Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What fish want

What do fish want? I thought I would try to focus on a seasonally-appropriate question, but also one that I spend a lot of time these days pondering. You might think that it would be simple to figure out what motivates a fish—after all, they probably aren’t influenced by the complex emotions that drive people. But unfortunately, we can’t just ask them (I have often wished for just one hour as a fish—I would learn… and publish… so much!).

In general, animal behavior is driven by a balance between the drive to maintain/gain energy stores, survive, and ultimately reproduce. So when asking why a fish chooses to inhabit a particular area of the river, we start by looking at the environmental factors (such as water temperature and shelter from potential predators) that might be influencing its behavior. In my research, I’m interested in what environmental factors are influencing juvenile steelhead behavior surrounding coolwater refugia (areas that are cooler than the main river, often because of an incoming cold creek). What causes fish to use coolwater refuges? And when the river is really hot, what causes fish to leave the refuge? In asking these questions, I’m hoping to gain an understanding of when these refugia areas are most important to fish.
Juvenile steelhead being measured
A heat image of a coolwater refugia area on the Klamath River (Image from U.S. Bureau of Rec)
Taking a step back… many rivers are getting hotter, both because of climate change (influence of higher air temperatures), and land use practices such as logging and agriculture. Logging the riparian area next to a stream reduces shading,  causing the water to heat up. Irrigation can lead to hotter water temperatures if water is diverted into shallow, slow-flowing irrigation ditches, then returned to the river. The Klamath River in northern California, where I do my research, can reach 80°F in the summer, which feels like bathwater. On cool mornings I would sometimes even get into the water to warm up.

Salmon are a coldwater fish, and prefer a temperature range of about 10-18°C (50-65°F). This means that during the summer, when the river temperatures reach 80°F, they are under serious thermal stress—the high temperatures increase their metabolism, so they struggle to maintain weight. As a result, fish will seek out areas in the river that are cooler, such as areas where tributaries flow into the river (i.e. thermal refugia). You can sometimes see hundreds of juvenile salmon packed into small coolwater refuges. However, fish sometimes leave the coolwater areas, even when the river is hot. Why? This question forms the root of my research.
Juvenile steelhead in a coolwater refugia area
I’m hypothesizing that it’s a trade-off between water temperature and the need to find sufficient food. While the fish gain a thermal benefit by hanging out in the cooler water, the high densities of fish suggest that there may be competition for food, forcing fish to leave for brief periods in search of prey.

To put this dilemma in a human perspective, imagine that it's 120°F outside, and you are in a nice air-conditioned house… with no food. You have the choice to go out and pick some food from the garden, or just stay inside and feel hungry. It’s a trade-off! At what point do you decide to leave? Now imagine that your body temperature changes to that of the outside temperature—so as soon as you walk out the door, your temperature begins to rise. This is what happens for fish, since they are poikilotherms—cold-blooded animals that do not stay in a temperature-constant environment, so their internal temperature varies over a wide range. While they are adapted to function over a certain range of temperatures, water temperatures may be rising more quickly than fish can adapt, leaving them with a shrinking amount of available habitat.

In order to understand when and where coolwater refugia are most important, we need to figure out what specific environmental factors are driving fish’s decisions to enter and leave refugia. To do this, I conducted behavioral field studies on juvenile steelhead at coolwater refugia sites on the Klamath River for the past 3 summers. I put radio tags into steelhead (see video below), and was able to track their movement and body temperature (pretty cool!) over time. So far, I’ve found some interesting effects of water temperature dynamics on the likelihood of fish using thermal refugia… stay tuned! (And to learn more about how I’m researching this, visit my website!)

Put in a larger (non-fishy) context, refugia habitats such as this will become increasingly important as the climate continues to change. Whether it’s a range shift upwards onto mountaintops for a high altitude terrestrial species, or a fish seeking out cooler water, understanding how animals use refugia and when they are crucial to their survival will be an important aspect of preserving some species.

And now, if you’ve made it this far, enjoy the holidays! I, for one, will be enjoying a taste of the fruits of my labor.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A river running free

Last week I went on a hike along the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, Washington. Not only was I excited to get out and hike (which happens far too infrequently these days), but I wanted to see the Elwha now that it’s a completely free flowing river again. The largest dam removal in the world just took place on the Elwha—the two dams that were located 5 and 13 miles upstream of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are now almost completely gone.

