Week 10 – fin: The Naturalist

Way back during my sophomore year of college, I took a course on general natural history – although the way the professor taught, it was more like story time than a lecture. He was one of those old school naturalists from the 1960s who built their careers simply by walking around and observing the subtle ecological interactions that you and I would have obliviously strolled past. Even now half-deaf from countless doses of antimalarial drugs and wizened from decades of work in the tropics, he retained a noticeable enthusiasm in his voice every time he regaled us about this particular insect or that peculiar plant.

His passion for nature was one that was superseded only by his mission for conservation, something that he strove to emphasize in every lecture. I took the following passage from an assigned article of his, one that I was reminded of as I reflected over the past ten weeks.

Science and society are uneasy partners in the wildland garden: In the best of worlds we may achieve a very fine and finely negotiated partnership, and in the worst of worlds, annihilation of one by the other. A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.

This description is a summary of a larger ideal, one in which we humans view nature not as an unfathomable wilderness, but as a giant, valuable garden. It’s an ideal that has yet to be realized. In this modern age of technology and industry, the only way to ensure we have wild spaces left is to appeal to human authority and market the wilds as pragmatic and worth saving. An intact nature certainly does provide a wealth of ecosystem services and a multitude of other assets (not to mention aesthetics), but as it stands now, the magnitude of these benefits is lost to the majority of society.

The way things are going these days, this is the approach that we must pursue. But at the same time, I think there’s still hope for a paradigm shift, one where we will eventually acknowledge nature not just on its tangible worth, but also on its intrinsic values. My time here with the ODFW Marine Reserves Program has been an enlightening experience of what has so far been accomplished and also what needs to be done further in this regard. If there’s anything I can pass along to those of you who are reading, it would be these few lessons that I’ve learned both here and in years past.

  1. Nature has been extraordinarily resilient against humanity’s “management,” but there is a breaking point.

One of the greatest follies of human nature is that we think we know best (the operative word here being “think”). But the truth is that we have learned after the fact too many times for us to know what is and isn’t good for the environment:

And yet people still think ventures like the Pebble Mine are good ideas. I could go on and on, but the message is that most of the time our intentions are neutral at best and irreparably catastrophic at worst. We’ve seen it countless times already, we’re still seeing it happen in the present, and we’re bound to repeat it in the future if something doesn’t change.

The solution? Allow our scientists and their research to inform and guide us, which takes us to my next point.

  1. Science takes time.

…but right now there is no time, which is why endeavors such as the marine reserves that conserve the study area throughout the research process are so critical. The reserves are due for an evaluation by legislature in 2023, more than a decade after they were created. A lot can happen in ten years, and already for many places it would be too late to begin research without some kind of protection plan in place, as is the case here.

In the meantime…

  1. We need to tap into our inner naturalists.

There is a very real and ongoing disconnect between humans and nature, a phenomenon that I believe is at the heart of the problem. It seems to me that there’s a correlation between technological advancement and a diminishing appreciation for nature. That isn’t to say the modern world we’ve created is inherently bad, but as we stray farther from our primitive roots, we lose the ability to identify with the outside world. The society we’ve become is one that is incapable of recognizing the well-being of anything outside of its own domesticated bubble. Simply put, if we don’t have any reason to care, then we have no reason to shoulder any responsibility.

Amidst all of the contention, there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Oregon’s marine reserves (and indeed, all of our protected areas) are serving as the models we need going forward. Put science at the forefront in dictating policy, set definitive boundaries that give biodiversity a fighting chance to bounce back, and communicate the virtues of a robust ecosystem to the rest of the world. Until there is a universally understood obligation to maintain our wild spaces, it’s perhaps the only way we’ll attain any semblance of harmony.

The alternative if we don’t? Human encroachment continues until there are only isolated and ecologically useless patches of wilderness left, pollution sullies the rest, and our natural resources are eventually depleted as we consume with reckless abandon. Society will be left to ponder what went wrong. As with many things past, we’ll only know what we lost when it’s well and truly gone.

