to perform gastric lavage, and enjoyed seeing the stomach contents pour into the sieve. It’s like a box of gross fishy chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Matt Lavaging_photos by Justin Priest and CFE Lab

Matt retrieves the stomach contents of a juvenile sablefish using gastric lavage. Have you ever seen someone so happy to be holding a sieve full of fish vomit? Left image by Justin Priest.

As with all fieldwork, there were unexpected challenges. One of our goals was to measure the energy content of the main food types being eaten by sablefish in the fall. Sablefish were primarily consuming juvenile herring, amphipods, euphausiids (krill), and jellies. For most prey groups, we were able to salvage intact, minimally digested prey from the stomachs. As Cheryl Barnes (PhD student) noted, “sablefish eat tiny euphausiids,” so we tried to supplement euphausiid samples from stomach contents with field collections of more intact prey. Our attempts to catch euphausiids using light traps was unsuccessful, but we have some ideas about how to improve the process next time.

Camaraderie and teamwork

Science is fun when you’re working with fun people. And this crew sure was fun! In between the serious work of research – navigating to the study site, catching fish, recording data, keeping fish alive – we did a whole lot of laughing and snacking (see below). Rhea Ehresmann, a MS student studying sablefish movement ecology, said it best:

The most memorable aspect of the fieldwork was getting to know everyone better. Fieldwork provides an opportunity to disconnect from phones and email, and focus on the project together. We were able to spend more time in person working and talking together as a team.

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Rhea (left) drops her line in the still waters of St. John Baptist Bay, while Cheryl (right) moves a newly captured sablefish to the holding tank.

As far as safety goes, the owner of the boat rental company had set a low bar as he handed us the keys: “Just don’t sink the boat!” I’m happy to say that not only did we not sink the boat, but we got our crew safely to St. John Baptist Bay and back every day. Yes, we got soaked with rain and sleet, but the wind was kind and I saw more rainbows in the span of one week than I thought possible (outside of Hawaii). Joe summed it up perfectly:

Having just moved to Southeast Alaska I am still awed by the natural beauty of the Inside Passage: snow covered mountains, endless forests, sunlight glistening off the ocean surface, sea otters, bears. I could go on and on. We were extremely fortunate to have several excellent days of weather, which really was the cherry on top of an all-around great trip.

We also did a lot more singing than I expected. Wednesday was Alaska Day, and Matt serenaded us with the Alaska state song on the way to the boat. We topped off the week with karaoke and an impromptu dance party at Ernie’s Saloon, in celebration of Joe’s birthday. A sign of a good week in the field indeed.

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Joe, Justin, Matt, and Anne (left to right) celebrate the end of a successful trip.

 

Our favorite field snacks

Joe: Definitely the dark chocolate covered dried mango. I probably ate over half of the bag. Dark chocolate and fruit are healthy right?

Rhea: My go-to favorite field snack is cheddar and caramel popcorn mix. It makes a great snack because it satisfies salty and sweet cravings at once!

Cheryl: duplex cookies 🙂

Justin: Of course Grandma Tillie’s. And I’m not even a sweets guy!

Matt: Grandma Tillie’s blueberry donuts with lemon glaze narrowly edged out her pumpkin rolls. Mmm, so good.

Anne: I gotta agree with Matt and Justin!

In a future post, I will talk more about the research itself and why we think sablefish are so interesting. For now, you can find more information about the sablefish studies on our current research page.

All photos in this post are courtesy of the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab unless otherwise noted.

The little ROVs that could

by Veronica Padula

I felt like a little kid on Christmas when I opened the white box that said OpenROV. Inside that box was a kit that, when assembled, would become a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). ROVs are little robots that can be driven remotely to explore and capture images of the mysterious underwater world. For those who can’t SCUBA dive but want to see more of what lies beneath the surface, ROVs open the door to that world by capturing photos and video of things that live under the sea.

