Category Archives: Director Message

Director Message

Putting Red Tide in Context

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“The Florida red tide was caused by the appearance in nearby coastal waters of extraordinary numbers of a microscopic sea creature.  Although individually so small as to be invisible to the human eye, the concentration of billions of Gymnodinium caused the sea water to take on a reddish or amber color…. Mass destruction of fish and certain other aquatic animals which was caused by a deadly toxin, the chemical composition of which is still unknown, which Gymnodinium liberated into the water…”

While this statement may seem to refer to the ongoing red tide that has impacted a large segment of Florida’s Coast this year, it was excerpted from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report completed in December 1947.  The report on a study directed by the Service’s chief shellfish biologist, Dr. Paul S. Galtsoff, outlined the circumstances associated with a particularly severe red tide that began in November 1946 and persisted for 11 months causing massive fish kills and widespread respiratory irritation for beachgoers.  The report also took great pains to debunk a commonly held theory at the time that the red tide was caused by munitions dumped into coastal waters at the end of World War II.

While our understanding of red tides has advanced tremendously since 1946, challenges with predicting the formation, severity and duration of the blooms remain.  The red tide organism, first identified definitively in 1948 and now known by the scientific name Karenia brevis after the accomplished state of Florida scientist (and former Institute Director) Dr. Karen Steidinger, can produce a dozen or more types of toxins.  Cutting edge work done by our colleagues from the USF College of Marine Science and Mote Marine Laboratory using satellite monitoring, oceanographic modelling and autonomous underwater gliders have bolstered the theory that red tides begin offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  This comports well with the observations of Dr. Galtsoff that the first indications of a red tide in 1946 were reported by fishermen who observed large fish kills 10-14 miles offshore in November of that year.

While the first scientifically documented red tide occurred in the Florida panhandle in 1844, they have undoubtedly been a feature of Florida’s coasts for centuries.  In the 16th century Spanish conquistadors documented oral histories from the Calusa native culture that speak of widespread fish kills and discolored water.  More recent observations indicate that some level of red tide occurs nearly every year off Southwest Florida.  The specific combination of circumstances that cause red tide remains elusive to scientists but the emerging consensus is that a combination of east winds and southwesterly currents in the Gulf of Mexico create upwelling conditions that provide nutrients and bring red tide cells from the bottom to the surface.  Once established, the red tide organism is tremendously versatile at using nutrients from a variety of sources, including those released by decaying fish killed by the bloom.  There is increasing evidence that another marine algal species, known as Trichodesmium, which is adept at turning atmospheric nitrogen into a nutrient form that Karenia brevis can use, plays a significant role in the maintenance and growth of red tides.  In turn, Trichodesmium can be nourished by iron which enters the Gulf of Mexico in dust storms from the Saharan desert which is approximately as large as the continental United States.  Each year over one hundred million tons of Saharan dust is blown across the Atlantic Ocean in spring, summer and fall.  In June of 2018, NASA satellites documented a massive cloud of dust from Africa moving westward across the Atlantic Ocean which was said to be largest observed in 15 years.

The offshore origin of red tides, and the likelihood that red tide blooms initiate hundreds of feet below the ocean surface, make it extremely difficult to detect red tide blooms in the early stages.  However, during the current red tide the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the USF College of Marine Science have used data from autonomous gliders to target water sampling at depth which has confirmed the presence of the red tide organism.  Much like meteorologists have done for hurricanes, this work and related modelling and monitoring activities will lead to more accurate forecasting for future red tides.

Many of our FWRI colleagues, especially those in the harmful algal bloom, fish health, fisheries, marine turtles and manatee groups, have been working exceptionally hard responding to this event.  We have thrown everything we have at it.  Weary but committed staff continue to work in labs, on beaches, in trucks, boats and planes collecting important information that will improve our understanding of red tides and prepare us for future blooms.  I am extremely proud of the work they have done responding to this event – working long hours often in very difficult conditions.  They have handled contentious interactions with the public and local governments with professionalism and courtesy.  Most importantly, they have prioritized safety and the integrity of the data and information collected.

Red tide has been with us for centuries and will be with us in the future.  The red tide organism is particularly adept at using any nutrients that may be available.  In the current red tide we have documented highly concentrated blooms in many areas with little to no man-made nutrient pollution.  However, when red tides move inshore they can use nutrients that are more abundant in our estuaries, including those that may stem from agricultural, domestic, municipal or stormwater sources.  These man-made nutrients do not cause red tides but may contribute to their persistence inshore.  It is important to note that, even in the absence of a connection to red tide, there are numerous reasons to manage the input of excess nutrients into our coastal waters which can be detrimental to seagrass meadows and the fisheries they support.

