Monday, June 19, 2017

We're Seining at Calvert Cliffs Again!

After the success of our seining demonstrations last year at Calvert Cliffs State Park, we've decided to continue the tradition into this summer! See below for the pictures from our event last Sunday the 4th. We'll be doing demonstrations on the first Sunday of each month throughout the summer- July 2nd and August 6th at 1:00. Please join us!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fall Field Trip: Omega Protein

This blog post was originally posted on Januray 24th, 2017 as "Learning About Menhaden: A Journey to Reedville" on the Fellowship Experiences Student Blog from Maryland Sea Grant.

We had been driving for about four hours down the Atlantic coast, across fields and under wide skies, when we finally pulled off the road to a little cafĂ© called Newsome’s Restaurant in Burgess, Virginia. I ordered some menu items that I had never heard of before – a "seadog" (a hot dog facsimile containing what I thought might be catfish, though the menu did not say and I didn’t care to ask) and a Northern Neck Ginger Ale – and that’s when a sense of otherness really began to set in.

Though neighbors, Maryland and Virginia are each famous for different fish and fisheries, which was reflected in my lunch. And seeing one of these Virginia fishery operations was the purpose of our lengthy field trip that October morning.

Our diverse group of nine, spread across three cars, had made the trek from our home campus of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Maryland, to Reedville, Virginia, the self-proclaimed "town that fish built." Unlike many other coastal communities that profit from tourism or sports fishing, Reedville is unique for its key industry that centers on the Atlantic menhaden – a fish species nearly nobody has heard of but nearly everybody uses in one form or another.

For me, menhaden were no strangers. I have been studying this species for my master’s thesis research and had my own motivations for helping to organize this trip. This was an exciting educational opportunity, a chance to learn a bit more about the fish upon which I’d been building my mathematical models for the past two years. I was incredibly grateful to get behind the scenes at the Omega Protein menhaden processing plant, the last of its kind on the entire Atlantic coast.

Author pictured second from the right, and as advised, wearing clothes she wouldn't mind disposing of afterwards. Credit: Bill Purcell​

Atlantic menhaden have gotten more attention in the past few years because of concerns about whether Omega is overharvesting them. The company says evidence indicates its harvests are sustainable. (Read more about this discussion here in Chesapeake Quarterly, Maryland Sea Grant’s magazine.) This small forage fish, though completely unpalatable to all but the most desperate diners, can be found in many commercial products. They are processed into omega-3, fatty-acid-rich nutritional supplements as well as aquaculture feed and fertilizer. People have utilized them for hundreds of years. The name "menhaden" even comes from the Native American word "munnawhatteaug," which means "that which fertilizes."

To get from this one-foot-long, oily, bug-eyed creature to the myriad of products we use them for requires several steps of fishing and processing. Most of which we got to witness first-hand on our trip to Reedville.

We were welcomed by the Omega Protein staff who guided us to a cozy conference room where we watched a video that demonstrated the fishing operation. Delightful as it might have been, having nine students and faculty go out on a fishing vessel that can often spend days offshore is a bit impractical.

But in the video we got to see the whole fishing process. Spotter planes take off across the Chesapeake Bay and nearshore Atlantic waters, looking for the telltale sign of a menhaden school – darkened bubbling waters where menhaden were being targeted by predatory fish and sea birds. Pilots can estimate with a high degree of accuracy not only the size of a school but also the average size of menhaden within that school.

The fishing vessel charges onto the scene and once in position, deploys two smaller seine boats that together use a single net to rope up as much of the school as they can. Once the bottom "purse string" gets pulled, it’s only a matter of hauling everything up onto the larger vessel and/or vacuuming menhaden into the hold. If done efficiently, the whole process may take no longer than half an hour.

My approximation of a menhaden, made from a menhaden byproduct: nutritional pills containing omega-3. 

Our guided tour around the on-shore facility in Reedville showed us how the processing continues onshore. The school of menhaden (or multiple schools, collected over several days) are deposited into a large holding vat and cooked at extreme temperatures. This procedure breaks down the fish and creates a sort of menhaden "slurry." Through a series of heating, cooling, and further chemical processing, the lighter liquid oil gets separated from the harder, denser meal.

Omega Protein told us about its efforts to make its processing operations sustainable. It uses recycled/reclaimed water extracted from the menhaden themselves as a cooling agent, which has saved about 18 million gallons of water annually, and safely disposes of nitrogen byproducts. Omega’s fossil fuel consumption has dropped by 80 percent since 2012 thanks to several plant renovations.