Glines Canyon Dam before removal
Glines Canyon Dam as of 11/6/12
 I hiked through the mossy dripping rainforest up above where the dams had been, imagining (or, let’s be honest, hoping) that I would come across Bigfoot around the next bend and make my millions. The ecosystem there is incredibly verdant — temperate rainforest that gets approximately 150 inches of rain annually—with towering Douglas firs, dripping alders and Bigleaf maples, and plenty of mushrooms pushing their way up through the mossy ground. I kept my eye out for Oyster mushrooms, but no luck. I also stopped frequently to scour the turbid water for salmon, since both Chinook and Pink salmon, as well as steelhead, have already been sighted upriver of the lower dam! (Granted, it would be surprising to find them above the upper dam, which is not yet completely gone… but as with Bigfoot, one can hope).

Olympic National Park forest
... Bigfoot?
 While I am a firm believer in ecological restoration, there are not many restoration stories that have brought tears to my eyes, but hearing that salmon are already returning to parts of the Elwha that have been inaccessible to them for the past century did literally make me tear up. It’s also a nice example of how dam removal can be successful. A few months ago, my friend asked me, “Is dam removal good?” A great question! She had been at a party and gotten into a discussion about dam removal. As a scientist and someone generally in favor of ecological restoration, she felt intuitively that dam removal is a good thing, but when asked why, she wasn’t sure. What really are the benefits of taking out dams? To emphasize the importance of this question, you should know that there are about 75,000 larger dams (over 6ft) in the U.S., and an estimated 2 million total. However, most of these were built with only a 50-year useful life-span, and the number of “high hazard dams” in need of either reinforcement or removal is rising sharply.
Map of major dams in the U.S.

 One of the many exciting aspects of dam removal (and one close to my heart) is the benefit to anadromous fish, such as salmon. (Anadromous fish begin life in freshwater, travel to the ocean to grow, and return to the river to spawn). Salmon rely on large amounts of high quality river habitat for spawning, juvenile rearing, and migration. Large dams without fish ladders are impassible to salmon, cutting off enormous amounts of good river habitat. And the habitat that’s left is often lower quality, in terms of temperature (too hot) and sediment composition. Dams block sediment, meaning that lots of fine sediment that naturally flows downriver is blocked behind dams. The result is that you get huge sediment build-ups behind dams (there are 5 billion tons of sediment behind the Glen Canyon Dam!). The downstream impacts of this sediment blockage include a coarsening of the riverbed sediment (since all the fine sediment is trapped upstream), which decreases the amount of good spawning habitat for salmon. In addition to the impacts on salmon, the lack of natural sediment flow has caused substantial beach erosion, since this sediment is what beaches are made of (California beaches are being reduced by ~2.8 million cubic meters of sand per year). 

Towards the end of my hike along the Elwha, I made my way down to the large rocky expanse where the upper reservoir used to be. It was sobering to stand on the bank of what is now a flowing river, and realize that only a year and a half ago, I would have been deep underwater. The floodplain hasn’t reconnected with the river yet, but with the river’s natural flow regime restored, this should happen in time. (Dams drastically alter a river’s flow regime—the pattern of water flow over time—usually by homogenizing it, so that the water flow doesn’t change much throughout the year.) One of the less widely known benefits of dam removal is the restoration of the flow regime. The animals and plants along a river evolve to take advantage of that particular river’s flow regime. For example, cottonwoods time the release of their seeds with floods, to aid in dispersal, and aquatic insects such as caddisflies synchronize their metamorphosis (from aquatic insect to terrestrial adult) with the average timing of flood season. When flow regimes change drastically over a short time period, as happens when a dam goes up, it can be hard for these species to adapt.

Glines Canyon reservoir bed from the air
On my hike, standing in the Glines Canyon reservoir bed looking downstream
As I’m reminded daily through conversations with my husband, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding dam removal. I’ve seen my share of this during my summers doing research on the Klamath River, where the 4 lowest dams are scheduled to come out in 2020. Many people want to keep dams because they are a symbol of progress (at least, the Greatest Generation feels this way), and because they like boating and fishing in the reservoirs. However, since many of America’s dams are old, it’s worth considering the fact that it may be more beneficial (ecologically and economically) to remove than to restore them.

