To Alabama and Beyond

My experiences this summer were incredible. I wish that I could stay a Sea Grant Scholar forever. Unfortunately, this is not possible and I will have to continue on my career path through different avenues.

This fall I will return to the University of Alabama to complete my final semester. I will graduate with a B.S. in Marine Science/Biology and a minor in Geology. During my last term on campus, I will be taking slightly fewer classes that I have before. This will allow me to increase my participation in research opportunities on campus. I will continue to serve as a research assistant in the geology department. This semester will be unique in that I have been given the opportunity to conduct my own project on oyster shells from gulf coast aquaculture. Secondly, I will begin work at the Geological Survey of Alabama. I will be working in the survey’s ecological monitoring department. My duties will require my participation in field work and the entry of data from the fish we collect.


After graduation in December, I plan to pursue a fisheries observer position in Alaska. My observer training would begin late February. My intentions are to hold this position for approximately a year and pursue a master’s degree starting in the Fall of 2018. I also have aspirations to work as a raft guide in the summer leading up to my graduate studies. I am at an exciting point in my life where my path could go many different directions. I look forward to my future adventures and am grateful for all I have learned and all who I met during my time as a Sea Grant Summer Scholar.


Final Thoughts

This morning researchers up and down Oregon’s coast set out before the sunrise in search of green crabs. As part of a simultaneous sampling effort, I have trapped at my most productive field sites over the past three days. This morning alone 32 green crabs were collected at one site. This is an exciting number as I only captured 52 at the site over the whole summer. I can’t think of a better way to mark the end of my incredible 10 week internship.

I have absolutely loved my time here in Oregon. The research I participated in kept me excited and provoked in me ideas for future research. My position allowed me to receive valuable career advice from several very successful figures in the science community. By participating in several different projects, I was able to further refine a field a study to target for my graduate studies. I lived and worked with some truly incredible people. I am sad to say goodbye, but I look forward to hearing of everyone’s future journeys. If all of this wasn’t enough, I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural scenery that I have seen. From crystal clear rivers, to vast sand dunes, and thriving marshes, Oregon’s coast has it all. I fell in love with this place and I plan to be back in the future.

The Old Man and The Sea

Lately, I have found myself especially intrigued by nautical tales. Specifically, those that share a fisherman’s humbling experience with the powerful ocean. While exploring the vast world that is Powell’s books in Portland, I picked up a copy of Earnest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. I usually take my time reading books, but I couldn’t put this one down. The book stimulated my thoughts on learning through failure, a skill I find particularly applicable to the field of science.

Oddly enough, soon after finishing my new book, I encountered an old man with quite a few stories about life on the sea. After a long day of work with no lunch, I found myself sitting at the bar of our local pub. Next to me sat a man in his 60’s with a thick grey beard, missing more teeth than he had. It didn’t take long for conversation to start. It was obvious that I was not from the area. I came to learn this man had worked on commercial vessels for longer than I had been a live, a strange life to contemplate for a boy raised in the suburbs on Nashville, TN. Our conversation delved deeper as my curiosity grew. He shared with me stories of 30 foot waves and a captain too greedy to return to port. Upon their boat capsizing, a nearby vessel flipped as well in an attempt to save the crew. My new friend had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter while wearing nothing but jeans and a sweat shirt. His only advice to me was “Wear your dry suit!”

I’m sure aspects of his story were exaggerated, but the tale struck a chord with me. It allowed me to reflect further on the acceptance of uncontrollable variables. Throughout life, unexpected circumstances are inevitable, especially when at sea. Accepting change and reacting accordingly is a trait I personally find crucial in achieving success across all aspect of life. Throughout my future travels, I look forward to the fishing tales that will find their way into my ears. I leave you with a quote from “The Old Man and the Sea”.

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

-Earnest Hemingway

The Big Blue

As a child, my mother instilled in me her love of birds. I used to sit with her field guides and identify species as they landed on the feeders just outside our windows. My mom further encouraged my fascination by allowing me to incubate quail eggs and raise both ducks and chickens. Her only objections came when I set live traps with seed near her feeders. Nonetheless, I was destined to be a birder. Of all the bird species I have encountered, my favorite remains the long-legged bird I grew up watching hunt at the lake by my house: The Great Blue Heron.