Week 9 – Wrapping up

It’s been nine weeks since the start of the program, but even this far into things, there’s always something new to do at work. My other SMART goal this summer was to learn how to scuba dive and/or snorkel. While I haven’t been able to accomplish the former because of a lack of certification programs in the area, I have had the chance to take the plunge into snorkeling in the aquarium and also out on the jetties. For those of you who have snorkeled before, it probably seems like somewhat of a low bar for a goal, but I set it with the intention of taking part in SMURFing fieldwork. Up until now, my duties have always been on the back deck shaking out the SMURF, collecting the juvenile fish, and recording data. This time though, I wanted to be a part of the actual retrieval.

The experience went swimmingly (pun totally intended). The procedure is fairly simple. After donning the gear, two people get in the water – one with a replacement SMURF, and the other with a net to enclose the moored SMURF. After the moored SMURF is netted, its clips are removed from the mooring, and the replacement is attached in its place. Both snorkelers then return to the boat with the netted SMURF in tow, and the process is repeated a total of ten times for the rest of the SMURFs.

Checking the net for fish after bringing the SMURF onboard. Photo courtesy of oregonmarinereserves.com.

I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to get in the water, although in the end I had no reason to be. The aquarium and jetties were stress-free environments where all that was required of me was to swim around and become comfortable. Adding in the SMURFing component laid down a layer of difficulty, as you have to concentrate fully on the task without worrying about the snorkeling aspect of the operation (e.g. breathing, clearing the snorkel, etc.). But by the end of the second SMURF, I felt good about the whole procedure, and the rest of the fieldwork was a blast. My only regret was not getting in the water sooner!

Aside from this, the end of the week also marked our final symposium, where we gave five minute presentations and also showcased our posters for all of Hatfield to see. Everyone did an amazing job, and it was great to be able to see the diversity of work that the Oregon Sea Grant supported. It’s safe to say that I’ve never been a part of a program like this where I’ve been able to both participate in research efforts and also gain so much work experience and professional skills. The program site lists its purpose as being “to prepare undergraduate students for graduate school and careers in marine science, policy, management, and outreach,” and I would definitely say that my time here has reflected that statement.

Shot of my poster for the symposium.

It’s too early to say goodbye yet as we still have one more week to go, but for the most part I’m wrapping things up at the office and getting ready to move on. I’ll see everybody one last time in next week’s blog post!

Week 8 – Milestones: First video!

It’s nearing the end of the program now, but things have been busier than ever at the office. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my first post on the ODFW Marine Reserves Program website. Continuing on my communications roll, this week I was able to pull together all of my footage taken at Otter Rock and Cascade Head Marine Reserves and create a video on the diverse life found in Oregon’s tide pools. I had a blast just walking around and pointing the GoPro in every promising hole and at whatever little creatures caught my eye. Back in the video cave at work, learning how to use Adobe Premiere Pro – an industry-leading video editing software program – and finally putting it all together was equally enjoyable and gratifying. While I’m still no Steven Spielberg (lots of Google searches and troubleshooting…), this experience has definitely piqued my interest in the field, and I’m looking to churn out one more video before I leave.

So without any further ado, here’s the final product.

P.S. The music is kind of corny, but I think it fits the theme (it’s grown on me, having listened to it an infinity number of times throughout the editing process).

Week 7 – Dead in the Water: When Catch and Release Isn’t Enough

Every so often at the ODFW office, we get email updates from the different fisheries sectors in the state. Most of the time these are just the standard sport fishing estimates or public workshop announcements, but sometimes I’ll see a subject line that warrants a closer read. Something like “Fishing for groundfish closes beyond 20 fathoms to protect yelloweye rockfish” usually does the trick.

Yelloweye rockfish are a bottom-dwelling species that has been under a harvest moratorium since 2002 due to overfishing. Oregon’s population is well on its way to recovering, but this doesn’t mean that they’re completely out of the line of fire.

The recent depth closure notice is in response to a two-part problem. The first is increased bycatch as boats target other species that inhabit the same areas. As yelloweyes are a deepwater fish, moving the groundfish fishery to within 20 fathoms (120 feet) should reduce these incidental encounters. The second is a drop in the use of descenders – devices that lower the bloated fish that are caught accidentally back down to depths where the effects of barotrauma are reversed.

