A few months ago I explored the story behind the names for two fish-themed beers- one from Bell’s Brewery (Two Hearted Ale) and another from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery (The Great Return). This morning I saw the new t-shirt design for another fish-centric brewery, Coelacanth Brewery and thought “hey, maybe I should bring back the mini-series for this week’s blog.”
And then I realized that today is National Beer Day.
Okay world, I’m listening.
The slogan for Coelacanth Brewery is “ugly fish, beautiful beer,” and boy did they hit the nail on the head with that one. Because this is a fish blog, I’ll focus on the first half of that slogan (but I assure you, the second half is also no lie).
Located in Norfolk, Virginia, Coelacanth Brewery (which you can see the phonetic spelling of on their t-shirt design, along with the proper Virginian pronunciation of Norfolk) is named after one of the most ancient fish species still alive. Long thought extinct, the first living coelacanth was discovered in 1938 off the coast of Africa. The African coelacanth enjoyed it’s status as the only living species for nearly 60 years until it was joined by another species of coelacanth found off the coast of Indonesia (ironically this species was first discovered at a market, but it was caught alive a year later).
Coelacanths are the fisheries equivalent to a living dinosaur, and critical pieces of evolutionary history. Though later genomic studies debunked this myth, it was once thought that coelacanths were the ancestors to modern-day tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates including amphibians, reptiles and, that’s right, even humans). It was later determined that lungfish, a close relative to coelacanths, were the first to walk out of water. But, looking at a coelacanth’s fins it is easy to see why scientists were mistaken. Those weird looking, oddly placed appendages are not the ray fins that we typically find on fish. Rather, coelacanth fins are fleshy and lobed, much like we might associate with a salamander or frog. Moreover, they move their fins in an alternating pattern similar to how a dog moves their legs when trotting. This unique fin structure is what classifies coelacanths into the class Sarcopterygii, of which most species belonging to that class are now extinct.
But, the weirdness of the coelacanth doesn’t end with its fins. While most fish lay eggs, coelacanths actually give birth to live young, known as ‘pups.’ These pups are able to immediately start fending from themselves and feed with the help of an electrosensory organ on their nose. This organ allows coelacanths to detect changes in electrical signals around them, which can be used to detect prey and even navigate around their environment. Coelacanths also enjoy the benefits of a hinged jaw which, much like a snake, can be opened far wider than their heads so they can consume a very large meal at once.
Living up to 60 years old and growing up to 6 feet long, an adult coelacanth is one of the longest lived species of fish. However, scientists don’t know that much about coelacanths because they live in the deep sea and are most active at night, two conditions that make studies difficult to near impossible. But, with the limited information in hand, our best guess is that coelacanth populations are endangered, with some estimating as few as 1,000 individuals remaining across the two species.
Our inability to study coelacanths means that we really lack great information on what threatens their populations and what we might be able to do to increase population sizes. But, we can rule out with some certainty that populations are declining from targeted predation (both human and animal), because coelacanths are about as appetizing as they look. Much of their flesh is oily and waxy, including their braincase which is nearly 99% filled with fat and only a small fraction of actual brain tissue. They even lack vertebra and instead of a bony backbone, they have an oil-filled tube known as a notochord (which is another throwback to primitive body plans that was once common in many now extinct species). While possible predators of coelacanths know to avoid these swimming wax candles, one possible source of preventable mortality is as by-catch in deep sea fishing trawls.
So, part tetrapod, part snake…mostly fat and full of ugly. I can’t say coelacanths will ever top my list beautiful fish species, but you have to appreciate their history…and the fact that there’s now a brewery that bears their name.
The Story of a Wayward Wander
That’s a wrap, folks. In just a few hours the clocks will strike midnight and for the next several weeks I’ll write the incorrect year on every document I sign.
This week my computer has been busy running a very long genetic analysis. Notice I say my computer was busy- it took about five minutes for me to start the analysis, but it’s going to take close to two weeks for my computer to churn out the results. And, while new and upgraded, my computer doesn’t have enough oomph for me to run other programs while genetics voodoo happens in the background. Luckily, this was just a trial run. Eventually I’ll have to do a much more extensive analysis that will take even longer to run. I can’t wait.
I’m always a little nostalgic on New Year’s Eve. Sure, I could be wishful and think about all my resolutions for 2017. But, let’s be honest. Those are empty promises. I won’t read or vacation more, it’s unlikely I’ll get back to running a 10k a week, and I just don’t have the self-control to be less grumpy. But, 2016 still holds some magic. It’s like a story where the last line is about to be inked and the chapter closed. We survived another one, and there’s no better way to spend this day than retelling the story of 2016 with some pictures I never got to share.