A sign from near where I work on the Klamath River
Another sign from near where I lived...
There’s a lot more to learn about dam removal, but I hope I’ve given you a few good points to fall back on if you find yourself defending its benefits at a party. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you really need to watch this spectacular video of another Washington state dam removal, the Condit dam on the White Salmon River.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The problem of truth

I read an interesting (and rather infuriating) opinion piece on salmon in the Gridley Herald a few weeks ago, claiming that salmon populations on the Klamath River in northern California are doing just fine. Gridley is a small town in the Central Valley south of Chico. The author, James Finses, based his claim on one good year of salmon returns, as well as bashing the groups he disagrees with (more details below). While making me writhe internally, this piece also got me thinking once again about denial, and how we shape truth.

The problem is that people have different versions of the truth. Scientists version of truth takes the form of testable hypotheses that are “proved” (or fail to be rejected, if you'd prefer), or quantitative models, but that’s not how people work. People, in general, are most likely to believe what they see (first-hand data), and this is tempered by what they want to see (which is where denial comes in). Since I happen to be watching football right now (don’t be too shocked…I was coaxed to the bar by my husband), the analogy that comes to mind is if a team does well the three times in a row you happen to watch them, you’re more likely to believe that they’re good rather than the long-term statistics that tell you they’re terrible. In short, we’re more inclined to believe what we see right in front of us (and especially when we like what we see), rather than trying to put things in the larger context… especially when it’s inconvenient or displeasing to do so. Thus, we can easily create a convenient reality, when so inclined.

This problem of truth extends to opinions surrounding salmon fisheries management. There’s lots of data and scientific papers showing that our salmon populations have crashed in the past century, but there is also tremendous economic, cultural, and social pressure to keep fishing. This creates a situation where there are a lot of people with different opinions and goals searching for a slippery truth (i.e. how do we best restore/maintain salmon populations).

Restoring salmon populations is not an easy or straightforward task, and can demand innovative and sometimes unpopular (with some) approaches, such as dam removal, fishing restrictions, or expensive fish ladders, all of which can inspire heated controversy. This is the case on the Klamath River in northern California where I do my research, and where there are 4 dam removals planned for 2020 in order to help restore fish populations (including ESA-listed Coho). On the Klamath, there are many interest groups who care about both fish and water flows, including fishermen, native tribes, rafting companies, farmers, and fiery locals.

Returning Chinook salmon on the Klamath River
And so when record numbers (~380,000) of Chinook salmon were projected to return to the Klamath River this year — a run size close to historical returns for fall Chinook — it is no surprise that there were people, including James Finses of Gridley CA, eager to jump at the opportunity to claim that salmon populations are doing just fine. In his opinion piece, Finses is quick to point out that the fish are returning despite the fact that we still have dams, and that “the dirty, unscientific data brought forth by the tribes, enviros and other whacko groups was wrong all the time.” The problem with Finses’ argument that one good year of salmon returns means that salmon populations are fine is that salmon populations are incredibly variable year to year, and the success of a particular cohort depends on numerous conditions including favorable river temperatures and ocean conditions (abundant plankton and low predator numbers). In the end, he states that “the salmon are back in record numbers with all the dams to help them.” I find this last sentence particularly interesting, since it reflects the desire to not just disprove undesirable truths, but to use this small piece of evidence (one year of good salmon returns) to reshape the truth (i.e. dams must be helping the fish). Whether Finses actually believes this statement or not, the fact remains that humans are susceptible to incredible willful short-sightedness when it suits us. So in questions relating to fisheries management, the truth very quickly becomes a slippery shadow, swathed in politics and emotion, often taking different forms for different people.

Fish ladder on John Day River dam
My husband came across another example of this truth-shaping during his research on dam removal, when talking to a local about fish ladders. Fish ladders are structures built into some dams that allow for anadromous fish migration – they are usually a series of small steps and pools with sufficient flow to attract fish to them. While having fish ladders is better than providing no fish passage at all, they are only somewhat successful; some problems include increased predation (predators, such as bass or birds, can sit at the end of the fish ladder, picking off a tasty meal as the salmon funnel through), and possible delay and additional energy demand on the fish (especially as they pool up at the bottom, awaiting their turn in the limited space). However, having a fish ladder is somewhat of a band-aid fix, and can make it seem like the fish are doing fine, especially since it often causes the fish to pool up, so that visually it appears that there are a lot of fish. As the local remarked to my husband, ‘the fish are just hanging out below the dam, “taking their time.”’