If you’ve ever done any deep water diving, chances are you’re familiar with this concept as “the bends.” In humans, this painful phenomenon occurs as gases dissolved in the body expand rapidly when resurfacing too quickly. Many species of fish can get a form of the bends too – yelloweyes included.

The aftermath of barotrauma isn’t exactly a pleasant scene, and certainly not a pleasant experience for the fish itself. A gas-filled sac called the swim bladder (used to control buoyancy) swells in size as the fish ascends the water column, turning the stomach inside-out and forcing it out the mouth. Simultaneously, its eyes bulge and pop out the side of its head. It’s a seemingly cartoonish sight save for the fact that this is a very real predicament for the fish. Released as is, the swim bladder will remain inflated and the fish will flounder and eventually die at the surface.

Yelloweye rockfish displaying classic signs of barotrauma. For more info on barotrauma and descenders, visit the ODFW’s Marine Resources site. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

It may seem tempting to just toss back in the water what looks to be, for all intents and purposes, a lifeless fish. But research has shown excellent survival and recovery from barotrauma in rockfish, emphasizing the underutilized potential of descenders. Frustratingly enough, these devices aren’t difficult to use at all; the typical descender consists of a clip to attach to the fish’s jaw and a weight to take it down. The ODFW is and has been actively distributing thousands of these for free to the public, but limited participation has forced the ODFW to take action.

The restriction was officially put in place on July 15. And of course, as with any potentially controversial action, there is almost assuredly controversy that follows. I took the time to conduct some informal reconnaissance on an online fishing forum, where I found quite a few varied opinions.

From supportive.

To skeptical.

With some understanding folks mixed in.

And a couple of real gems just for good measure.

The fishermen both in these online communities and all throughout Oregon have a right to be mad – but not at the ODFW. The projected increase in mortality from declining usage of descenders is what prompted this closure; had usage remained the same, yelloweye mortality would have been sufficiently low to keep the fishery open past 20 fathoms. And to be fair, I saw a good amount of support for the ODFW and read of people who would willingly volunteer their time to help give away these devices.

It’s times like this that I sit back and reflect on what I wrote back in my first post on the tragedy of the commons. The commons in reality can only exist if everyone buys into the notion of a shared resource. As a recovering stock, each and every individual yelloweye is important, making every person instrumental in maintaining the yelloweye commons. Unfortunately, the select few who overlooked this and the descenders, whether it be unintentionally or otherwise, contributed to the shutdown of the groundfish fishery for all.

I write this not to point fingers, but as an example that fishermen should be more than just people who take from the ocean – they must be the active stewards of it. The ODFW doesn’t work to prevent fishermen from catching fish, it works to protect them from themselves. The painful reality now that many don’t see is a tenuous relationship between humans and fish, one where 80% of commercially fished species are already overexploited, yet still viewed as “fishable” because the populations are somehow miraculously, albeit barely, maintaining themselves.

The mentality must change. In a perfect world, there is no ODFW, the fishermen police themselves and the resource, and at the end of the day, everyone goes home with fish in the cooler. In an imperfect world, situations like the yelloweye depth limit serve as resentful but necessary reminders of the responsibility that we all bear in looking after our natural resources.

I’ll end with a quote that I saw attached underneath one of the forum member’s comments, one who was adamantly supportive of ODFW’s mission.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Ensuring the fisheries of the future exist starts not by adding increasingly stringent restrictions, but by teaching the community to start taking care of them now, even if there is no immediate reward. As with the yelloweye rockfish, it could be years before we see much progress, and perhaps a great many more before we see full recovery. But even if it’s just using a descender to send back that one lone yelloweye you caught today, the ocean will thank you. Otherwise, our hopes for a sustainable future are as long gone as a blown-up rockfish bobbing away on the waves.

Week 6 – Milestones: First post!

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been helping out on a news post on ocean acidification for the ODFW Marine Reserves website. Having never written a journalistic article before, I found this to be a unique challenge. Most every assignment back in college was strictly scientific in format (save for the stray arts/humanities paper), so there weren’t many opportunities to write on my own terms. But both this news post and the Sea Grant Scholars blog have made me aware of just how enjoyable and fulfilling writing can be when given a chance to express my own voice within the content, and now I’m actually giving scientific communication serious consideration as a potential career path moving forward, something that wasn’t even in the back of my mind just a couple months ago. It’s amazing how much one experience can change you.