Plus, there were extra special surprises in the box: a red knit beanie with the OpenROV logo embroidered onto it, which made me feel like we were stepping into a scene from The Life Aquatic, and stickers! The stickers were my favorite part.

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ROVs have been used by marine scientists for decades but are now becoming more accessible to the public for exploring the depths of the ocean. Photo credit: http://www.openrov.com

We had actually received two OpenROV kits, and I was tasked with transporting the kits from Anchorage to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. They were a generous gift from the manager of the Trident Seafoods plant, Bill Briggs. The new instruments are meant for students to use to collect data as part of citizen science projects. I gave Bill one of the red beanies, which I think looks great on him, but I can’t wait to show him the video and photos that come from driving the ROVs around St. Paul harbor, the salt lagoon, and other unexplored territory.

ROV pieces_photo by Veronica Padula

So many pieces!

Our plan was to host an ROV Builder Club, where people from the St. Paul community could come together one night a week over the course of the summer to construct these ROVs. I was supposed to lead the ROV construction and sincerely wish I could say I have lots of experience with building things like ROVs, but sadly I do not. Luckily, Mr. Mac, Walt, and Jacob came to the rescue, contributing their knowledge and expertise to the ROV construction. Kids joined us too, including Zoe, Kadyn, Til, and Brynn.

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Jacob and Zoe work together to make sure we have all the parts we need.

It was wonderful to have folks of all ages joining our builder group, and the kids learned a great deal from the adults in our group, including patience. While kids wanted to just jump in and glue all the pieces together, I wanted to go through the entire kit and match every piece of construction material to the pictures in the manual so we were absolutely certain we had everything. You see, while living on St. Paul Island is amazing, sometimes it takes packages a while to reach us. So, if we had to order any parts for our kit, we definitely had to do it at the beginning of the process, because otherwise we would be stalled in our construction.

Team effort_photo by Veronica Padula

This was a team effort!

I had fun watching the kids match the ROV casing’s acrylic shapes to the pictures in the manual. It definitely tested my spatial awareness and likely tested theirs as well. They worked together to identify all the pieces of the kit. Gluing the acrylic pieces together was not an easy task, because we had to make sure the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly. The seals need to be water tight so that seawater doesn’t leak into the ROV and destroy the electronic bits and pieces that make it function. Luckily we had several people on our team who meticulously glued the parts together, so fingers crossed that the seals are water tight!

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Kadyn and Walt glue wires down and make sure everything is water tight.

While we have the ROVs mostly built, we are troubleshooting some technical hiccups with the batteries. Thankfully we have a dedicated team of builders that will fix these glitches so they are ready for their maiden voyages. I can’t wait to see the excitement on all the kids’ faces when we drop the little robots in the water for the first time and watch them sink away from us, disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Operating the ROV is a job for video-game aficionados, because we are using a video game controller as the remote driving apparatus for the robot. I just hope that our first mission does not involve donning dry suits to free a stuck ROV underwater. That water is cold!

Almost complete_photo by Veronica Padula

They are almost ready for their maiden voyages!

While I’m still no master ROV builder, I am so grateful for the community members that came together to mentor the students, and champion the ROV construction. Their work and dedication means the ROVs will come to life soon. The best part of the process is yet to come, when the kids can partake in ROV voyages and discover the underwater world that surrounds their home. This amazing technology will bring that world closer to them. Who knows, maybe they will discover new species of invertebrates or fish never seen before in the St. Paul ecosystem (or find someone’s glasses that fell off while paddle boarding). I can’t wait to share that joy and wonder with them. Even if the waters are murky, the kids will be able to experience something extremely special using these ROVs—the excitement of exploration. And the best part is that we can have countless ROV explorations over the years. Imagine all the amazing images we can capture, and the stories we can tell over many years through those images.

Captain Kadyn_photo by Veronica Padula

Kadyn will captain one of our ROVs.

We hope to test the ROVs in October. Zoe will captain one of our ROVs, and Kadyn will captain the other. We haven’t named our ROVs yet, but are open to suggestions. Stay tuned for pictures from their maiden voyage. Can’t wait to see what these little robots will find!