If I’m telling I story, I think it needs a title, and I think “Wayward Wanderer” captures the essence of 2016 pretty well. I traveled. A lot. And I didn’t have any idea what I was doing most of the time.
In January I was finishing a three-month stint in West Virginia where I was collaborating with the USGS Leetown Science Center. Using their experimental stream lab, we were mimicking climate change to see how individual fish differed in their response to rapid increases in stream temperature. I’ll report on those data eventually, but suffice to say fish aren’t swimming robots and do react much differently from one another. We are exploring the data to see if we can figure out if some fish are predictably better than others at tolerating increases to temperature, but it will be awhile before we get that data.
While in West Virginia I got snowed in under 43 inches of snow, and then less than a week later I was on a plane headed for Panama City, Panama. I volunteered to help someone else in my lab with their fieldwork, which entailed a six-week trip to the rainforest. I can still remember sitting on the plane, taking off from Richmond, Virginia thinking to myself “what have I got myself into.”
And, to this day, I still don’t really know what I go myself into. I’ve done a lot of field work, but nothing prepared me for that experience. Hiking miles upstream to remote sample sites that few people in this world had ever seen, spying on howler monkeys, getting surprised by boars while collecting data, and of course the snakes. So many snakes. It felt like a real life nature documentary. But, it wasn’t just about the science. I was living along the Panama Canal in a small neighborhood shared among canal workers and a handful of other American scientists who are some of the most intelligent and fun people I’ve ever interacted with. Some days were spent roaming the streets of Panama City trying to remember enough Spanish to order food and find my way around. It was an experience that will no doubt rank among the most memorable times I had while in graduate school.
Leaving Panama was bittersweet. After six weeks I had grown a little tired of watching out for dangerous creatures (I came within inches of stepping on a fleur de lance, one of the most venomous snakes in South America, and had a caiman lunge at me from the banks), and I was there at the height of the Zika scare. Someone on my field crew even contracted the disease, and I was working on a species of fish that feeds on mosquito larvae. But, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the cultural and social experience. Plus, as long as I was there, I didn’t have to worry about my own pending field season.
But, all good things must come to an end and in mid-March I boarded a plane back to the United States, spent an unexpected night with the pigeons of the Newark airport (seriously, Newark, get it together), and then finally got back to State College. I had a little over a month to apply for permits, finalize field sites, organize crews, buy supplies, etc. And, within hours of getting back to the office, we were awarded a grant to work on the gene expression project that is now showing early promising results. So, I also needed to work on my poker face, because I had no idea was I was doing. Like, zero clue. I had never done telemetry or tissue sampling, had no real idea how the fish were going to behave, nor, honestly, did we know if the fish would survive everything we were doing to them. While I had a long list of people that could provide guidance with a few pieces of the puzzle, I felt the pressure to make it work.
And I did. Usually. Telemetry officially started in early May and for seven months I felt like I was making it up at I go. But, as normally happens, the things you stress out about the most turn out to be the things that aren’t that difficult. Tagging and sampling? Psss…a breeze. And the fish survived. But, tracking every day? That turned out to be a bit harder. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; field work is a long string of judgement calls that can make or break your entire project. The longer you are in the field, the more of those calls you have to make. No pressure, right? Things like should I wait the rain out, is it really too dark to keep going, are flows too high to wade, should I dig after this tag that seems to be moving in the bank? There’s a fine line between good data collection and stupid data collection, and it takes practice to find it, flirt with it, and ultimately make good calls. While I have a few years under my belts, I always feel guilty and think I could have done more or better.
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle with telemetry was the mental game needed to stay engaged and committed. I walked the exact same streams every day tracking the same fish, often to the same exact spot. Every day. For seven months. But we made it- through dropped tags, harsh weather, wildlife encounters, human encounters, and broken bones. And, I think we got a great dataset. And, now that I’m on the other side of the hurdle, I think back to all the times I was standing beside the stream, tired and wanting to call it a day, but took a deep breath and continued on. Stubbornness is one of my best properties, and it helped that Savannah, Dan, and David kept me entertained.
During telemetry I basically lived in Loyalsock where phone service is non-existent and internet is sparse. It made communication difficult, particularly in summer when I was working on publishing a manuscript (which was finally accepted, woohoo!). But, as an upside, it’s a great way to disconnect and motivation to work hard during the day to guarantee an early bedtime. But, I was still largely living out of a suitcase. I think I packed in November 2015, and it wasn’t until September 2016 that I fully unpacked, bought perishables from the grocery store, and enjoyed a full week at my apartment. Even then, I was still making regular trips to Loyalsock, a 4-hour roundtrip commute, so I was still a stranger to the office.