Stay tuned for future posts, and enjoy!


Week 5 – Checking in

Five weeks down, five more to go. This past Friday was our midsummer check-in, where we had the chance to showcase our work so far in short presentations to the other scholars and the program coordinators, after which we were rewarded with a camping trip to Willamette National Forest.

A shot of our backyard for the night (who said waterfront property had to be expensive?).

After a short hike, we arrived at the Tamolitch Pool. Looks pretty shallow, right?

…but not when you get down to the edge of the pool. The ledge I was standing on dropped straight down at least twenty feet. This deceptive view can be attributed to the stunning clarity of the water, which is due to its underground source. I can’t find an explanation for its deep blue color, so if anyone has an idea, do comment below.












So in keeping with the theme, now would be a good time to give a quick and consolidated blurb about what I’ve accomplished and what I plan on doing for the next half of this summer.

As you may recall, I have a two-part job with the ODFW Marine Reserves Program. The ecological monitoring half of it has had me out in the field the majority of the time. SMURFing trips to Otter Rock Marine Reserve occur every two weeks, so I’ve had the opportunity to get out on the water several times now to sample juvenile fish. The other area I’ve been working on involves intertidal sea star surveys, which we conduct in order to assess sea star wasting disease among the populations in the reserves. This is a more hands-on project, as I am personally coordinating and leading the surveys as well as entering data and crunching numbers back in the office.

The flip side of my time here is spent on communications. The ODFW runs routine news updates on its marine reserves website, which I’m assisting with. So far I’ve taken a shot at writing about a new project on ocean acidification involving pH sensors in the reserves, and from here on out the goal is to push one post out every two weeks. Finally, to round things out, I am currently in the process of brainstorming potential topics for communications videos. Right now, it’s looking as though I’ll be producing either a tide pool video on life beneath the surface or a fish species highlights video from some of the cool footage that we already have.

As you can imagine, I’ve been kept busy bouncing around from the boat to the office to the tide pools, but I’ve also made sure to set aside some time to pursue my own interests. At the beginning of the summer, the coordinators had us come up with two SMART goals. I crossed the first one off my list fairly quickly (learn how to snorkel), but the second one is a bit more extensive. I decided that for this objective I would familiarize myself with the various fish species local to Oregon’s waters through time spent at work, the aquarium, or fishing (I’ve also decided to throw in a few shellfish IDs in there as well). And what better way to demonstrate my progress than to show my piscatorial pursuits? Let’s get to the pictures.

First stop, the mudflats by Hatfield. Catch the shrimp to get the bait, then catch the fish after catching the bait.

Neotrypaea californiensis, the bay ghost shrimp, commonly known simply as the ghost shrimp or sand shrimp. While both sexes possess one larger claw, this dominant claw in males is typically much bigger than the one on females (personal experience warning: I don’t recommend getting pinched by either).

Upogebia pugettensis, the blue mud shrimp. I was actually digging (unsuccessfully) for a gaper clam when I uncovered this guy several feet down. This is the first and only one I’ve seen thus far, so I consider myself lucky to have found it.

Marveling at a cockle, Clinocardium nuttallii. These clams are typically found much shallower than other clam species. The trick to finding cockles is to look for two holes spaced closely together on the ground; these are actually a pair of siphons that the cockle uses in filter feeding. I also collected gapers, littlenecks, softshells, and bent-nose macomas while clamming.

Next stop, the jetties.

This is a male kelp greenling, Hexagrammos decagrammus, caught about ¾ of the way down the South Jetty. Like the bay ghost shrimp, this species exhibits sexual dimorphism, with the males displaying darker coloration and fewer, larger spots toward the head and females having a more colorful complexion with numerous, smaller spots throughout the body. I ended up catching three in this one spot, all males about 16 to 17 inches in length.

