Thanksgiving came and went. The Christmas decorations are up and making the house annoyingly festive. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and prepare for the chaos that comes before the next long holiday. Not sure why, but it always seems like early December has the most deadlines.
First up- The Troutlook might be expanding. Penn State offers a pretty lucrative deal where undergraduates can apply for a semester-long research fellowship. It starts with a small research proposal - background information, proposed methods, significance of results, etc.- that offers a nice introduction to what the “professionals” have to do when trying to convince a granting agency to give us money. If funded, the student gets paid about $1,700 and gets three academic credits to conduct research during the semester. It’s a really great gig.
This semester I’ve had several undergraduates approach me about opportunities to volunteer in the field or help analyze data (lesson one: volunteering with a grad student is a great way to get experience and put your foot in the door). Penn State has a fairly small fisheries program, and so one goal I have anytime a student joins me is to give them career advice and answer questions they have about jobs and grad school (lesson two: volunteer for everything, you’ll always learn something). I had two students in particular that stuck with me despite me ignoring their many, many attempts to volunteer (lesson three: persistence- One of my favorite quotes that summarizes grad school is “I have no special skills, I am only unreasonably persistent”). I started working with them around the same time I heard about Penn State’s fellowship program, and it made perfect sense for both of them to submit a fellowship proposal. Those are due this week, and I’m optimistic that we may be adding some undergraduates to the team. Fingers crossed!
I spent some time this week editing the first draft of their proposals. Of course both proposals are for research related to brook trout and climate change, and the proposal guidelines have tight word restrictions. When pressed with word limits, a great strategy is to floor the reader with a quick statistic that paints a harrowing picture about your subject at hand. No fancy numbers, no long descriptions, no background of fish required. I found it in a paper that Seth Wenger and his colleagues wrote in 2011:
Nearly 80% of brook trout habitat will be lost to climate change.
Why so high? Yes, stream temperatures are rising above brook trout thermal tolerance. We all knew that. But, that’s not the only aspect of climate change that will affect brook trout. We spend so much time focusing on temperature that we often forget about other aspects of climate. For example, more rain and less snow will lead to increased winter stream flows. For fall-spawning brook trout, higher flows during winter will results in decreased egg survival and accelerate population loss. The negative effects of increased stream temperatures and higher winter flows may also be accelerated were there are multiple trout species, such and brook and brown, that are competing for the same resource, or increased watershed development that may degrade habitat or fragment populations.
But, 80%. Wow.
These results represent a model for brook trout populations out west where they are nonnative. So, perhaps they aren’t directly transferable to native brook trout populations of the east coast. But, in the west streams are generally colder and brook trout populations larger and more robust. So, I can only guess what a similar model for east coast populations would look, but I feel fairly confident in saying the numbers wouldn’t be pretty.
Also disheartening is that these projections are for 2080. Perhaps I was just being naïve, but I used to think that climate projections were so far in the distance that we didn’t have to worry. Surely we would fix these problems by then. And, 60 years may still seem fairly distant. But, it suddenly seems like the clock is ticking. Our time to fix this problem is running out. Every generation of trout counts. Every year that we don’t make progress is another year closer to extinction.
This is why I do the research I do. At times it seems like my ideas are grasping at straws with more oddball ideas. And, maybe they are. But, if we are to save trout, we need to do more than model their numbers, stock more fish, and plant more trees. Those are all worthwhile endeavors, but we need more. We need something different, something new. Something that very soon can start tipping the odds in favor of brook trout.
And, it all starts with an oddball idea….