Blue herons are large birds with wingspans reaching up to 6 feet. Adults display greyish blue bodies with long black plumes flowing off the back of their heads and thighs the color of pine bark. When they fly, their long necks coil back much like a snake ready to strike. These birds have specialized feathers on their chest that are continuously growing, similar to hair. Blue herons grip these feathers with their feet and use them like washcloths to remove fish oils and other slime from their feathers. Little known fact: there is a white color variant great blue heron found in southern Florida and Eastern Mexico. (See picture below) #NotAnEgret


These magnificent creatures are also deeply integrated into the fabric of the food webs they reside in. The blue heron’s predator-prey interactions have shown to be quite complex. For instance, in the Southeastern United States, blue heron nest colonies are commonly found above alligator infested waters. While this might seem unusual, this is a mutualistic relationship. By nesting in the trees above alligator territory, herons make it difficult for other animals to climb up and eat their eggs. Waterbirds typically hatch more offspring than they can feed. Runts are bumped out by larger chicks and become alligator food. Furthermore, the birds’ feces adds nutrients to ground below nests, leading to a higher abundance of fish and reptiles… food for both species.

*Pictured below is a great blue heron making off with a young alligator.*


In my mind, blue herons are the ecological masters of North America. What about bears and other predatory mammals, you say?  While these types of creatures can overpower all they encounter and have no natural predators, they are not necessarily the best adapted species for the environments of our continent. In winter months, when food is scarce, bears are forced to hibernate and wolves must travel long distances in pursuit of infrequent prey. Blue herons, on the other hand, simply fly to warmer climates where food is abundant. Wings seem to be a necessary adaptation when conquering the environments of an entire continent. Wings allow blue herons to spend their summers from Alaska to Nova Scotia and their winters anywhere from the Galapagos Islands to the West Indies.


Wings are not the only attribute that makes the great blue heron note worthy. Birds of Prey, such as the bald eagle, also have wings, but these birds’ distribution and territory is limited by foraging strategy and diet. When bald eagles hunt, they perch on branches overlooking bodies of water and wait for a fish to present itself. In contrast, blue herons actively forage for prey in the water and feed on a wider variety of organisms, including: shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, rodents, and small birds. Their diverse diet is plentiful and evenly distributed, enabling them remain further north later into winter. This allows them to dominate territory with little to no competition.


I have a tendency to regularly encounter these birds. I have seen them spear sea trout on the flats of gulf coast barrier islands, perch along Appalachian Mountain streams, and pluck Dungeness from Oregon’s estuaries. Every time I see a blue heron, I’m filled with a sense of security and amazement that makes me feel like a child. I like to think of them as a good omen and a reminder that my home is greater than the state I was raised in.


I’m not exactly sure where my love for these birds comes from, but they seem to be a pretty common theme in my life. It might come as no surprise that the organization I volunteer for back home and the research reserve I was placed at through the Summer Scholars program share a particular mascot…




An Update from the South Coast

A lot has happened since my last post. This week alone I have worked on an ODFW lamprey assessment by electrofishing Winchester Creek’s headwaters, participated in a Sea Grant funded eel grass monitoring survey, and seined for juvenile fish with visiting scientists from OSU. Most importantly, I have successfully completed all of my crab sampling in the South Slough Research Reserve. After deploying 160 traps, I processed over 2,100 crabs in just 12 days. Of these only 86 were the invasive green crabs I was targeting.

Though I had wished to collected more data on the species, my mentor and her colleagues were pleased with my results. I found green crabs in locations they have never been found before. My data also indicates the highest abundance of these crabs in the Coos estuary in the last 19 years. I am currently collaborating with a professor from OSU to publish a report on the status of the European Green Crab along Oregon’s Coast. Please enjoy the pictures below taken on my last day of sampling.




An Unexpected Catch

Over the past few weeks of fish seining I have observed a wide variety of fish species ranging from salmon and flounder to gunnels and pipefish. Most fish we catch are juvenile and under 1 ft in length. Of all of the species I expected to encounter during my work this summer, a sturgeon was not even on my radar. It was to my surprise last week when we found one in the bag of our net. I was intrigued by this amazing creature and couldn’t help but read up on these fish in my free time.

Oregon is home to two different species of sturgeon: the green sturgeon and the white sturgeon. While white sturgeons’ populations are healthy enough for commercial and recreational fishing, the green sturgeon are a protected species.

Green sturgeon are seldom collected with seine nets in South Slough. In fact, the last green sturgeon collected by SSNERR was during a similar monitoring program in 1986. Coming across one of these dinosaur like fish was quite the treat. Their bodies have changed little over the last 200 million years and are lined with rows of bony plates. The green sturgeon’s are especially pointed and sharp. These fish also have barbels on the underside of their snout that they use to navigate along riverbeds and find their prey.

Unfortunately, certain characteristics of sturgeon put them at risk of extinction. First off, females full of eggs have historically been over-harvested to provide markets with caviar. The average lifespan of a sturgeon is 50-60 and sexual maturity is not reached until around age 15. This heightens the risk of a population collapse do to over-fishing. If all of this wasn’t enough, most of these fish are anadromous, meaning they feed in coastal waters and spawn in freshwater. As rivers are dammed, anadromous fish lose critical spawning habitat and populations most often decline.