A quillback rockfish, Sebastes maliger, just off one of the finger jetties. An interesting fact (and one I didn’t know at the time…) lies in the dorsal spines that this species is named for – these spines are actually attached to venomous glands at the base. Good thing I’m holding this fish by the jaw.

Another rockfish, this time a Sebastes caurinus: the copper rockfish. You can tell these apart from other, similarly colored rockfish by the light streak on the lateral line stretching from the base of the tail to around the middle of the body. Another characteristic is a distinctly yellow lower lip, obviously not visible here from the way I’m holding the fish.











Finally, we head back towards home and onto the pier to toss a crab ring.

I have an interesting story behind this picture. Although not clearly visible, the bait in the very middle of the ring is the tail piece of a filleted, 3 foot albacore that I fished from a dumpster at a nearby cleaning station the night before. We didn’t have much luck earlier using just chicken, but as soon we used the tuna, the ring was teeming with crabs on every pull. Just for kicks, we also added in some chicken thighs, which promptly went untouched the rest of the night. So if you plan on going crabbing, take note and save your fish carcasses after you fillet them (or find a dumpster).

A red rock crab, Cancer productus, uncharacteristically lying passively on its back. Normally red rocks are feisty, but this one stopped kicking for a moment to let me snap a picture. These can be distinguished from Dungeness crabs by the black tips on their claws as well as their overall reddish coloration.

And the other crab species we caught that night, Metacarcinus magister, the Dungeness crab. The sex of most any crab species can be determined by flipping the crab over and examining the flap, called the apron, on the underside. Males will have a narrow, pointed apron, whereas females will have a broader apron. This one is a male.

And a female Dungeness.











We were also fishing while letting the crab ring soak. After numerous pecks and nibbles throughout the night, I finally managed to land the sneaky culprit: Leptocottus armatus, the Pacific staghorn sculpin.

And finally, the delicious results of our crabbing foray. We ended up keeping one Dungeness and four red rocks.

That’s it for this week, hopefully more to come on future trips.

Week 4 – Seeing Stars

Last week, I spent two of my mornings hunched over tide pools looking for sea stars. We were out conducting sea star surveys as part of a research effort documenting the effects of sea star wasting disease, an epidemic that has affected populations of these iconic animals up and down the West Coast.

Not your typical day at the office.

To be honest, I wasn’t enthused at the thought of groggily getting up at 5 AM. But I quickly warmed up to the idea – especially after measuring tapes and clipboards were handed out and we were turned loose to hunt down sea stars.

I think the main reason I became so immersed in my work that morning was because it resembled a lot of what I did throughout my childhood: roaming independently outside and exploring whatever nature offered to us. I didn’t grasp it at the time, but I was reaching back to my roots – roots buried and forgotten a long time ago as I grew up and moved on to other endeavors.

It seems that stress bombards us from all sides these days. I’ve definitely been feeling it this week – from working 21 total hours those two days of sea star surveys, to getting writer’s block on a difficult topic for my very first post on the ODFW Marine Reserves website, to preparing a presentation for the midsummer check-in at the end of this week.

So as we near the halfway point of the program, I suppose now is a more than apropos time to raise the importance of not getting lost within the rat race that’s convinced many of us to chase societal success. We miss a lot of the little things – things that tend to keep us sane – when we don’t stop to appreciate what’s around us. I’ll keep the rest of the text in this post short and sweet by sharing some of my own little things from this week:

A foggy morning greeted us at Otter Rock Marine Reserve, one of the sites of our sea star surveys.

View from inside the Devil’s Punchbowl at Otter Rock. The hollowed-out structure is dry and explorable at low tide, but come high tide the basin fills up with water.

A winding channel cutting through the tide pools.

A very well hidden, and very much alive, red rock crab.

Pisaster ochraceus, commonly known as the ochre star, can actually come in a variety of colors, but the major color morphs are orange, purple, and brown.

A not-so-healthy sea star. Those affected by the wasting disease experience external lesions, decaying limbs, and overall body deterioration.

A dense school of juvenile rockfish welcomed us as soon as we reached the tide pools at Cascade Head Marine Reserve on the second morning of our sea star surveys. This was an unexpected discovery – juvenile rockfish typically recruit nearshore by the time they reach the size of the ones in this pool, but to see so many all in one place was surprising.