The site and stench of millions of dead fish on our beaches is disturbing and disconcerting but it is an experience we share with Floridians of 1946, when the state’s population was about a tenth of what it is today, and the native cultures that occupied our region for thousands of years.  Our world-class fisheries have evolved and adapted to red tides and have shown tremendous resilience after previous severe events.  There are situations, such as residential canals and waters near aquaculture operations, where treatment and control of red tides may be feasible.  This is an active area of testing led by scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute involving clays, ozone and other techniques.

While the factors influencing red tide formation and severity are complex and large scale, our science is at a tipping point aided by state of the art technology that will result in improved forecasting abilities to inform Floridians and visitors to our state.  Red tide blooms will persist, but we have an awesome team and we will be ready.

Director Message

In Defense of Boaty McBoatface

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

In 2016 Britain’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC) decided to hold a public naming contest for its new $300 million polar research vessel. The NERC is an organization established by Royal Charter to coordinate environmental and earth sciences research and the new ship, due to its dedicated scientific mission, would be given the prefix RRS (Royal Research Ship). In its press release announcing the online poll, the NERC suggested a few names that might be appropriate for the new state-of-the-art research vessel including Shackleton, Endeavor and Falcon. When the online poll closed after one month there was a runaway winner with over 124,000 votes: RRS Boaty McBoatface. Boaty had gathered more than four times as many votes as the second-place finisher. Other top vote getters included: RRS It’s Bloody Cold Out Here and RRS Clifford the Big Red Boat (mock- ups of the ship had been shown with a red hull). In the end, the NERC chose none of these, opting for the more respectable RRS Sir David Attenborough.  As a concession to democracy, NERC did name one of its autonomous underwater vehicles Boaty McBoatface (perhaps Subby McSubface was taken?). So, when it came to science, the cultural powerhouse that has given us The Ministry of Silly Walks, Mr. Bean, Benny Hill and the lumberjack song was incongruously averse to informality.

It is clear from this case that humor (or is it humour?) with the express purpose of mocking stodgy government science was a galvanizing force that made millions of folks aware of NERC and its polar research program who would have otherwise not have engaged at all. I suspect that many folks also relished the chance to rail against the formality of science, especially in the United Kingdom, home of the world’s oldest national scientific institution:  the Royal Society (founded 1660). In the Royal Society’s early years, science was the exclusive purview of the monied elite and absent support from the monarchy it admitted more wealthy non-scientists than scientists just to pay the bills. By 1800 seven out of ten members were wealthy non-scientists. So, in the UK there is plenty of scientific mocking material.

In response to the naming contest gone awry, the UK Parliament formed an inquiry into the issue and the state of scientific communication in general (if you are interested you can watch it here:  One of the more stunning statistics from the inquiry is the reach that twitter hashtags associated with the naming contest had.  The hashtag #nameourship reached 23 million twitter users while the hashtag #boatymcboatface reached an astonishing 214 million twitter users.  These numbers are even more impressive when considering that the total number of monthly twitter users at the time was just over 300 million.

What are we to make of the rebuffed RRS Boaty McBoatface?  People like to have fun and humor has a way of engaging people regardless of background, culture, or worldview. Many of the most successful marketing programs use humor to engage customers.  Science, more than any other discipline except perhaps accounting and certain highly invasive medical specialties, is notoriously inaccessible and largely humor-free. Over 22 years of holding our MarineQuest annual open house at FWRI Headquarters in St. Petersburg we have learned that humor is by far the best way to engage kids and get them interested in science. Over the years, the number of silly costumes, funny stories, interactive games and generally goofy unfettered FWC staff has grown and reached thousands of kids who would not have sat still for a five-minute scientific PowerPoint. While I am sure the RRS Attenborough has a dedicated following, think of the millions of kids around the world who would want to follow the adventures and scientific exploits of the RRS Boaty McBoatface.

To many, science is still viewed as a distant, inaccessible discipline. But science is no different than any other human endeavor, fraught with failure, intrigue, personal biases, rivalries, and believe it or not -humor. As scientists working in public service, it is part our job to figure out the best way to connect people with science. Humor is a good place to start. If you remain unconvinced, consider the name of one of the world’s most popular tagged humpback whales: Mr. Splashy Pants.

Science and Advocacy

By Gil McRae

We often think of science as consisting solely of objective facts and advocacy as driven by personal values and emotions.  This view puts science and advocacy on opposite ends of a continuum when it comes to forces that influence policy.  The reality is much more complex than this, and navigating the landscape of values, emotions, objective analysis, and policy-making is not always an easy thing to do.