So will one good year of salmon returns make us forget those that have come before? As scientists, the answer is no. But as humans, we are susceptible to our emotions and personal biases.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ecological Restoration: Are we in denial?

“I think that if it weren't for denial, I wouldn't be a comedian because to be a comedian you have to go on stage those first few years and bomb. And then walk off stage and think, that went great. Because otherwise you'd never get on stage the next night. You would just think, human beings don't like me. But sometimes denial can kill you.” –Comedian Mike Birbiglia 

Are we in denial about climate change and the state of our earth? Certainly some of this country is... although luckily, on Nov. 6th the country voted to support the environment (as well as many other important things). But even for those of us who do believe in climate change, and even try to change our day to day actions to help alleviate the problem, a question that haunts me is, “is this enough?” Is biking to work every day and eating organic and buying carbon offsets for travel (and generally acting like we are in Portlandia) really enough? And are current ecological restoration projects and conservation efforts sufficient?

As I was mulling over how to frame this question into a constructive blog post—since it is so easy to debate round in circles on this question, to no avail—I came across a recent paper by one of my advisors that addressed an interesting angle on this question. The paper, “Ecological restoration and enabling behavior: a new metaphorical lens?” by KD Moore & JW Moore, examines how we currently view ecological restoration, and how that perspective might be shaping both our behavior and the way we go about restoration. When we discuss ecological restoration, we usually assume that we are talking about something inherently positive. The paper makes the point that the language of ecological restoration is that of “healing and repairing,” which carries a positive connotation. Who wouldn’t you want to help the environment by restoring it (given unlimited money)?

However, as this paper discusses, there are certain problems with our current approach to restoration. Many restoration projects are not followed by sufficient monitoring (the case with many dam removals), so we are left to wonder how effective the restoration actually was. In addition, Moore & Moore cite several examples where post-restoration monitoring has shown that “restoration effectiveness is questionable.” (This is not to say all projects are ineffective, but rather that we should not assume the effectiveness of our restoration projects).

But besides the problem of monitoring, there is the question of whether we are enabling our energy-hungry habits by convincing ourselves that our restoration projects will take care of the problem. The paper draws an interesting metaphor for this scenario using the co-dependency of addicts (for instance, an alcoholic) and their enablers (e.g. someone who keeps paying the alcoholic’s bills). In this case, Americans are addicted to cheap, abundant energy (which comes at the cost of environmental degradation), and the enablers are the environmental restorationists, who make us feel like we are healing the environment, and who are secured a job in the wake of the destruction. Perhaps this view is too cynical—surely restoration specialists are not voting for Romney or buying SUVs just to ensure their own job security.

But, as the authors explain, we can draw an interesting lesson from this perspective; we can use this “metaphoric lens” to think about whether restoration activities have “opportunity costs”—in other words, are we using funds for restoration that could be better put towards getting rid of the cause of the degradation? We can also use this lens to examine whether these restoration activities “conceal the truth” from ourselves—we want to believe that we can destroy a habitat, extract what we need, and then restore it back to its starting state. But this is rarely the case. Yet we often move forward with restoration projects as if this were true.
I am not arguing, by any means, that we should discontinue ecological restoration. Rather, it should be a stepping stone to whatever is next. However, we know from basic physics that systems in motion have momentum, and the momentum to keep going in the direction of motion can be very strong, not to mention easier than applying force to the system to change (yes, I love physics… I even minored in it in college). In other words, we need to work to change our current habits, and along the way, we need to continually evaluate our actions. We do not want to be the ostrich, head stuck in the sand, patting ourselves on the back at all our good environmental work, and meanwhile drowning in the rising ocean.

As the comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “sometimes denial can kill you.” Or, in this case, probably our grandchildren.

So we need to rid ourselves of denial, and ask, does despair begin when denial ends? Or is that when true hope and action are born, out of the “power of outrage and… the wisdom of grief”*?