A flamboyantly blue nudibranch, found in the same pool as the rockfish. The colors are much more electrifying when seen in person.

Not positive, but I’m guessing this is another nudibranch, although much bigger than the first.

The most interesting find of the afternoon – an octopus! It took several minutes of gentle coaxing to tease him out of the hole he was hiding in.

Saying goodbye to Cascade Head for the day.

I find that one of the more intriguing things about nature is that you can leave with a sense of fulfillment just from silently wandering about and observing. When I look down into a tide pool, I’m usually searching for fish and other little creatures hiding amongst the rocks and algae. But more so than that, I realize now that I’m peering deeper into a window of my childhood days, when the only things with an iota of consequence at the end of the day were our dirty clothes and grass-stained knees.

So slow down, take a deep breath, and go find your own tide pool, wherever it may be.

Week 3 – The Curious Case of the Cabezon

For those of us old enough to remember (or young enough, depending on your age), the word SMURF most likely evokes memories of little blue woodland figures brought to you by Saturday morning programming. But to members of the ODFW Oregon Marine Reserves team, SMURFs are something radically different: Standard Monitoring Units for the Recruitment of Fishes.

Which is fancy terminology for what basically amounts to a floating bunch of plastic encased by even more mesh plastic. However, to a juvenile fish, these artificial refuges offer a safe haven in the desert that is the open ocean.

A SMURF attached to its mooring. Photo courtesy of oregonmarinereserves.com.

Upon deployment in nearshore waters, SMURFs are left to soak for two weeks before being retrieved, during which time they are colonized by the young of a variety of fishes (in our case, mainly rockfish and cabezon). The SMURF is then enveloped in a large net, dragged onto the boat, and unceremoniously shaken against the deck to dislodge any creatures stuck within the inner crevices of plastic. Back in the lab, each fish is meticulously measured and dropped into individually labeled baggies destined for the freezer. On a good day of SMURFing, the total haul can tally in the hundreds.

Juvenile fish being measured with calipers in the lab.

Researchers with the marine reserves program and Hatfield Marine Science Center use these sample collections to piece together various aspects of the early life histories of fish. One process known as recruitment, which is defined by NOAA to be the “time when a young fish enters a fishery or enters a specific habitat such as a juvenile or adult habitat,” is of particular interest. Many larval fish species, rockfish and cabezon included, spend a portion of their time in a pelagic phase, in which they are subject to surface currents that carry them offshore. As they continue to grow, they make their way back to nearshore waters and become recruits of the more mature populations. SMURFs intercept these transients, providing valuable information on the understudied temporal and spatial links between larval and adult stages.

One of the more notable observations on our SMURFing expeditions this year has been the presence of an abnormally large size class of juvenile cabezon.

Top and middle: Juvenile cabezon. Bottom: Unidentified juvenile rockfish. The cabezon is the largest member of the sculpins, a group of highly camouflaged, demersal fishes. Their mottled coloration enables them to expertly blend in with their rocky surroundings.

A quick discussion with colleagues back in the office has led to a few conceivable conjectures, all regarding recent El Niño conditions (Earth is currently experiencing neutral conditions, but a La Niña event is scheduled to be in place later this year). The occurrence of an El Niño leads to weakened winds that would otherwise normally push surface waters westwards across the Pacific. This in turn causes depressed upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water along the western coast of the Americas; the opposite effect is seen during La Niña conditions. Past SMURF research has shown that the periods of surface current relaxation and reinforcement associated with these climatological events favors recruitment of certain rockfish species over others, which could indicate similar successful outcomes for other larval fish species.

One of our personal theories is that the slower currents induced by the El Niño equate to a longer time spent offshore, and thus an extended period of growth before being brought back nearshore. An interesting way to test this would be to observe the temporal abundance of recruits – later arrival times than normal could lend support for this theory. Another guess is that the warmer surface water increases the metabolism of the larvae and accelerates their growth prior to recruitment. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, or possibly something entirely different.