To see an example of some underwater ROV video, check out this vintage highlights reel that Anne put together in 2004 from an ROV survey in the San Juan Islands, Washington: www.vimeo.com/236496491

For more about Veronica’s graduate research, read her article on the impacts of plastics in the marine environment: https://krakenandfriends.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/guest-blog-the-plastics-problem/

All photos in this post were taken by Veronica Padula unless otherwise noted.

From the beltway to the icefield: An East Coaster’s experience in Juneau

by Willem Klajbor

What does the ideal summer vacation sound like to you? The image that pops into most people’s heads probably resembles an island resort somewhere, fully stocked with colorful drinks, and white sand as far as the eye can see. The average person probably wouldn’t come close to thinking about wading into the frigid ocean at 4 am, wearing a rain jacket every day, or evading bears on a hike. And the average person definitely wouldn’t want to be working in those conditions!

Let me back up – my name is Will, and I was lucky enough to spend last summer as a research intern in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab. My hometown is in suburban western New York and I’m currently a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying Marine and Coastal Management, Economics, and GIS. When I was a sophomore, I received the NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship, which gave me the opportunity to assist with research on any NOAA-funded project between my junior and senior years. The good news for me was that it led to ten weeks in the 49th state, where rain, cold, and bears are plentiful.

Business casual_photo by Will Klajbor

Will models “Juneau business casual.”

Specifically, I was working with Ph.D. candidate Maggie Chan to evaluate subsistence harvesters’ responses to a relatively new set of halibut fishing regulations. There are a lot of different terms for what I was: intern, research assistant, apprentice. But for me, all of that just meant working as a Swiss Army knife for the project – sometimes doing background research, other times managing and organizing our data, and even making maps. This was my first experience doing real research of any kind, so I was nervous going in, but Anne and Maggie made me feel at home right away and always kept me challenged with new tasks.

I also got to do some beach seining with Doug Duncan, another graduate student in the lab. There’s a great blog post about what that’s like here (link), and though there were some very early mornings and some very drowsy afternoons as a result, I was grateful that I had the opportunity to get in the water and do some field work while I was up north.

Starry flounder_photo by Phallon Tullis-Joyce

Sharing a moment with a starry flounder. Photo by Phallon Tullis-Joyce.

I was also lucky enough to be living with a group of other interns from around the country who were in Juneau working on projects at UAF. On top of that, we all grew close to the graduate students we were working with, so there was no shortage of people to show us new things about Juneau. And don’t get me started about Juneau – the city really is a hidden gem. Nearly every minute of my free time in Alaska was spent outside trying to find another hidden bike path or spot another bear. If you’re into leg workouts, I can tell you that I got a chance to hike some of the major day trails around the city, and those were usually enough to put us on our butts for the 12 hours that followed. But the view from the top was always worth it.

CFE Lab camping_photo by Maggie Chan

Building a fire in the pouring rain is one of the important life skills you learn in Southeast Alaska. Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab members, pictured from left: Cheryl, Doug, Aiden, Phallon, Madison, Will, and Nina. Photo by Maggie Chan.

My uncle, who’s a commercial fisherman in Homer, Alaska, warned me before I left that a lot of people catch “Alaska Fever” when they visit. And honestly, I really did think he was exaggerating. Now, I’m back in College Park, and it’s often difficult to go more than a couple of hours without daydreaming about the mountains or the whales that liked to hang out just outside the lab. Even though it rained nearly every day I was there (I’m not exaggerating, I could count the sunny days on one hand) and it never really got above 65°F, Juneau really left its mark on me. I really do love it here in Maryland too, but I can’t ignore the symptoms – I went up north and caught the bug, and now I’m stuck with “Alaska Fever.” Check it out for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Glacier view_photo by Dana Flerchinger

On rare sunny days, Juneau spoils you with amazing views of mountains, glaciers, and the sea. Photo by Dana Flerchinger.