*Moore & Moore

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Origin of (Exotic) Species

My friend Leighton’s comment on last week’s post – that beaver reintroduction to their native ranges by parachute outdoes dumping fish from airplanes – sparked my idea for this week’s post. Over the course of the past few centuries, there have been many intentional and inadvertent introductions of exotic (non-native) species to areas throughout North America. Some of these exotic species can be beneficial (depending on your viewpoint), some harmless, and some turn into invasives (i.e. non-native species that negatively impact the native ecosystem). Current estimates of the number of exotic species in the U.S. are around 50,000; around 4300 of these are considered invasives.

However, while we often hear about the impacts of exotic species, we don’t usually hear the interesting back-story that brought many of these species to their new homes in the first place. How did they spread? Was it on purpose or by accident? I’ve looked into the stories of several high-impact species that were introduced to North America to find out how they were first introduced, and what their impact has been.

European Honeybees: What’s all the buzz?
Honeybees first arrived in the U.S. in 1622, carried by ship with European settlers determined to have honey in their new home (I don’t blame them there). The only documentation that exists of this first bee introduction is found in a letter from the Virginia Company in London to the Governor of Virginia:
“Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [diverse] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]…”  (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532).
Along with the honeybees, settlers brought many of the agricultural crops that honeybees thrive on and pollinate, thus facilitating a change in the face of the American landscape. As European settlers moved west, many of the plant species with which they were familiar already abounded.  
Honeybees are crucial for pollinating many of the non-native agricultural crops that we rely on today. The advent of Colony Collapse Disorder is therefore extremely concerning, because it threatens the existence of many mainstay crops. However, there are also around 4000 species of (often overlooked) native bees in North America, and many native plants—such as tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, blueberries and cranberries—are more efficiently pollinated by these native bees than by honeybees.

Earthworms vs. Ovenbirds
European Earthworms: An Unlikely Suspect
For a species that most of us associate with good garden soil, the earthworm has a surprising dark side to its story. It was first introduced to the U.S. around 1620 in ship ballast (soil and gravel) that was dumped around Jamestown, Pennsylvania to make room for transporting popular American tobacco back to Europe. Earthworms are not native to the post-glacial forests of North America, which are characterized by thick layers of leaf litter. Once introduced to these forests, the silent underground invaders eat their way through the leaf litter, completely changing the face of the forest floor and the entire microbial cycle. This can have serious impacts on everything from native seedling success and tree species composition to native bird populations. One interesting case is the decline of the Ovenbird in the Midwest, which is being blamed on the earthworm; the Ovenbird is a ground-nester, and the decrease in leaf litter abundance is linked to increased predation risk (less shelter) and decreased food availability (bugs in leaf litter) for the Ovenbird. As earthworms continue to spread (mostly through bait-fishing, composting, and other means of human transport), they could potentially have large impacts on our forest ecosystems.

Shakespeare’s Songbirds: The Starling Saga
In 1890 a drug manufacturer (and Shakespeare fanatic) named Eugene Scheiffelin thought it would be romantic to introduce all the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to New York City. Over the course of two years, he released 100 European starlings into Central Park. By 1942, their descendants had reached California. (He tried with thrushes and skylarks as well, but these birds failed to thrive).
Starlings are now a common sight in almost every city in the U.S. – they build their nests in cavities and vents, and thrive in urban landscapes. They are now mostly considered pests, and are linked to the spread of various diseases to both livestock and humans, mostly through their droppings. They can also pose serious safety risk to airplanes, as they fly in large murmurations (perhaps the best word ever for a group of animals), which can be quite visually impressive. Efforts to eradicate them have included artificial owls, electric wires, chemicals, broadcasted alarm calls, and recipes for Starling Pie. And yet they remain, perhaps even in your yard at this moment.

“Crazy Jumping Fish” (aka Asian Carp)
Asian Carp were first introduced to the United States by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – this is an interesting example of how the mission and practices of environmental organizations can change as our understanding of and relationship to the environment changes. These fish were brought to the southern U.S. (Mississippi River in Arkansas) in 1963 as a tool to help aquaculture farms keep vegetation in check. By the 1970s, the carp had escaped the farms and spread northwards into the Illinois River.