A cursory online search of research literature yielded little insight, although I did find this lone paragraph on cabezon and El Niño conditions from a 2009 NOAA assessment:

“The recruitment patterns…suggest a possible link between environmental forcing and population dynamics. Specifically, strong ENSO conditions…may be a pre-cursor to significant recruitment events.”

Just to be clear, it certainly is possible that the data is simply coincidental. But based on our own observations and the one above, the potential correlation of increased cabezon size with El Niño is a plausible hypothesis to be sure, and one that requires further investigation to tease apart the true dynamics of the situation. For now, though, the phenomenon remains a mystery as cryptic as the fish itself.

Week 2 – Planting the seed, Part 2

Last week’s post dealt with the scientific portion of my work this summer. This week I’d like to devote my thoughts to the communications aspect of it, something that I would argue is becoming just as important as the science itself. I was talking to my mentor just last week when I spotted these curious words tucked away to the side of her cubicle:

People don’t trust what they don’t understand.

Simple and self-explanatory words, but powerful ones that I think are at the crux of the figurative wall that has existed between the scientific community and the general public for a great while. Check out this (somewhat maddening) clip of a professor futilely attempting to inform a congressman on climate change for a real life example of what I mean.

Now, this is an extreme case (and a particularly obstinate politician), but one that I think defines fairly well what occurs when there is a complete lack of contact and understanding between two parties. So what’s up? There are a few schools of thought on the matter. For one, the sciences span a mind-boggling number of disciplines and subfields that, in total, add up to be an overwhelming amount of intelligence for any person. Furthermore, the syntax and specialized jargon that scientists employ in their professional writing generate something of a language barrier. And through no fault of their own; scientists are not journalists by trade, after all. But they are communicators (albeit of scientific material), and all it takes is a little creativity to make the leap from one audience to another.

These days, that creativity comes in the form of social media, which is opening up previously unconventional avenues of communication. Facebook, Twitter, and a slew of other sites are cropping up as powerful means of relaying material to once inaccessible audiences. As an intern with the ODFW this summer, part of my job will be to help spread awareness via these platforms about the purpose of the marine reserves through blog posts and videos of what our team does. So far, the outreach program appears to be making headway. Of the marine reserves, Jeff Miles, a commercial fisherman who has plied Oregon waters for 40 years, says, “I think it’s already working. I think it’ll be a great asset for the community. I just don’t believe the ocean is an endless bounty, and I don’t have a problem with saving little spots here and there for future generations.” This understanding is the kind of goal that my mentor and I are striving towards in our communications work.

Of course, all of this begs one very important question – why should we trust scientists? As I was writing this, I was reminded of a seminar I attended last summer by Dr. Naomi Oreskes entitled “Why We Should Trust Science: Perspectives from the History and Philosophy of Science.” I pulled the following lines from a similar TED talk she gave earlier:

“Our basis for trust in science is actually the same as our basis in trust in technology, and the same as our basis for trust in anything, namely experience…Our trust in science, like science itself, should be based on evidence. And that means that scientists have to become better communicators.”

To illustrate her point, Dr. Oreskes brings up a straightforward, everyday example in cars. Our faith in cars as reliable machines is predicated by the efforts of the many previous scientists who have worked for years to build up the evidence that in turn could allow them to construct something so reliable so well. Yet few of us would even consider this when we step into our cars and turn on the ignition successfully time after time. This science that is unknowingly right under our noses is also the very same science that some of us fail to acknowledge in more pressing issues, such as in the climate change video I shared above.

I’d like to take it one step further and ask, why then do we put so much trust in something so complicated and potentially dangerous as a car if so few of us understand it? I would say it’s a matter of familiarity, which we obtain through one of two ways: personal experience, as mentioned in the talk, and also deferring to the experiences of people we know. Most of us grew up surrounded by people who drove cars, and later on, we were taught to drive them ourselves. Similarly, with such a vast amount of information present these days, much of what we trust is, by necessity, through familiarity, not complete understanding of a subject. To reiterate the quote at the beginning, people don’t trust what they don’t understand. However, they will trust familiarity, and to achieve that we have to incorporate it into their lives in some way, shape, or form.