As my understanding of Oregon’s coastal fish species grows, so does my appreciation for the work South Slough conducts to protect these species. I am excited to come into the lab each day, because I know the data we collect will be used to manage and conserve estuarine ecosystems. I’m grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to future unexpected catches.



Little Green Aliens

Invasive species are an especially hot topic among today’s scientific community. Non-native species have been shown to negatively impact the health of native ecosystems, especially in aquatic environments (e.g. Lionfish, Snakehead, Zebra Mussel, Nutria, and Asian Carp). It is important for coastal managers to detect invasive species soon after their arrival so that successful eradication and management plans can be implemented. Therefore, invasive species monitoring is conducted at most NERRs.

The South Slough NERR alone is home to over 50 non-native marine species. Of these species, few are as infamous as the European green crab. As I discussed in my last post, I recently started a project aimed to investigate the distribution and population of green crabs in South Slough. I collected samples continuously for 2 days at my first set of sites. While dungeness and hairy shore crabs were most abundant, I collected 15 green crabs at the mouth of the estuary. Specimens were measured, sexed, and weighed before being humanely disposed of. The data collected from this project will be used to manage the spread these little green aliens and potentially prevent future invasions along other coastlines.


A week in the life of a government biologist

Last week for me can be described in two words: field work. I was able to get outside and work on a different project each day. I started off my week by assisting South Slough lab technicians in the retrieval of SONDES water quality sensors located along tide gates in the upper Coos estuary. In the following days, I tagged along with Fisheries Biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW). My first day with ODFW consisted of fish seining at five sites throughout the estuary. The main goal of this work was to monitor the size and abundance of chinook salmon smolt. The next day I traveled with ODFW Biologists South to The Devil’s Backbone for littleneck clam population assessments. Working alongside these biologist taught me a great deal about the coastal species found on Oregon’s coast and the methods used to manage their populations. I concluded my week by analyzing settlement plates as part of an Olympia Oyster monitoring project and scouting out potential sample sites for my personal research project that I will begin this week.


I have decided to complete my own research project this summer on the European Green grab’s presence in the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Green crabs have invaded the waters of the United States’ Atlantic and Pacific coasts. For years green crabs on California’s coast were unable to establish populations in Oregon and Washington due to colder waters. The invasive crab was first discovered in the Pacific Northwest in 1998 after an El Nino event which temporarily warmed waters long enough to allow the species to move North. The magnitude of the 2015/2016 El Nino is the largest since 1998 and incidental landings of green crabs in the Coos estuary have increased. I plan to compare my results to data collected from a previous green crab population assessment in South Slough conducted after the 1998 El Nino. The results of my study have potential importance in the management of dungeness crab fisheries as european green crabs have been shown to outcompete the less aggressive, commercially important native species.


I leave you with a picture of a garter snake I found just outside of my yurt a few mornings back. Follow my instagram account @CollinHoldingCreatures for more pictures of animals I encounter throughout my field work.

Yurt-Life on the OR Coast

By definition a Yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. A little more than a week ago, I had no idea what a yurt was. Now, I comfortably reside in one overlooking the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (SSNERR) in Charleston, OR. I’ll admit I was skeptical about not having running water at first, but after seeing the view from my front porch and getting to know my roommates, I have no doubt that I’m in store for an amazing summer on the coast.

One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival to Oregon is how nice the people are here. From the labs at Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to gas stations and even the local music store, I have met nothing but genuine and helpful people. If local fishermen are anything like the people I’ve met so far, it’s no wonder that Oregon Sea Grant and other agencies have made so much progress with innovative commercial fisheries management techniques. Collaboration and a positive attitude can go a long way. I am really looking forward to working with the great staff here at SSNERR for the next couple months.

As far as research goes, I am just getting my feet wet. This past week for me has consisted mostly of literature review and data entry, though I did get out on the water twice. My work will primarily consist of long-term biological monitoring of oyster settlement and fish abundance. I will compare my data from this summer to data collected at our sample sites from up to 30 years ago. Therefore, it is important for me to read through these previous publications to enable comparison of the different datasets. Data entry of previous fish seines is important to me as well. When fish are collected in the field, they are recorded in a log. I have been transferring information about each fish over from the log to a database that South Slough scientists will use to assess fish populations and write future grant proposals. I am also learning about the species richness and abundance found in SSNERR as I enter this data. My mentor has also encouraged me to pursue my own independent project to complete in my time here. I will continue learning about the organisms of SSNERR and propose potential project ideas next week.