Asian Carp jump up to 3m out of the water when startled (often by motor noise)
Asian Carp have become a huge problem in the rivers of the Mississippi basin, and currently threaten to invade the Great Lakes. They have a voracious appetite, and can consume up to 20% of their body weight per day in phytoplankton, which is significant considering they can reach 4 feet and 100 pounds. They also have a high reproduction rate, and compete with native fish species for habitat. In addition, these “crazy jumping fish” can be physically threatening to boaters (see YouTube video). And they have even inspired an important cultural contribution to America, in the form of the Redneck Fishing Tournament of Bath, Illinois.
The possibility of Asian Carp invading the Great Lakes is a serious threat – the Great Lakes support a large commercial fisheries industry – and both government and private agencies are working to come up with solutions to keep them out. One recent innovation is the use of an electrical barrier, implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan. So far it seems to be working, although there have been some reports of DNA evidence for carp above the barrier.

As with the case of the beavers mentioned earlier, a recent phenomenon is the re-introduction of native species back to natural historic ranges from which they have been extirpated (e.g. made locally extinct). The goal of these reintroductions is to restore the natural ecosystem, and often to bring back charismatic species that people feel “belong” in the landscape for sentimental (as well as environmental) reasons. This can become controversial in the case of large predators (wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, for example). But it has also inspired some interesting studies on the success of these reintroduced species (check out my friend's blog on Fishers in the Sierra), and success stories such as the reintroduction of California Condors to the Big Sur region of California. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bass and salmon: who’s for dinner?

I went to an interesting lecture this week at the University of Washington Fisheries department on the potential effects of climate change on the interactions between Chinook salmon and smallmouth bass. 
Smallmouth bass

Juvenile Chinook salmon

Smallmouth bass are native to the Northeast and upper Midwest, but like many other fish species, they were spread across the United States by avid fishermen during the 20th century. One method of spreading bass was to put them in large milk containers on trans-continental trains, and then stop and dump fish in every body of water they passed along the way. By the second half of the 20th century, stocking fish became even easier, with the invention of planes.

Fish being released from a plane to stock a lake for fishing
As with many of the things we did to nature in the 1900s, we are now beginning to understand the consequences of planting bass. In western rivers, one major impact of non-native bass on Pacific salmon is predation. Bass eat juvenile salmon, and in rivers where they co-occur, they form a predatory gauntlet for the juvenile salmon migrating out to the ocean each year. As one fishing website declares, “smallmouth bass are aggressive freshwater fish that will readily engulf nearly anything that they can fit in their mouths.” And juvenile Chinook certainly fit that description.

The fact that Pacific salmon populations have crashed over the past half century as a result of climate change (hotter river temperatures), freshwater habitat loss (dams etc.), and overfishing, is well-known. There are lots of studies showing that rising river temperatures negatively affect salmon, but what I found really interesting about this lecture was the discussion of how climate change (in the form of hotter rivers) could affect the interaction between bass and juvenile Chinook salmon. Salmon are cold-water fish and can only tolerate water up to about 75F, so as rivers warm, juvenile salmon are forced higher up into watersheds to find suitably cold water to rear in. At the same time, small-mouth bass are limited in the opposite direction – if the water is too cold, they can’t spawn. So as rivers warm, they are able to move further and further up watersheds. In the John Day River in Oregon, smallmouth bass and juvenile Chinook rearing habitat now overlap. This range shift and overlapping habitat lead to new questions: will bass presence negatively affect juvenile salmon in other ways than direct predation? It’s no longer just a predatory gauntlet, a one-time-only deal that the juvenile Chinook have to face as they out-migrate. Now their daily interactions and behavior, and possibly their growth potential, could change as a result of the encroaching bass. On a much larger scale, it is these kind of unforeseen effects of climate change that make it so hard to predict.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On birds and science communication

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~ Mary Oliver ~

I heard Mary Oliver on NPR today, and was reminded of how much inspiration I find in her poetry. I have loved her poem Wild Geese ever since reading it on the wall of our English classroom my first year out of college, teaching in North Carolina. From childhood, I was captivated by the flocks of migrating Canada geese that flew over our Massachusetts home every fall and spring, stopped dead in my tracks to crane my neck and listen to their disorganized honking. I had a similar experience when first reading this poem, stopped in my tracks in the classroom, drinking in the words and images, so vivid I could once again hear the honking of the migrating birds.