And so, as Dr. Oreskes puts it, we scientists need to become better communicators, and that means we have to work harder than before if we’re to get people familiar with what we do. We now have tools like social media to help us along the way, although this isn’t by any means a permanent solution. Facebook and Twitter have come, and they will go. But we’ll keep coming up with new ways to get our point across. You can take my word for it.

Week 1 – Planting the seed

I have always found fish to be intriguing creatures, and as far back as I can remember, I have been enamored with fishing…Each species has its own life history that dictates its diet, location, and behavioral characteristics, and so I studied up on a plethora of them, eager to know more about what makes each one unique as well as how to pursue them…connecting my interest with academics was intuitive – as a biology major specializing in ecology, I was very much interested in fish as a particular subject, and as a recreational angler, I felt as though I had a personal stake in helping to manage our resources. It has become increasingly apparent to me, whether it be through learning about historical stock collapses through my lecture on the tragedy of the commons or hearing the debates regarding recreational regulations each year, the importance of stewardship side by side with research…

I included the above excerpt from my personal essay as a bit of insight into what drove me to apply to the Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholars Program. The focus of my essay was on the tragedy of the commons, a phenomenon that I first came across several years ago when I was still an undergraduate. Now, I’ve found that throughout college there are the courses you enjoy, the courses you tolerate, and the courses that leave you profoundly contemplative of what just transpired in the sixty minutes prior. I can’t say that I was raptly attentive throughout the entirety of my marine biology lectures (I’m looking at you, macroalgae), but our class on the tragedy of the commons was one in which I was not only intrigued by the content matter itself, but also surprised by the fact that I could be so interested in a topic.

Originally conceptualized by William Forster Lloyd in 1883, the tragedy of the commons was popularized by Garrett Hardin in 1968 as an explanation of the consequences of the rapidly expanding human population on resources. In his paper, Hardin summarizes it best in the following thought experiment:

“Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Since its inception, the tragedy of the commons has been applied to a variety of situations – in the case of my marine biology class, on overfishing. This isn’t even necessarily about blatantly illegal fishing; responsible operations that abide by the law are also part of the problem as we attempt to divide increasingly scarce fisheries among increasingly larger markets. Certainly fishermen have a right to a livelihood, but where do we draw the line between sustainability and human demand? As one can imagine, it’s a complex path studded with bias and contention, one that must be navigated shrewdly if we are to adequately meet the needs of both nature and man. (I recommend reading Hardin’s paper in its entirety to get a stronger understanding on the tragedy of the commons, but be forewarned that the latter parts of the paper adopt a decidedly controversial attitude on human overpopulation).

Which brings us to why I’m here with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). My area of research this summer is centered on the state’s five marine reserves scattered up and down the coast. Officially enacted in 2012, these reserves are closed to fishing and ocean development, but they are more than simply ecological sanctuaries. The ODFW Marine Reserves Program is closely monitoring their long-term effects with respect to comparison areas, which are open to fishing but still closed to development. In addition to studying the impacts of fishing, the Marine Reserves Program also assesses other abiotic and biotic measures related to the health of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems.

As a research project, these marine reserves were built specifically to be scientific in nature. But they are also simultaneously meant to conserve biodiversity and inform future management of our marine resources. Having already shared my above motivations for pursuing this specific field, I can’t help but feel that that this is the path that much of future ecology work must take, if it hasn’t already started trending in that direction. This is exactly what I meant when I wrote “stewardship side by side with research” in my essay. The effects of what has already occurred under scenarios dictated by the tragedy of the commons are glaring. Overfishing. Water shortages. Fossil fuel usage and the advent of climate change. And so on and so forth; the list will undeniably get longer with time. We’ve already taken so much out of our natural resources, some of it irrevocably. It’s going to take a lot more to restore it back to the way it was.

But enough big picture talk for the time being. My personal role in this endeavor is multifaceted – I’ll be working on anything ranging from SMURF (Standard Monitoring Units for the Recruitment of Fishes) data collection to intertidal sea star surveys to underwater video analysis. I’ll also be spending part of my time on the communications aspect of the project, namely video editing and social media outreach. So far, I’ve been dutifully busy reading material, visiting the aquarium to solidify my fish identification skills, and conducting SMURF fieldwork.

We’ll see what the next week brings.