Telemetry season ended in November, and since then it’s been more travel, only this time to spend holidays in Virginia with my ‘research assistant.’ As the year comes to a close, we are working hard to analyze and publish data for the genetics of brook trout in Loyalsock. Where will we go after that? Your guess is as good as mine.
Finally, perhaps motivated by lack of communication and entertainment this summer, but mostly interactions with interested anglers and citizen scientists, I started this website in June. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I can say the response has been far more receptive than I imagined. In less than six months this website has gotten nearly 17,000 views. Most importantly, it has connected me to people with questions about stream ecology, organizations like Trout Unlimited, news stations, and other academics. I also received an award for scientific communication. So, thanks to all of you for joining me on this ride, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us in 2017.
So, did I earn my paycheck this year?
Continuing with the beer-themed mini-series, but stepping outside of the trout-sphere, this week I’m going behind the name of Hardywood Park’s Great Return. It’s not only a fish-themed beer, but a beer that supports fisheries conservation!
Those residing outside of the Old Dominion may not be familiar with the label, but Hardywood is a craft brewery rooted in Richmond, Virginia. Owned by two childhood friends, the brewery opened in 2011 and takes pride in brewing with local ingredients and renewable resources. Nestled in the historic German brewing district, Hardywood is the destination for anything from lively block parties to quiet afternoons in the garden.
IPAs are my flavor of choice, so ordering my first Great Return was a no-brainer when it was first released in 2013. I didn’t pay much attention to the name, and it was probably several months before I saw the label and realized it featured an American sturgeon. The Great Return is referencing one of the biggest comeback stories in fisheries, and that’s a cause I can drink to!
So, what’s so great about an American sturgeon return? American sturgeon is a large species of fish reaching nearly 10 feet in the length and weighing up to 300 pounds. They are also one of the oldest living species and it is believed they were swimming around at the same time dinosaurs were roaming the earth.
Despite surviving the same mass extinction that wiped out the T-Rex, Atlantic sturgeon was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. There are two specific aspects of the species’ ecology that make it particularly vulnerable. First, it takes up to 20 years for a female sturgeon to be able to reproduce. In that 20 years a lot of things can happen, that kill the fish before it is able to reproduce. Most notably, a lot of sturgeon mortality could historically be traced to angler harvest. The first rapid decline in sturgeon populations was believed to occur during colonial times and into the 20th century when sturgeon caviar (eggs) were considered a delicacy and the species was overharvested. In fact, Atlantic sturgeon is believed to have largely prevented massive starvation of early settlers because the fish was large, plentiful, and easy to catch. Today Atlantic sturgeon harvest is illegal; however, adults are still at risk of fatal injury when accidentally caught and from being struck by boat propellers.
The other difficultly with Atlantic sturgeon conservation is that they require a wide range of habitats to complete their life cycle. They are a bit like salmon- when not spawning they live in saltwater in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, but when ready to reproduce they swim into freshwater rivers. Historically, these rivers would have been a safer spot to spawn because there are fewer things to eat the eggs and water currents are not as strong as in the open ocean allowing eggs are more comfortable place to develop. However, in modern times, dams block access to much of the spawning habitat and water quality is so poor that eggs and juveniles can suffocate in sediment-laden water.
The above paints the picture of Atlantic sturgeon populations in the James River which flows from the mountains of Virginia, through Richmond, and into the Chesapeake Bay. Historically the James River was home to one of the largest populations of Atlantic sturgeon. Today, it is estimated that only 300 adults occupy the James River every year, and they are all spawning in the same location. This spawning location is unfortunately placed in a section of the river with heavy boat traffic and is regularly dredged to make the river deeper and navigable by large commercial ships. Dredging not only displaces adult sturgeon, but suspends sediment into the water column making the water quality too poor to support Atlantic sturgeon.
It would appear that this story ends with having to choose between using the river to support sturgeon, or using the river for commercial hauling (Richmond has a deep history of maritime transportation dating back to the early 1600s that is still alive and well today). However, thanks to valiant efforts by The James River Association and research by university, state, and federal biologists, there are early indications that it may be possible to have both the ecologic and economic uses of the river. Detailed maps of spawning grounds have pinpointed critical areas in the river to protect, and more research on spawning behavior has identified spawning windows in fall and spring when sturgeon reproduce and water quality is of highest importance. Further, through the use of radio telemetry, biologists now have a better understanding of where sturgeon go within the river and the Chesapeake Bay. Together, this information has been used to form an adaptive management plan that minimize risks to sturgeon during critical life stages and protects a larger range of habitats used by the species.