The final stop of the tour was a one-of-a-kind if not completely unexpected sight: actual mountains of fishmeal in a storage warehouse. Imagine sticking your nose right into a bottle of fish food, and you might have some idea of what that room was like.

Learning about Omega’s fascinating industrial operations and the company’s efforts to make them sustainable helped me to understand my own research a little bit better.

My research is intended to provide data and understanding that can help maintain the long-term sustainability of the menhaden population. To do this, I’m currently using a "mark-recapture" data set to estimate menhaden migration and death rates, both from fishing and natural causes. If we have good estimates of these metrics, we will know how much of the population we could safely fish while still avoiding large changes to the population size and minimizing overall impact.

During a mark-recapture study conducted from 1966 to 1969, researchers marked more than a million menhaden with individual metallic tags to track them in coastal waters. To recapture this abundance of tags, a little ingenuity was necessary. Instead of trying to catch the tagged fish individually, researchers arranged for large magnets to be installed in multiple fish-processing plants around the Mid-Atlantic, including at Omega. These magnets attracted the tags as the fish were processed.

The tagging study is long over, but some of these magnets remain at the Omega plant. Seeing how these magnets were designed and placed will give me a better sense of how I should incorporate this collection technique into my mathematical models. You can find out more about the Sea Grant-funded research project involving these tags run by my adviser Michael Wilberg here.

As a modeler, I rarely if ever get a chance to venture away from my computer and experience fisheries science in the "real world." Every time I do, it becomes the subject of a new blog post! (See here and here.) I love my project and my deskwork and wouldn’t ever trade it for fieldwork-heavy research. But I do treasure the few times I get my hands dirty, not to mention my clothes, which tenaciously carried the fish food odor from Omega for days. I am thankful to be in a graduate program that affords me these opportunities. Ultimately, they make me better at my own research and a better scientist overall. Not to mention the chance to be a little adventurous with my lunch choices.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Summer Book Club: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg Chapters "Salmon" and "Sea Bass"

On Wednesday August 31, the University of Maryland Chapter of the American Fisheries Society met to discuss our fall lineup of outreach and field trips and to discuss two chapters from this summer's book club book, "Four Fish" by Paul Greenberg. We plan to repeat a field trip undertaken two years ago by revisiting the Omega Protein plant in Reedville, Virginia! This is particularly exciting for president Emily Liljestrand, who is using models to study menhaden migration and plans to graduate in about a year. Our final seine demonstration would have been conducted that weekend, Sunday September 4, but unfortunately, foul weather derailed those intentions. If you missed any of the other three demonstrations, check out some pictures and descriptions HERE, and come out again next year. We had a lot of fun and look forward to starting up the seine demonstrations again next year. Thank you to everyone who came out and saw us and/or supported us. A special thank you to Alicia Lindbom, the lead park ranger at Calvert Cliffs State Park and to all the seasonal rangers. We literally could not do it without you.

A few of the subunit activities are still in the planning stages and much too tentative to report upon. But we'll keep the public abreast of our outreach and events as they become finalized.

Past AFS subunit member Cara Simpson looking over the fish ladder at the
Bonneville dam in Oregon. Fish ladders are one way to mitagate the effect 
of damning on salmon spawning runs.
With all that out of the way, we launched into our discussion of chapters "Salmon" and "Sea Bass." When pressed to identify the most surprising thing we learned from these pages, Carlos Lozano pointed to the information about dam building in the Pacific Northwest, which severely restricted salmon passage to spawning grounds. However, this decision was not made in ignorance, but rather a careful consideration of both detriment to fish and benefit to humans. As Greenberg puts so eloquently: "wild salmon as a commodity have never been economically valuable enough to deter the more immediately profitable human activities that destroy salmon." In retrospect, after the damage is done, we often don't give enough credit to the needs and wants of humanity at the time of the incident. Now we're at a point where habitat loss and overfishing have forced us to stock salmon- raise them in captivity and then have them released back in the wild to be caught by fishermen. However, this, and selectively capturing salmon at different times during their run risks removing critical genetic diversity that is essential for long term persistence of any population in the face of stochasticity.