Mary Oliver is a poet and naturalist, or perhaps a naturalist and poet. It’s hard to tell which comes first, she blends ideas about nature so seamlessly into her writing. Darting foxes and inquisitive weasels wend their way through her poems, and she brings the natural world into sharp and beautiful focus, so that I feel as though I can almost smell the morning dew better than if I were out on a hike myself. There is a genius to the way in which she uses so few words to inspire new thoughts and feelings about nature. And this is the power of art.

We need to find a way to harness the power of words and art better when we communicate our scientific research to the public. There is a place for peer-reviewed journal articles, but there also needs to be a bridge to bring that information to the public, one that is as evocative as this poem, that can play to people’s emotions as well as their intellect. A step between the scientific journal and the boiled down New York Times Article. And one that can lend all animals and plants the charisma of baby polar bears.

As Oliver says, a poem should have birds in it. Our science communication could use some birds as well.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dune restoration: changing the world plant by plant

I had the opportunity to work on a dune restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington last week. We were working out of Sequim (pronounced ‘Squim’), which is known affectionately as “the blue hole,” because it gets only about half the rainfall of other towns on the peninsula (and approximately the same as L.A., for any Angelenos looking to relocate northwards). The goal of the project was to build/restore a natural bluff along a beach where houses had suffered considerable storm damage in 2006. The houses are built between a long beach and a large wetland, and are thus a classic case of buildings that are not “supposed” to be there. However, given that they are, we were working on helping implement the best option for mitigating winter storms that are continually eroding the beach and causing flooding up over the houses’ decks.

Initially, when the landowners approached Dave (of Shreffler Environmental, the company working on the project), they proposed building a large rock seawall to fend off storms. This is an interesting, and common, case of misguided decision-making in the continual battle between coastal houses and the ever-present, ever-hungry ocean. Namely, the feeling that big (non-porous) walls will protect us better than what nature had there in the first place (i.e. a bluff or wetland). Luckily, the landowners were both amenable to hearing alternatives to the seawall, and also clearly possessed impressive collaborative skills – it’s not often you get 13 landowners to all agree on a land-use plan, and then cooperatively implement it! The idea behind the bluff restoration is that by providing a natural vegetative barrier, the plants will absorb a lot of the water. Imagine a hillside of grass versus a hillside of pavement –water will run off a non-porous surface like pavement much more quickly. The difference is similar with the bluff of dune grass versus a seawall; incidentally, this is one of the many reasons that channelizing rivers is also undesirable (i.e. increased flash flooding potential).

The bluff had already been engineered and built back in 2006, by carting in large amounts of sand and gravel, and pouring it over a bunch of large logs and driftwood anchored together with chain to form a solid base. This formed an ~8ft bluff, on which they planted dune grass. Our goal was to replant dune grass where there was localized erosion. Overall, the dune has held up remarkably well since 2006, with only minor erosion, and no breaches or flooding of the houses.

Canada hiding behind the clouds
Bluff on left, stretching down the beach
The beach we worked on was out on a beautiful spit of land, with views of the Olympic mountains behind us, and the Canadian mountains (and snow-capped Mount Baker) across the bay. We spent three peaceful days on our hands and knees, scooping up sand and plopping the small plants into the holes, stopping occasionally to watch a heron, bald eagle, Northern Harrier, flock of migrating Canada geese, or lone fisherman towing a gill net. We had hopes of talking one of them out of a Coho, but unfortunately they always drifted by before they had caught any. As Dave said, “it’s hard to talk a guy out of a fish when he doesn’t have any.” The Coho are almost all hatchery spawned, from the nearby Dungeness river. And I can confirm that they are indeed delicious.

In the end, we planted around 1000 plants. It was inspiring to participate in a hands-on project with such direct restoration application. Since I’ve recently spent most days staring at fish data on my computer, with the goal of contributing to river restoration practice through more indirect routes, it was nice to actually get out there and dig in the dirt, restoring the beach plant by plant.  

Freshly planted dune grass!
American Gothic (nouveau version)

Friday, October 5, 2012

Four weddings and a conference (aka life as a grad student)

First of all, I have to credit my husband, Pete, with the initial inspiration for this title. He has long remarked that he would like to write a satire on grad school life with the above title (likely an intertwining of rom-com and dark satire). However, that being said, this title has been a very apt description of my life over the past few summers. We just attended two beautiful weddings over the past two weekends, in one of which Pete acted as officiant and married the couple. (Back-up grad school plans now updated to Pete (officiant) and me (baker)?) Luckily, academic conferences offer almost as much interest and entertainment—if not joy— as weddings. They are an odd, intense microcosm of academic life, acting as a social outlet, a wonderful venue for building connections in your field, and an intense overload of scientific stimulation and information, which can be both exciting and overwhelming as you dash from room to room across the conference center. Trying to negotiate the many concurrent sessions can feel a little like a feeding frenzy—you dart in and out, trying to snatch up the most valuable pieces of information, always keeping half an eye out for what other morsels might be available.

One of my favorite conferences thus far in my academic career was the AFS (American Fisheries Society) conference that I attended in Seattle last summer (2011). It comes to mind now primarily because Pete and I just moved to Seattle for the fall for his last field season, and in a weird twist of fate, our daily ride to the University of Washington campus takes us along a beautiful bike path by the lake, and also happens to pass right by the car impoundment lot where I got my government truck impounded during AFS. An ironic reminder of a wonderful conference. Our move up to Seattle warrants a brief aside, since our powers of creativity and problem-solving were called upon during the drive. The situation: a heat wave in California with temperatures reaching 100F, broken AC in our car, and two panting cats. The solution? Drive the longer (but much more scenic) route up the coast… and ice the cats.

Cheesie being iced
The Humboldt coast
In any event, the AFS conference was the first large scientific conference I had ever attended, and I was not sure what to expect. It was a somewhat similar moment to the first time I went to Vegas, which was on our way back from a hiking/birding trip in Guadalupe National Park. Since my only knowledge of Vegas was based on movies such as Ocean’s 11 and the gambling drama 21, I worried that I was not dressed nicely enough in my t-shirt and jeans. Pete just laughed at me. However, in the case of an academic conference, my preconceptions of what it would be like were much more accurate. Dress code was what you might expect from a group of outdoorsy people hitting the city—fleece was prevalent, and the male uniform seemed to be a plaid short-sleeve dress shirt and khakis/jeans. What I love most about academic conferences is the buzz of excitement that pervades the air, which comes from, I think, the exchange of interesting ideas and the fun of gathering with so many like-minded people.

Given the large number of engaged friends we currently have, I expect the summer trend to continue. I’m not sure yet which conference I’ll attend next summer, but I am sure (and am daily reminded) that I will look carefully for any faded red paint on the curbsides of the city. Suffice it to say, it’s embarrassing to get a government truck towed. New proverb: red paint at night, not a conference-goers delight. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Summer Project: Baking up a storm

It’s been a whirlwind trip back to Santa Cruz, and we only have two weeks here before we head up to Seattle for the fall for my husband’s research on dam removal. It’s amazing how immediate the present is—Ashland and those sunny days on the Klamath River seem miles and months away now. I can’t say I’m sorry to be back in the cool, breezy, always-perfect weather of Santa Cruz, but I do already have moments where I miss the summer heat, especially when it was infused with the smell of hot fresh bread.

My summer project, aside from fieldwork, was to bake as many types of bread as I could, both to feed the guys (my field assistants and husband), and to work on my bread baking repertoire. I grew up in a home where home-made bread was the only thing around. I am amazed to think back on my child’s desire for pb&j on Wonder Bread, when we had a constant supply of fresh bread. But such are the whims of children. My parents delighted in making things from scratch—we went through a butter-making phase where we siphoned our whole milk and shook the cream by hand. And there was a period of time when we ground our own wheat for bread—it was very loud. While these were passing phases, fresh bread was a constant, and I appreciate that it’s given me a determination to always bake my own bread, no matter how busy. When I’m burnt out on data analysis, or exhausted from fieldwork, bread baking is a kind of meditation.

I baked a total of nine kinds of bread this summer; the potato-rosemary bread was the winner. 

Anadama bread
Whole-wheat bread with roasted garlic
Multi-grain bread
Coconut-banana bread
Beer bread!
Potato-rosemary bread
Rye bread