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.