In the Sea Bass chapter, the topic that piqued our interest was the etymology of fish species and the marketing motivations involved. A famous example of renaming a species when it performs poorly in the fish market is the Patagonian toothfish (later "Chilean sea bass"). Not a true bass, the name change nonetheless transformed this overlooked species into a popular and occasionally overfished fishery. The European sea bass, a real Morone or "bass" species, has also had a range of pseudonyms including "branzino," "loup de mer," and "spigola." The supposed intent is to add nuance and mystery to the deceptively widely available fish, instilling an air of vacation and adventure to the consumer. We could think of a few other examples of this tactic, including "capeshark" instead of dogfish, and "swai" instead of Asian catfish.

With the last bit of time in our meeting, we once again revisited an idea brought up in the introductory meeting for Four Fish- the role of non fiction in science education. Matt summed it up better than anyone- this book is a narrative account with science elements. Though it does not contain species names or statistics- essential in primary literature- the first hand style and story entice the reader into effortlessly reading this book for 100 pages in a single sitting. The non-scientific elements, such as the Greek's lengthy history with bass or the nuances of aquaculture regulation might not have crossed our path in any other format. We value this and other similar literature for broadening our understanding of our own science and how it is placed within a richly complex world.

We'll be finishing our reading of Four Fish and discussing the last two chapters: Cod and Tuna in a meeting later this month, where we will also hear from guest speaker Genny Nesslage about the history of the Omega Protein menhaden processing plant.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Summer Book Club: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

There is a long standing tradition of reading during the summer. There are slightly academic associations with this practice- teachers would assign one or two books for kids to read in the off months before returning to school in the fall. But in more recent years the idea of the "beach read" has also developed, a light and non-intensive story, usually aimed at women, to read stretched out in the sand. We wanted to try something else. We'd keep the sand and sea motif but we'd make it the topic of the book we read rather than the setting itself (although that by no means means you can't read this one in front of a body of water). We had several suggestions but ultimately decided on Paul Greenberg's Four Fish, a New York Times bestseller on the hardcover list, originally published in 2010. In this book, Greenberg explores the history and fate of four fish: Salmon, Cod, Tuna, and Sea Bass, and how they have come to globally dominate the fish markets. The AFS Student Subunit met last week to discuss the introduction, where Greenberg presents the concept of the four fish and explains his own childhood and vested interest in the persistence of fisheries.

We were impressed by the sophistication of Greenberg's discussion, even in this early chapter. He talks about growing up in suburban Connecticut with ready access to streams and lakes, and how as he aged he had to push further out to catch the same number of fish. He reveals his uncertainty about the root cause of this decline in local fish stocks; Instead of boldly taking a stance that overfishing was the villain, he admits that it could have been any number of things- the weather, copper sulfate, etc. This kind of admission of ignorance is a bold move for any writer who needs  authority and resoluteness to convince their audience, but as scientist we appreciate the humble and honest over the bombastic and potentially false. We already know with this introduction that we are in the hands of a dutiful levelheaded reporter willing to research rather than assume- to seek out what is right over what feels right. Greenberg is also a proficient orator, see below for his TED talk, essentially verbalizing the introduction to his book:

We then considered what it means for a message like this to come from a reporter rather than a scientist. Though it is true that scientists will more thoroughly understand the problem, the literature, and the contemporary research, a reporter has been trained to write eloquently and integrate ideas into a cohesive narrative. These days, with "Don't be Such a Scientist" being popularly passed around in academia, it is considered critical to create a story with your work for the public and fellow scientist alike. To create the requisite conflict, tension, and resolution, this necessitates placing the author into the narrative itself, something with which reporters have much more experience than scientist. They have better training with appealing to emotion, appealing to pathos by explaining the positive benefits of the work. We agreed that the ideal arrangement for a non-fiction book like this would be a collaborative project between both scientists, who have the detailed knowledge of the subject, and reporters, who can work this knowledge into an informative and entertaining narrative. Coming from an arguably objective reporter might also get controversial messages, for example restrictive fishing regulations, across to a potentially suspicious and hostile audience.

We then reiterated a popular topic among our group: how perceived trustworthiness and historical level of fisheries regulation are negatively correlated, something that is especially noticeable when you compare the East and West coasts of the United States. Basically, the East Coast has younger fishing stocks which have experienced fewer collapses and therefore less intensive regulation. So when regulation does need to be applied, watermen are more receptive to the message.