The classic image of the researcher as an isolated individual, free to focus on the specifics of a question without the impact of uncontrolled variables, personal values, and societal pressures is a false premise that is less applicable every day.  The scientist’s “ivory tower” is crowded with many influences that directly or indirectly influence how he or she addresses a problem or question.  Many researchers struggle to maintain their objectivity on contentious or emotionally charged issues and to pretend otherwise would be diminishing the human side of our science.  This is why the very best researchers have a strong record of collaboration with other scientists and the policymakers who depend on their results.  Despite scientist’s best efforts to maintain absolute objectivity, there is no substitute for actively soliciting viewpoints from colleagues who may approach an issue from a slightly different angle.  It is equally important for researchers to maintain a close connection with the policymakers who base decisions on scientific results.  The ultimate policy decision may not have the luxury of following every scientific recommendation to the letter.  Social issues such as the cost of implementation, safety concerns, legal authorities, and many other factors often must be considered along with the science in final decision-making.  The FWC model, where research is independent but integrated with management decision-making, recognizes the importance of objective science but also emphasizes that the ultimate success of our agency depends on a high level of integration between science and policy.

Similarly, the common view of an advocate for an issue or cause is that of a zealot who has pre-determined the good-guys and bad-guys and seeks to steer others to their cause.  This is also an oversimplification.  Many advocacy groups employ their own scientists who work diligently to enhance the body of objective knowledge on issues relevant to their cause.  In general, even the most outspoken advocates for an issue or particular species will consider objective scientific information and modify their views, if appropriate.  However, there is sometimes a lack of trust that prevents the constructive communication of scientific results to advocacy groups or limits scientific collaboration.  Building this trust and paving the way for scientific information to inform the debate on an issue takes time and effort, but it is well worth it.  Active engagement is the key.  Advocates are more likely to accept the outcome of scientific studies if they have been informed of or involved in the planning and design of the work.

So, instead of viewing science and advocacy as two opposite extremes on a continuum, it may be more appropriate to recognize elements of each embedded in the other.  While it is absolutely essential for our science to be objective, we must be aware of personal values and opinions that may cloud that objectivity.  At the same time, the energy and enthusiasm of the advocate can be channeled into a productive collaboration if a high level of trust is in place.  Working the boundaries of these perspectives can be tricky, but it is an underappreciated component of the work with do with FWC and in the long run, effort spent on the “human side” of science often pays the highest dividends.

Lots of Changes

If you follow our FWC Commission meetings, you are probably aware of the high level of change we are undergoing right now as an agency. Long-time commissioner (and former chair) Brian Yablonski is leaving FWC to join the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Commissioner Yablonski served for 14 years on the Commission and became a strong advocate for science-based decision making and an ardent supporter of FWC/FWRI. This creates a vacant commission position that will be filled in the near future. We also had two new Commissioners appointed: Sonya Rood from St. Augustine who replaces Liesa Priddy, and Gary Nicklaus, who replaces Ron Bergeron. If that’s not enough for you, our Executive Director, Nick Wiley has left FWC to take a position with Ducks Unlimited. At the last Commission meeting Eric Sutton, our former Assistant Executive Director, was appointed new FWC Executive Director. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Eason, former Director of our Division of Habitat Species and Conservation, was selected as the new FWC Assistant Executive Director. Eric and Thomas’ selection maintains a strong thread of continuity as we transition to new leadership. They are both accomplished biologists and leaders who understand and appreciate the value of science-based resource management.

I know that so many changes happening at once tend to create a bit of uncertainty, if not anxiety. This form of anxiety is so common that an entire industry has developed dedicated to managing organizational change. While everyone deals with change in their own way, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the topic. Anxiety related to organizational change usually has two components: 1) how the changes might affect someone personally and 2) how the changes might affect the organization itself.

At the individual level, people often are concerned about how organizational change might affect their professional (or personal) well-being. There is an increasing body of evidence (and associated cottage industries springing up) that well-being, or happiness in general, is much more dependent on how the individual reacts to a situation rather than external factors associated with the situation itself. Fundamentally, the resiliency factor that allows people to deal with change effectively is self-awareness. In turn, self-awareness is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, a set of behavioral attributes that refers to how one recognizes and manages their emotions and forms productive interpersonal relationships. The connection between self-awareness and happiness has spawned a “mindfulness” industry that focuses on helping people free their mind, become more self-aware and improve their well-being. This is far from a new concept. While we associate meditation or similar exercises with Buddhism and Hinduism, every major religion includes elements related to self-awareness and managing one’s emotions and behavior. It is not always easy to do, but when faced with uncertainty or change, focusing inward rather than outward is often the most productive first step.

Much like individual response to change depends on one’s outlook, at the organizational level the effect of change often depends on the organizational culture. There is a huge body of literature associated with organizational culture and even tools for assessing organizational culture. Much of the research into organizational culture settles into a characterization based on shared values, common assumptions and approaches to doing work. One of the more useful constructs is illustrated in the figure at left. This diagram characterizes organizations based on two axes: stability vs. flexibility in work approaches and internal vs. external focus of the organization. In this framework, FWC clearly falls out with the clan organizational culture archetype. This type of culture is representative of a family-style work environment where decision making is collaborative and teamwork is fundamental to work operations. The internal focus refers to a culture that emphasizes internal integration and unity vs. an external approach focused on rivalry and differentiation. Some basic assumptions in the clan organizational culture are that workload can best be managed through teamwork and employee development and that the role of leadership is to empower employees. Promotion of this type of organizational culture has been cited as a major factor in Japanese industrial success post World War II and was adopted by many American firms decades later. Turnover of a few positions, even among leadership, is less likely to dramatically change culture in our type of organization than a more hierarchical agency. It is clear to me that the new leaders in FWC appreciate and embrace our culture, and that they will be looking for all our help to find ways to strengthen it.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that change will often catch us off guard despite our best attempts to prepare for it. According to legend, the Greek playwright Aeschylus, ironically known as the father of tragedy for his dramatic works, was reportedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who mistook the playwright’s bald head for a rock. This untimely end occurred while Aeschylus purposefully spent most of his time outdoors after an oracle told him he would be killed by a falling object.


By  Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We have all heard the phrase: “You can’t choose your family” which is usually employed when some family member distinguishes themselves through their less than stellar behavior. If we think about it, most of us would probably say that our most memorable moments of joy, pride, disappointment and heartbreak center on family. Despite our individual tendencies to be more introverted or extroverted, we evolved as social creatures and that group connection is probably more important than many of us realize.

I suspect the cynical among you bristle a bit when you hear the term “FWC Family” but I know for a fact there is meaning and substance behind those words. I have seen Executive Director Nick Wiley with his wife and boys numerous times and I assure you he would never use this term lightly. Even when they are navigating the tumultuous waters of teenage years, their closeness and commitment to each other is truly inspiring. Also, our shared sense of mission and recognition that the conservation challenges Florida faces will always outpace the resources we have available (and in some cases our ability) to meet them absolutely requires that we harness all of our collective expertise to be successful.

But can a group of thousands of FWC employees really be a family? Probably not in the literal sense but our shared values and commitment to supporting each other are certainly foundational attributes of a successful family. But we all recognize that our ability to personally connect with people in a meaningful way is limited to a certain number (our own resident extrovert Nick Wiley may be an outlier in this regard). In fact, there has been a lot written about the size of groups both from a cultural evolution sense and from the standpoint of group effectiveness.

For example, there is an evolutionary school of thought that claims that social group size in primates increased as brain size increased. In non-human primates, the social bond is often reinforced through grooming, which is not only the poster child for the invasion of personal space but also very time-consuming. There are only so many grooming partners you can take on in a day. As brain size increased, non-verbal communication and ultimately the development of language expanded the size of the core social group. Non-human primate social groups usually consist of relatively few individuals; a few dozen or perhaps one hundred at most. While resource constraints and other environmental factors are critically important, in general, these groups tend to split when the number gets beyond several dozen. In contrast, a review of group size in modern human hunter-gatherer societies around the world revealed that the mean village size is around 150 people, with the larger tribe consisting of perhaps 1200 individuals. The numbers are not radically different when we look at that uniquely human invention, the military. From Roman armies ca. 100 BCE to the current day, the size of a military company (the basic unit of an army) has remained remarkably the same at around 150 individuals (i.e. about the same size as the hunter-gatherer village). So clearly the ability of humans to connect at a level necessary to survive day-to-day or go into battle is baked into our being despite dramatic advances in technology and communication tools.

We have all had the experience of “too many cooks in the kitchen” – a spot-on euphemism for a group being too large to get the tasks at hand accomplished. My own personal version of expanding group size and unintended consequences comes from my family’s relatively short-lived attempt at holding annual reunions. Growing up in Michigan in the 1970s most of my extended family spent their days working at the “shop” which is the term they used for the group of General Motors auto manufacturing plants scattered around town (all shut down now). Their days consisted of welding the same part, tightening the same bolt or gluing the same fabric onto cars as they rolled by on the assembly line. Not surprisingly, they occupied their minds during these times of tedium by planning what sort of adventures they were going to get into when the whistle blew (yes there were actual whistles). This may have had something to do with the quality of American cars produced during that time. Needless to say, the gathering of several dozen of my extended family members for a reunion often did not end well. There would always be one or more family members who took advantage of this time (invariably facilitated by adult beverages) to air their family grievances accumulated over the decades for all to hear. I have (not so fond) memories of my mom and my aunt Betty spending the better part of one reunion in the back of a police car. While my brothers and I successfully negotiated their release (almost thwarted when my mom took a swing at a nice officer more than twice her size), by then much of the frivolity of the occasion had dissipated. At that point, we didn’t need to know about the relationship of brain size to primate social structure to figure out a smaller family gathering was in order.

While the FWC may not be a family in the literal sense of the word, we display the most admirable attributes of a family on a daily basis. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than with the tight-knit group of staff we have in the Florida Keys. As I write this, our staff in the Keys are just beginning to trickle back home from their evacuations. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately fear associated with this storm. Many staff members face significant challenges putting their lives back together. Through it all, this collective group of about 40 people has impressed me with their resilience, support for each other and positive attitude in the face of serious challenges. This group cohesion is made possible by the dedication and leadership of John Hunt, Tom Matthews, Bill Sharp, Alejandro Acosta, Bob Glazer, Kelly Sullivan and many others who have built a positive team dynamic that is second to none in this agency. To my knowledge, they do not regularly engage in social grooming, and they are a little large for a traditional family unit – but they are undeniably Family.

Communicating Science and the Fallacy of the Deficit Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”  ― Lewis Carroll (Real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an accomplished mathematician) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In high school I had a math teacher who could write equally well with both hands – at the same time. In fact, he would start an equation on the chalk board from both ends meeting perfectly in the middle. But this was not his most amazing skill. He had a unique ability to explain how the algebra, geometry and trigonometry he taught had impacted the course of history and why it was important to understand their applications even if you did not necessarily need the skills in your chosen profession. One example he gave still sticks with me to this day. Using trigonometry it is possible to tell the height of a tall object without ever leaving the ground (or throwing something up there). My 14 year old self found this amazing (discretely of course because nerdy was not cool back then). If this type of thing is possible, what else is out there for me to discover?

The remarkably ambidextrous Mr. Scherzer was not simply trying to transfer what he knew to his students, he took the time to figure out how students might relate to the information and make it meaningful to them. He understood that good communication is not just about the transfer of knowledge, it is about making a connection.   To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may forget what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is something we cannot fight, it is embedded in our DNA. Humans have been telling stories for at least 40,000 years and the advance of language and complex narrative communication shaped our evolution long before that. When you hear basic factual information in list form (or a bulleted PowerPoint) the language is processed in a certain area of the brain (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) which simply decodes the words into meaning. That’s it. When we hear a descriptive metaphor or a story we can relate to our brain’s sensory cortex is also activated. So when we read or hear a story about a beautiful song or a velvety soft chair our brain activates in the same area that is used when we are actually hearing or feeling these sensations. Good narrative communication and storytelling literally create a simulation of reality in our brain. This is why you can read Harry Potter much more quickly (and enthusiastically) than an economics textbook.

So how does this help us communicate science to non-specialists? For much of recent history, the communication of science has relied on what has come to be called the “deficit model”. This model assumes two things: 1) that public distrust or skepticism toward science is due to a lack of knowledge about science and 2) that providing information about science will overcome this knowledge deficit and thus cause the public to conclude that goods things emerge from science. This approach has resulted in the presentation of countless fact-laden PowerPoints and reports containing information that is quickly lost after pinging Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Simply conveying information is not enough, you need to figure out a way to ping the sensory cortex as well. You need to make a connection. This is increasingly the case when nearly limitless facts (and alternative facts) are available to anyone with an internet connection. Facts are no longer the exclusive purview of a learned elite.

In the mid-1980’s the Royal Society of London recognized that technology and science pervaded modern life and concluded that national prosperity depended on public understanding of the methods and limitations of science and its practical and social implications. They embarked on a decade long effort to promote Public Understanding of Science (PUS – the acronym is unfortunate) which mandated that UK scientists receiving government grants communicate about their work to the public. The goal was to promote public understanding of science and appreciation of scientific matters. Committees were set up to guide the process and funding was allocated to support the program. In an assessment a decade later, the review team concluded that all components of the PUS initiative were working splendidly, but there was little improvement in public scientific literacy other than the recognition of the initials “DNA”. The review also indicated that 80% of the public were interested in science but only 20% thought they were well informed. It became very clear that these approaches based on the “deficit model” were simply not working. In the UK, the deficit model has been abandoned as a communication strategy and a new contextual approach to Public Understanding of Science which relies on dialogue and trust building has proven much more effective.

It is not an easy thing to convey scientific information within a meaningful narrative with contextual relevance that impacts how people feel about an issue. The two forms of communication often seem to be at odds with each other. Logical scientific communication strives to be context free while narrative communication is context dependent. Also, logical scientific communication is judged on the accuracy of its claims, while the legitimacy of narrative communication is judged on the believability of its situations. It is important to realize that the sources from which people receive most of their science information are already biased toward narrative forms of communication. Just think about the most popular news or radio shows or podcasts. If viewers or listeners are presented with a compelling narrative that they consider believable they may consider that on an equal level of “truth” with an opposing outcome delivered through logical-scientific communication.

So in communicating science to non-specialists we need to think first about building trust, creating a productive dialogue and presenting the information in a meaningful context to the specific audience we are addressing. This requires more up front work to understand your audience, but it is always time well spent. If you need inspiration in this area, I have a few suggestions. Cosmos, the PBS television series (and subsequent book) from 1980 by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, is a masterful example of scientific communication for a general audience and my personal inspiration for pursuing a career in science. There is a recent re-boot of this series narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and an excellent scientific communicator. Also, pick up any of the more than 300 essays written by Stephen J. Gould during his remarkable 25 year run writing the “This View of Life” column for Natural History magazine. A number of these essays are published separately in several books (easily found on Amazon) with whimsical titles such as “The Panda’s Thumb” and “The Flamingo’s smile”. His ability to take a specific detail and generalize to a broader context was unparalleled.

Let’s all make nerdy cool again!

Something from Nothing

by Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Most will recall the concern associated with the turn of the millennium on December 31, 1999. Many hundreds of hours were spent readying computer systems for that dreaded fractional second when 1999 would turn to 2000.  Prior to about 1997 we had happily been inputting years as only two numbers, oblivious to the fact that someone might interpret “95” as something other than 1995. As it turned out, that seemed to be the biggest adjustment required (not a small one I imagine) – changing your IT systems to delineate the year with four digits rather than two.

As it turned out, we were ahead of the game. According to our calendar (aka the Gregorian calendar) December 31, 1999 was not the end of a millennium at all.  The Gregorian calendar jumps from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD (or CE) with no “zero” year in between.  The millennium actually ended a year later, on December 31, 2000. Why no zero year you ask?  The Gregorian calendar, while introduced in 1582, was based on a Roman calendar developed by Dionysius in the 6th century CE.  Ancient Romans (as well as ancient Greeks and Egyptians) simply did not have a symbol for “zero” in their numbering system, which explains the calendar jump.

At the risk of oversimplifying, these ancient cultures had fundamental philosophical difficulty with the concept of “nothingness” and got along just fine building pyramids and temples and conquering civilizations without worrying about it. Turns out they were generally not too comfortable with the concept of infinity either. Although the Mayans had developed a concept of (and symbol for) zero as early as 36 BCE, this fact was lost until relatively recently.  The numbering system we use today is based on an Indian system promoted and popularized via Arab influence that was not widely adopted in Europe till the sixteenth century CE.

Ok, so that’s at least moderately interesting, but what does that have to do with us? As FWC scientists, we spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously documenting nothingness.  We are completely comfortable with this concept and realize how important it is to conducting good science.  We spend countless hours setting nets, electrofishing, hiking to remote GPS points, flying aerial surveys and conducting other activities knowing full well that a good portion of the work is going to result in some flavor of “nothingness”.  These null values are documented with the same care and precision that we use for all similar events based on the type of work we are conducting.  In many cases, it is the “nothingness” that puts everything else into context and allows us to draw important meaning from our work.

When discussing the nature of the work we do, I am sometimes asked by members of the public questions similar to: “Why don’t we save money by going to “hotspots” where we know a particular species will occur”.  I have also been asked why our saltwater recreational angler survey folks spend hours in the middle of the night at a boat ramp or dock when very little activity occurs.  Occasionally a fishing guide will ask why we are setting nets on mucky bottom not likely to hold much of anything worth catching.  The next time I think I will answer these questions simply:  we make something from nothing.

Taking Time to Be Thankful

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

There are times when the deck seems stacked against us. We are continually asked to do more with less, bureaucratic processes make it difficult to get anything done, and salary increases are a distant memory for an increasing number of staff.  These concerns are real, and without diminishing their validity or the necessity to continually address them, I think it is worth our time to reflect on a number of things we should be thankful for.

As FWC/FWRI employees, we are agents of government and we are exceptionally fortunate in this country to have a government of the people. Our form of government is intentionally messy and shifting perspectives and disparate views are part of its inherent self-correcting mechanisms.  Regardless of these shifting views, in our role as public servants we have a duty and a responsibility to provide a public service and with that role comes accountability.  Simply put, we are spending other people’s money every single minute of every day.  In many cases, Floridians have chosen to support us through their purchase of specialty license plates or endorse the validity of our mission by purchasing hunting and fishing licenses.  In dealing with the sometimes labyrinthine processes that underlay the necessity for us to be accountable with other people’s money, we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to work for an agency like FWC.

Unlike many government agencies which are established by Executive or Legislative fiat, FWC was created by a vote of the people through a constitutional amendment approved by over 72% of voters. In addition, nearly all of us are doing or supporting work that we love to do.  Rather than spending our work day focused on making money for someone else, perhaps producing products that few people want (let alone need), we have the tremendous privilege of doing the people’s work in conserving our precious natural resources.  While our work can be frustrating at times, there is no denying that collectively we are on the frontlines of making the world a better place.  I don’t know how many workplaces can claim that more than 20,000 people are willing to show up on a Saturday just to learn more about what their organization does.

Within FWC/FWRI, we take pride in our staff-centered approach to conducting our mission by respecting work/life balance and providing flexible working arrangements. Despite the millions of dollars invested in facilities and equipment statewide, there is no question that our people are by far our most valuable asset.  We ask a lot of you.  Our scientists are expected to perform at an elite academic level without the protection of the university ivory tower.  Our administrative, technical and facility staff are asked to be as effective and efficient as their counterparts in private industry with a fraction of the resources and processes that often seem to work more against them than for them.  It takes a special person to work in this context and we are all bolstered by an army of talented, committed staff who believe in what they do.

We also value and promote open and honest communication, which is easy to take for granted until you experience an environment where that is not the case. Over the years, I have met with hundreds of new hires as part of their orientation process.  One point I emphasize in these discussions is that your coworkers will be your best teachers and potentially your greatest asset but open communication is the key to making the most of your opportunity.  In our organization, no one needs permission to talk to anyone else, and constructive criticism and debate make us all better.  Open communication can get messy, much like the government we operate within, but a whole lot of good comes out of this messiness.

I am writing this on a Tuesday morning and it has been one of those days. I have been faced with six different annoying and complicated issues since I made the mistake of checking my email over my morning coffee.  On the drive in, I made two calls to partners having to explain why plans had to be changed and why expectations may have to be scaled back.  When I arrived at work, I sat down with two different groups trying to sort out why poor communication among staff resulted in a failure to meet a deadline or deliver a service.  I fielded concerns from other groups who were certain that the success of their projects was in jeopardy if they could not find a way to give salary increases to key staff.  A construction project we have nearly complete is short $17,000 and we need to find the money to complete it.  The legislature has sent out another reminder that next year is going to be an extremely tight budget year and that we need to be prepared for cuts.  An anonymous message in our online suggestion box reminded me that staff morale was at an all-time low and they wanted to know what I was going to do about it.

There is no place I would rather be.

Thoughts on Leadership

by Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We all have our own concept of what it means to be a leader. If you ask people to name a great leader, they will often list political or social figures who led large groups of people pushing for fundamental change.  What we often overlook is that great leaders are all around us and it has very little to do with professional stature or one’s position in an organization.  Leadership is more a state of mind than a title tied to number of staff supervised or total budget dollars for which one has responsibility. This is particularly true in organizations like FWC and FWRI where our mode of operation is typically collaborative, rather than strictly hierarchal.

In organizations like ours, our success depends on every staff member exploring their capacity to be creative leaders. In this way, we collectively create a culture of leadership by fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of creative leadership attributes at all levels of our organization. While the work we do varies widely, from a leadership perspective there are some key concepts, attitudes and behaviors that define successful employees at every level:

  1. Ownership. When we take ownership in something, we have a personal stake in ensuring that a problem is dealt with, a task is completed, or a conflict is resolved. We all have a sense of ownership relative to our individual work responsibilities or projects. But taking ownership in a leadership sense is more than that. Often during our work day, we are approached with issues or questions for which we do not have an answer or that may not be directly related to our line of work. The inquiry may come from the public, a coworker, or a colleague from another agency. It is very easy to dismiss the question with responses like “You are asking the wrong person”, or “that is not my job”. These types of answers reflect a localized sense of ownership. Truly successful organizations have taken the sense of ownership at the task or project level and translated it to a larger level in which all staff feel that they are important contributors to the organization’s mission. In these organizations, “I don’t know but I will find out” or “Let me help you find your answer” replace the responses listed above.
  2. Self – awareness. There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential. First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own perspective and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective. I think all of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, I know, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that form our perspective on an issue. Good leaders have a knack for knowing when to step back, drop these biases, and approach an issue or problem from a different standpoint. For example, nearly every time I make a large request for funding or other resources at the agency or legislative level, I make sure I “buy my own argument”. In other words, I critically evaluate my request from the standpoint of those to whom I am addressing the request. This step can greatly enhance your success rate and help refine requests that are not well thought out. Secondly, good leaders are keenly aware of the context within which they and their coworkers operate. A leader cannot succeed remaining uninformed about the structure or workings of the business or agency they work within. Remaining continually up to date and informed is not extra work for those operating within a culture of leadership, it is part of their day-to-day workload and ingrained in their thinking. Much like we tend to be isolated in our thinking due to our own biased perspective, organizations often become islands unto themselves because the people that sustain the organization develop biases borne out of a tendency to look inward rather than outward.
  3. Optimism. – Good leaders set the tone for those around them. The ability to remain positive and upbeat even in the face of multiple challenges is often the difference between an effective response and a knee-jerk reaction which only compounds the problem. There is a strong connection between optimism and self-confidence. People with strong leadership skills tend to be more secure and self-confident in their abilities. This does not mean they are arrogant, rather they are aware of their strengths and limitations and carry with them a self-assurance that not only tells them what skills they need to bring to bear to address an issue, but (often more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to run a large group to be a leader among your co-workers. I know that I often struggle with these competencies myself, but I continually remind myself that the key to successful leadership has little to do with authority bestowed on a position from above and much more to do with an individual’s behavior. By cultivating leadership behaviors and promoting a “culture of leadership” we can leverage the influence of leaders at all levels to build a stronger, more effective organization.

FWC and Bear Management

by Gil McRae

As many of you know, our Commission recently chose to postpone a bear hunt for 2016 (see the news release here: Throughout the discussion of this controversial issue, with thousands of online survey submittals and more than five hours of public comment, FWC did an exceptional job providing state-of-the-art scientific advice to our Commissioners.  FWRI, led by Walt McCown, Brian Scheick, Don Hardeman and a host of other FWC staff from HSC, HGM and elsewhere completed a statewide abundance survey in only two years.  This first of its kind survey was a phenomenal undertaking and combined with the analytical support of Dr. Joe Clark and his students at the University of Tennessee represents what many consider to be the most rigorous assessment of a statewide bear population anywhere in the country. FWC also convened an expert panel made of up some of the nation’s top bear biologists.  Their input helped frame the staff recommendation for a modified hunt in 2016.

However, it is important to realize that bear management is complex, and that the number of bears in the state is only one factor that needs to be considered.  Among other things, the Commission has made tremendous strides in working with local governments and waste management companies to increase the use of bear-proof trash cans which is the surest way to reduce human/bear conflict.  I realize and appreciate the fact that there are many views on this subject, even among our own staff, but this issue emphasized the fact that as scientists our role is provide our Commission with the highest quality information to base their decisions on.  Those decisions must ultimately take into account a number of other things such as public safety, the status of related conservation actions, and the desires of all of our stakeholders (non-hunters and hunters alike).

I wanted to share a letter that our Chairman, Brian Yablonski recently sent to our partners at Bass Pro Shops which lays out the issue well.

Dear Conservation Partners at Florida’s Bass Pro Shops,

I understand questions continue to arise regarding FWC’s recent decision to postpone bear hunting this year. We greatly appreciate the leadership role Bass Pro Shops plays in conservation efforts across the nation. We also value our strong partnership with Bass Pro Shops on important conservation efforts in Florida. In fact, we see your customers as our customers, particularly within our hunting community, and we want to make certain you and your great team in Florida have full background and context on the bear hunting decision. Please feel free to share the following message to help folks better understand how we arrived at this decision and how we see the path forward.

FWC commissioners understand that many hunters are disappointed that we are not having a bear hunt this year. We want hunters to know that we are doing our best to work through a complicated issue that has implications for hunting into the future and certainly beyond bears. We take such implications very seriously. Myself, my fellow commissioners, and FWC staff have firmly and consistently supported hunting as an essential element in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. On a personal note, I have publicly spoken and written extensively in defense of hunting and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The vote to postpone bear hunting does nothing to diminish this position, and we plan to move toward a hunt in 2017.

The decision to pause bear hunting is simply a timing and a policy call. The science is sound. Our biologists are the best in the nation. They have full support and appreciation from every Commissioner, and they know this. And we are aware that those who oppose hunting on principle will not likely change their views. They will always protest regardless of how well we demonstrate the importance of hunting for responsibly managing bear populations. I don’t believe, however, these views were a significant factor in the decision.

What is a major concern, however, is the view of the vast majority of Floridians who are non hunters but are not “anti hunting”. They don’t hunt, but I believe they understand and appreciate hunting deer, turkey, alligators, waterfowl, etc. And then there are more than a few Floridians who do hunt birds or deer, but who have concerns about bear hunting. At this point, we need to do a better job making our case to all of these people. We need to take some time to listen and then work to foster understanding and support. We need to bring people together and in the words of one of our bear biologists, build off an excellent bear conservation foundation. We need to continue and expand work with communities on conflict bears and trash management and have that effort catch up with hunting. We need to build on our strong scientific basis for bear hunting in the year ahead, taking it from a gold standard to a platinum standard to help reassure a broader segment of the public.

We then need to translate broader understanding and acceptance into momentum for hunting as responsible management method. These efforts are not intended for those who will always oppose hunting in any shape or form, but for ordinary Floridians who are trying to sort this all out. This is something good we can do for hunting lest we forget that we are a tenuous minority in the state. Unlike other issues we deal with (and trust me on this as a commissioner who hears it from everybody), this is not just hunters versus anti hunters. A lot of folks in the middle need to catch up on this, and we have a responsibility to get them there.

Our scientists made a recommendation to hunt, but they also understand and appreciate these points. Our wildlife managers need time; a gift in this case. And those who follow our Commission meetings know there are plenty of times where we have been more conservative in our management decisions relative to the recommendations from our scientific staff. Taking a pause for a year doesn’t create a crisis or violate science. Each commissioner made it clear in their remarks that they support hunting as a tool for bear population management. On behalf of FWC commissioners and staff, I am hoping we can think about the big picture and the longer term as we work together through this complex conservation challenge.


Brian Yablonski


Florida Fish and Wildlife

Conservation Commission

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