It’s still early to tell how these management adaptations have effected long-term sturgeon population health, but the observation of more and larger sturgeon entering the James River to spawn has biologists excited about the future. Improved ecosystem management in the James River is a cause that Hardywood continues to support, and they contribute $10 per barrel of Great Return to the James River Association to not only support sturgeon recovery but James River ecosystem restoration.
So, your next drink may very well be saving the Atlantic sturgeon. Bottoms up!
Urban Stream Syndrome
This week I traveled to central Virginia to electrofish an urban stream. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be so excited to work all day in a 110° heat index to catch nearly 1,000 minnows, but this stream holds a special place for me.
Ten years ago I didn’t know fisheries biology was a thing. And, if you had told me I could (and would) make a career studying fish, I probably would have rolled my eyes and asked if you had too much to drink. That all changed in 2006 when I started my freshman year at Randolph-Macon College and was placed in a class called “Repairing Nature.” The course description emphasized a year-long class centered on understanding the ecological, sociological, and economical requirements for restoring an urban stream.
“Great,” I thought, “I’m going to plant some trees.”
Boy was I wrong. On the first day of class we took a trip about a mile away to Mechumps Creek, a small stream that flows through my hometown of Ashland, Virginia. Looking at the stream, I didn’t understand the problem. Sure, there was some trash that needed removing, but other than that I didn’t see what needed to be restored.
The answer was everything. And, once I realized that answer, my career path was set in stone.
Mechumps Creek suffered from “urban stream syndrome.” When it rains in a forested watershed, water slowly seeps into the ground and slowly reaches streams. But, in urban settings, parking lots, roadways, buildings, and other impervious surfaces prevent water from reaching the ground. The water has to go somewhere, and the traditional solution is to channel all of it into storm sewers which then deliver water directly to streams.
Typical stream profile for a natural (top) and urban (bottom) stream. In an natural stream, erosion is minimized because, after storms, stream flow slowly increases, tops the banks, and spills over onto the floodplain. In an urban stream, so much water is delivered to the stream so quickly that the stream bottom erodes. The stream continues to erode downward and eventually water can no longer reach the floodplain.
Think about that for a second. During a heavy storm (or a hurricane, as central Virginia often gets) all of the rain water from the entire watershed is being delivered directly to the stream. It’s not only tons of water, but it’s also polluted by anything that was on top of the road (often automobile oils and fuel and trash).
This change in the timing and magnitude of water reaching streams has devastating effects to the shape of the stream channel. In natural streams, stream flow slowly increases, reaches the top of the channel, and then floods the surrounding land. This “spill over” onto the floodplain, decreases stream flow velocity and minimizes stream erosion.
However, when too much water is delivered too fast, stream flows increase so rapidly that they erode the stream bottom. After several years the stream continues to cut deeper and deeper, eventually leaving really high banks. It’s then a positive feedback loop where the stream can’t “spill over” and can only continue eroding deeper (see the above figure for a visual of this effect). Most species of fish and aquatic bugs cannot survive these high flows and sedimentation, and so species diversity drops dramatically.
To this day I can’t really tell you why I find urban streams so interesting. But, standing on the banks of Mechumps Creek and hearing that story, I immediately volunteered to spend nearly my entire fall semester with a small group of students measuring how eroded the banks were in Mechumps Creek (because of this work I was asked to join the trout lab, and here I am today….). Our measurements went to an engineering firm, who drew up blueprints for the stream restoration.
The goal of stream restoration is to design a channel that will not erode during storms. This is accomplished by literally relocating the channel so that the stream can “spill over” onto a floodplain (hard when the floodplain is where fast food restaurants are located) and placing hard structures throughout that lock the stream in place. All of this is expensive, and it took until 2010 to piece together enough grant money to start restoration in Mechumps Creek.
Photos of Mechumps Creek before (left) during (center) and after( right) restoration.
One reason the grant application for the restoration was successful was that my professor at Randolph-Macon promised to monitor fish populations and habitat for 10 years to determine if restoration was successful. So, every July, him and I return to Mechumps Creek. It’s a humbling experience to think that my career started there, by accident, 10 years ago. It’s also very interesting to see species that have returned to the stream. While we always caught creek chubs, bluehead chubs, tessellated darters, and bluegill, over the years we have slowly seen the reappearance of mud sunfish, American eels, mudminnows, pirate perch, and this year grass pickerel.
There’s another section of Mechumps Creek that is currently proposed for restoration, so I may have more warmwater electrofishing in my future.