From there we moved on to our final topic- who is the true audience of these books? I asked our group how often they read books like this, fisheries non-fiction, a category in which we also place, say, Mark Kurlansky's Cod or Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters. Suzan said that these books were vital as a starting place when preparing for her PhD qualifying exams. They are an excellent resource for understanding how the field is perceived outside of the scientific community. They provide a much needed reminder of how important your work is in the context of the broader world. Many members echoed this sentiment, adding that they enjoy reading science books outside of our specific field, books like A Brief History of Time, the famous Stephen Hawking bestseller of 1988. However, as an outsider, we read this material with no idea of the bias or politics within the field. Though we can understand tensions, gripes, and intentional put-downs between fisheries scientists, and can thus take with a grain of salt anything one writer says of another, we have no such knowledge within the field of nuclear physics. Being scientists ourselves really does offer a unique experience of reading the books in our field because we have critical insider knowledge that shapes our perspective.

We hope to expand on and explore these ideas further in our subsequent meetings as we read through the chapters of Four Fish. Feel free to comment on any of the ideas expressed in this post below in the comments, and we'd love it if you read along with us! We're reading "Salmon" and "Sea Bass" before regrouping in mid-August.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Congratulations to our Future Knauss Fellows!

Congratulations are in order once again! One year ago, CBL had one student, Alex Atkinson, accepted into the Knauss Fellowship program. She's currently doing great things in the NOAA Office of Habitat Conservation, helping with a project to restore fish and wildlife habitat. Now, we are overjoyed to report that we have two Knauss Fellows from CBL!

So if you see or know Aimee Hoover or Gray Redding, please congratulate them. Both report that they are working hard on their theses so they can focus on finding a good office placement in the Fall. We look forward to seeing what great work they will do in 2017. We are so proud to have CBL represented once again in the class of incoming Knauss Fellows.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Our First Seine Demonstration at Calvert Cliffs State Park

Summer is here! We're out of class and into nature, some for fun and some for field work. The students in Dr. Secor's lab have restarted the annual seine survey (click HERE for our post on the history of this survey and how it is conducted). Though it's been going on for more than 15 years now, we realized that few of the public have ever seen this performed or know the significance of the data we collect in examining long term trends of fish abundance and diversity in our little corner of the Chesapeake Bay. We wanted to extend the operation to a public venue- though not for the purposes of data collection. We partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the outstanding, hard working rangers at Calvert Cliffs State Park, just north of our campus here in Solomons, MD to demonstrate a seining event. Check out the photos, all of which were taken by Christina Goethel, masters degree student at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Ours was only one of several interpretive programs at Calvert Cliffs that weekend. They also offer such programs as nature hikes and fossil discovery. Calvert Cliffs is infamous for the many readily-available shark tooth fossils easy to discover right along the beach. Click HERE to see a full calendar of events from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. We plan to repeat our seine demonstration next month, during July 4th weekend. So if you missed us this time, don't fret! There'll be more chances to get up close and personal with silversides, menhaden, croaker, and even a softshell crab or two!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Preparation for AFS-Tidewater Chapter Annual Meeting

We're now less than 24 hours away from the start of the 30th Annual AFS-Tidewater Chapter Meeting in Edgewater, MD!  Several of our members have been hard at work putting the finishing touches on their posters and presentations. We've even been working together on a group poster that will highlight a few of the exciting and extensive long term data sets collected right off our pier here at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. So if you're reading this now and also planning to be there, please stop by our spot at the Thursday night poster social. A full list of our members who will be there sharing their original research are reproduced below:

Poster Presentations, Thursday 6:00-10:00PM Mathias Atrium

Matthew Damiano- "OysterFutures and the Current State of Harvest in the Choptank River"

Hillary Glandon (et al.)- "Gettin’ Jelly with It: The Influence of Local Environmental Conditions on Gelatinous Zooplankton Abundance Observed at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory Research Pier and the Potential Interactions with Fish Abundance and Diversity"

Oral Presentations, Friday 9:15-4:00 Schmidt Center

10:15AM Brian Gallagher- "Revisiting the Life History of White Perch (Morone americana) within the Hudson River Estuary"

2:15PM Alexandra Atkinson- "Influence of Environmental Conditions on the Age, Hatch Dates, and Growth of Juvenile Atlantic Menhaden in the Choptank River, MD"

2:30PM Emily Liljestrand- "Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) Seasonal Migration, Survival, and Exploitation Rates During 1966-1969"

3:15PM Gray Redding- "Contingent Structure of Northwest Atlantic Mackerel Evaluated Using Otolith Stable Isotopes"

Additionally, we are excited to announce that we will be at the front registration desk throughout the conference selling our subunit T-shirts! They are available in sizes S-L for $15, the proceeds of which will go towards our subunit outreach efforts, including a public rope tying course and a seining demonstration at local parks. Check them out: