Category Archives: Director Message

Director Message


By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

As I write this, we are about to undergo an election that will determine our government leaders for (at least) the next few years.  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 at a large scale.  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 a certain level of 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 team member developing their capacity to be good leaders.  In this way, we create a culture of leadership by fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of 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 leaders at every level:

  • 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 workday, 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.  In large organizations, particularly in government service where the profit motive does not apply, it is very easy to stop caring.  True leaders show the ability to fight through these doldrums and maintain their commitment to quality work and a sense of share mission.
  • Self – awareness.  There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential – both falling under a set of attributes sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence.  First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own thinking and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective.  Most of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that shape 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 angle.  One way to think about this is to make sure you “buy your own argument” – assume the role of those you are trying to convince on an issue and critique yourself.  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.  Don’t wait for information to come to you – seek it out.
  • 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 (and much more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.
  • Open communication. In a collaborative organization like ours, the quality of one’s work, and the quality of decision-making, is linked to open communication.  In an unhealthy organization, information is horded and only shared when it is advantageous to do so.  This leads to poor decisions, since quality decisions depend on up to date, accurate information.  A supervisor who constrains who can communicate with whom and on what subjects is unlikely to be successful and fosters resentment within their group.  Simply put  decisions should be made at a level (or by a person) with the best information available to make that decision – and communicating openly helps ensure that this happens.

Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to lead 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 personal commitment and character.  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.

Director Message

The Power of One

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Our world is made up of systems with individual interacting parts.  Ecological, biological, chemical, physical, social and economic systems determine pretty much everything that happens within, around and to us.  Much of the history of science has been concerned with defining fundamental units that make up systems and determining how they interact to produce various outcomes. 

Classical evolutionary theory tells us that the individual is the agent of natural selection.  Those individuals that are best adapted to survive and reproduce pass heritable traits down to their offspring.  But individuals do not evolve biologically during their lifetime.  The population of which they are a part evolves over time due to the differential contributions of individuals with high value inheritable traits.  That is how we get new species and how the tree of life on earth came to be.  Of course, the individuals within a population aren’t aware of these processes, they are simply doing their best to survive and reproduce – but by doing so they are the engines of evolution at the population level.  The changes only become apparent as new species become distinguishable from their ancestors in some way.

When we model fish and wildlife populations, we rarely have information that distinguishes individuals other than basic measures such as age (or more often age class), size, sex and reproductive status.  We know there is individual variation that is important to capture and that some individuals contribute disproportionately to future generations based on their unique individual characteristics.  For many fish species, older and larger females produce not only more eggs but eggs of higher quality.  For many animals physical or behavioral traits such as large size or specific plumage, or the ability to dance well (think sandhill cranes) can be the difference makers.  From an analytical perspective, it is quite simple to model populations at the individual level (individual based models or IBMs) but we rarely have the data to create these types of models.

Similarly, classical economic theory, first synthesized by the Scotsman Adam Smith in the late 18th century, describes a self-regulating system where competition, supply and demand and individual self-interest keep things in check.  This free market perspective (colloquially known as the “invisible hand”) was embraced by our founding fathers and is fundamental to our system of government.  What is often not appreciated is that classical economic theory assumes that individuals act in a way that optimizes economic utility – a measure of value or satisfaction that one gets from a product or service.  In other words, it assumes that people make choices in unbiased, rational ways.  Common sense tells us this is not the case, but this assumption has driven economic theory for more than two centuries.  In the last few decades, economists have realized the profound interactions that occur as psychology and economics work together to determine the choices individuals make.  Very few decisions are truly unbiased, they are affected by messages received from peer groups, advertising or perception of quality or luxury.  Most of us can cite a purchase we made that wasn’t necessarily an item we needed (or maybe even wanted) but it was a “good deal”.  The University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler is a pioneer in linking psychology and economic theory and was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2017 for his work.

The examples cited above, in which choices at the individual level determine emergent properties of large complex systems such as biological populations or economies, are directly relevant to the social challenges, we face today.  The COVID-19 virus is highly transmissible between individuals and the spread of the disease is driven by human behavior and individual choice.  While we are hopeful that regulatory actions, guidelines relative to large gatherings and the unprecedented effort to develop vaccines pay off in the long run, the infection rate (along with the deaths) will only come down if individuals make the choice to adopt safe practices such as avoiding large groups, regular hand washing and wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible. 

The United States’ complex history with race relations is not unique among nations of the world, but our relatively young country has progressed and regressed on these issues.  Starting with the 3/5 clause in our constitution, which ultimately allowed white supremacy to maintain a foothold in the south, and moving through the horrors of slavery, the unfulfilled promise of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and fits and starts associated with the civil rights movement, we are left with the current reality consisting of significant social, educational and economic disparity.  But no one is born with racist beliefs.  These are learned behaviors and perspectives and therefore can be changed if one has the courage to stand up for the greater good.  It is important to note that the concept of race itself has little meaning scientifically.  To draw arbitrary lines along the continuum of existing human genetic diversity makes little sense.   In fact, the genetic diversity among the entire human population on earth (0.1%) is less than that of chimpanzees (1.2%) which means two things:  our ancestral human population was at one time reduced to a very small number and we are all much closer than we realize.

It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges with large systematic problems such as COVID-19, a wounded economy, and fractured race relations but these issues are “systems” in the broad sense, and fundamental change can occur as the result of choices made at the individual level.  We each have the power to affect positive change, if we have the courage to do so.

Director Message


By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

As I write this our personal and professional lives have been upended by the COVID-19 virus.  We have never seen a pandemic on this scale and response to the virus has challenged our health, economic and social support systems far beyond what they were built to handle.  While it is difficult to speculate at this point, my hope is that we emerge on the other side of this pandemic as a stronger, more peaceful global society focused on proactively addressing health and environmental issues that affect us all.

I want to commend the members of your Institute Leadership Team who have been instrumental in helping us organize ourselves so that we can keep working productively and collaboratively in this new mode.  Harry Norris has done an exceptional job helping us manage data and information while maintaining a personal connection to people and programs that has made a real difference.  I believe our early push to get as many staff teleworking as possible, combined with actions taken at the agency and state level has helped keep our workforce healthy.  As of this writing about 90 % of FWRI staff are teleworking to some extent and close to 80 % are teleworking full time. 

There have been many policy changes associated with this event and I know it can be confusing at times.  The most notable new policy involves the availability of emergency sick leave and emergency family medical leave to all staff.  As I write this, we are still in the discovery mode regarding these policies and our fantastic HR team of Jodi Harner and Betty Heath with the support of Laura Tennant and Rae Ann Hill are simultaneously fielding your questions and working with their HR counterparts in other Divisions and the Office of Executive Director to develop guidance on these policies.  No doubt you will have that guidance by the time you read this, if not you know how to find us, and we are here to help.

Many of you have read about the challenges facing our reemployment assistance program in the state.  With many of our friends and family out of work, this issue hits home hard.  When the call went out for volunteers to assist the state in dealing with the backlog of applications, dozens of you stepped up to assist without knowing what you were getting into.  Our potential role has now been refined somewhat to focus on entry of data received via hardcopy applications and we expect there will be more of you willing to assist.  If so, your ILT member is the point person for getting the information to Harry Norris who is coordinating our volunteer efforts.

In these uncertain times we quickly move to the things that matter most.  As impersonal as things can sometimes seem in a large organization like ours, I am proud of the staff-centric culture we have built over many decades.  I know that some of you have gone through some very difficult, even heartbreaking experiences, and my hope is that you are able to draw some strength from the knowledge that you have a workplace and co-workers that care about you and your family’s well-being.  Collectively, we are the very definition of resilient.  Stay healthy and stay connected.

Director Message

Words Matter

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

One of the more contentious scientific questions regarding the evolution of humans is when and how language developed. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, do not have a developed language in the traditional sense. Their often complex social structures, including things like premeditated acts of deception, are maintained just fine with gestures and a few basic sounds. Modern humans have been around at least 300,000 years and it makes sense that the development and evolution of language was critical to our species’ success. However, the communication of language via writing dates only to about 4000-5000 years ago when the Sumerians developed cuneiform and the first Chinese and Mayan characters appear in the historical record. The first phonetic alphabet, where letters represent specific sounds, was developed and promoted by the seafaring Phoenicians beginning around 3000 years ago.  Interestingly, not all languages use phonetic alphabets. In Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Maya and Chinese script, the characters represent ideas or entire words or phrases rather than sounds.  Regardless of the form written language takes, its relatively recent development means that for at least 98% of the time modern humans have existed, we have no record of what their languages may have been like. This sobering reality has affected research into the evolution of human languages. The Linguistic Society of Paris become so frustrated with the issue that in 1866 they banned any existing or future debates on the subject.

Language is intertwined with culture. It is how we communicate our values, beliefs and customs and it influences our laws and forms of government. Unlike the biological components of our evolutionary history, language (and human culture in general) is Lamarckian, meaning that forms and customs acquired during one’s life can be passed down to subsequent generations. As a result, language and cultural changes can happen very rapidly. For example, current science indicates that 87 languages in the Indo-European Language family, which makes up most of the modern languages spoken in Europe, Western Asia and North and South America, diverged from a common language similar to that spoken by the Hittites only 9000 years ago. The English language diverged from its Germanic ancestral language (England is named for the Angles, Germanic people who settled in England in the post Roman period) only about 1800 years ago.

This rapid pace of change that characterizes languages also means that they are easily lost or assimilated. As many of you know, the Americas were the last major land mass to be populated by humans and this occurred relatively recently (20,000-17,000 years ago). In a relatively short period humans in the Americas developed an astonishing variety of cultures, many with their own unique language. Most of these languages and cultures have been lost.  There are nearly 300 documented dead languages (no living native speakers) in the Americas but the true number is undoubtedly much higher.  As these languages died, so did our ability to derive insight into the people’s culture. This is especially true given that nearly all these Native American cultures were pre-literate – their language had no written form. This is not to say these Native Americans were not capable of developing written language, their cultures simply didn’t require or support it.  In fact, when Sequoya created the Cherokee syllabary from scratch (one of the very few examples in history where a pre-literate culture created an effective writing system) in 1821 he was inspired by his interactions with English speakers as a silversmith and shopkeeper and wanted to invent a method for Cherokee to “talk on paper”.  Although his syllabary was ultimately adopted supporting a newspaper and an important historical record from the Cherokee perspective, it was a tough sell initially due to the intimate connection between language and culture.  Sequoya taught his six-year-old daughter the syllabary and when he demonstrated the results to his wife, she grabbed the paper and burned it assuming some form of sorcery was involved.

Language is our window into a culture and a person’s choice of words provides insight into their thinking and motivation.  In legislation, the difference between “may” and “shall” is one of the most important distinctions in our culture. Legislation that is thousands of pages long can be dramatically different depending on the use of those two modifiers. Closer to home and more specifically, the terminology used in natural resource management relating to the role of science in policy making can be very telling. Recently, use of the term “science-informed” vs. the traditional “science-based” has become more popular in describing natural resource policymaking even among some FWC managers. I believe the intent is to promote the concept that policy decisions should consider aspects other than biological science, such as social, economic issues or individual rights which is perfectly reasonable. However, the message sent by this apparently minor word change is that science, which when conducted well simply paints a picture of the truth, should play an undefined (but potentially minor) role in decision making. I don’t think anyone would advocate an approach that is characterized as “truth-informed” and the term science-based certainly does not mean other factors are excluded from decision making.

This is no small matter.  In 2019 a Montana legislator filed a bill regarding fish and wildlife policy decisions which stated that: “The director, department, and commission may not use social science, human dimensions, or people’s attitudes, opinions, or preferences in decision-making processes related to fish and wildlife.” While the bill failed, it was clearly an attempt to allow policymakers to selectively ignore certain facts during policy making. The FWC has a long history of sustainable management using a science-based policy framework. This is not the case elsewhere and we need to continually reinforce the validity of our approach and the success it has brought us to date. In doing so we need to remain cognizant of one simple fact:  words matter.

Director Message

Introverts in Flatland

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Distress not yourself if you cannot at first understand the deeper mysteries of Spaceland. By degrees they will dawn upon you.”
― Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Some of you may be familiar with Edwin Abbott’s work quoted above.  Flatland (1884) is a novella about a two-dimensional world that satirizes Victorian class culture.  The residents of Flatland, without a third dimension, have no “space” as we commonly know it.  There is no “up” or “down” simply forward, backward and side-to-side.  In addition, there are distinctions based on gender and class.  All women are lines, regardless of standing, so they can literally disappear if viewed end to end.  For men, the complexity of the shape dictates the social class. Middle class workmen are equilateral triangles, gentlemen are pentagons, nobility are hexagons and the priestly order are circles.  Of course, in two dimensions (other than the ability of women to disappear) all these shapes look pretty much the same, so additional senses (smell, sound) are used to distinguish classes.  For example, women (the lines) are required by law to emit a loud cry as they move, lest they accidently stab someone if approaching them end-to-end.  In addition to its satirical elements, Flatland is fascinating from a geometrical standpoint.  This is most notable when a sphere visits from the three-dimensional world (aka spaceland).  A sphere viewed in two dimensions is essentially a line that starts small, gets bigger, then smaller as the sphere passes through flatland – and of course to a Flatlander the sphere appears out of nowhere.  Flatland had a bit of a renaissance moment in the early twentieth century when some interpreted Einstein’s theory of relativity as predicting a 4th dimension.  This is not technically true, and subsequent work by Hermann Minkowski (which Einstein ultimately agreed with) established the notion of “space-time” in which time and space are one intertwined fabric.  Einstein considered time itself the 4th dimension and his theories predict (later confirmed) that time slows down for observers moving fast relative to those moving slowly and that time also slows for observers in higher gravitational fields relative to those within weaker gravitational fields (string theory needs 10 or more dimensions to make the math work, but let’s not go there).  So, does this mean people that live in high rises age quicker (lower gravity) and that truck drivers age more slowly (higher speeds on average) than a non-trucker, non-high-rise dweller?  Yes, but infinitesimally so.  You may have heard about the recent confirmation of gravitational waves by multiple astronomers.  In the most well-known case, these waves were created when two black holes collided a billion years ago.  This collision was so cataclysmic it warped space-time, created the waves that were detected by sensors on earth a few years ago, and confirmed a key component of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

So, Flatlanders are locked into a perceptive bias based on what is observable to them, and there is a lot more going on in our three/four-dimensional world than we realize or can detect with our senses.  This got me thinking about human personality and the way we perceive the world and interact with each other.  The psychiatrist Carl Jung defined the terms introvert and extravert in the early twentieth century, but not how the terms are commonly used today.  Jung used the terms to distinguish whether individuals focus their energy on the inner world or the self (introverts) or external world (extraverts).  This is not necessarily the same as todays common usage where introverts are seen as shy and withdrawn while extraverts are social and outgoing.  The reality is more complicated.  Recent studies have shown that brains of extraverts and introverts (in the Jungian sense) fundamentally differ.  Extraverts are more sensitive to reward than punishment and tend to have more dopamine receptors in the midbrain.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates a pleasurable feeling.  Introverts have greater blood flow on the acetylcholine pathway than the dopamine pathway in their forebrain.  Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter associated with attention, learning and memory.  Of course, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extravert scale but your tendencies may have a biological (and genetic) basis.  An extreme extravert within a group of introverts can feel a bit like the sphere entering flatland from another dimension – they experience the world in a fundamentally different way.

Wonder where you stand?  Do you gain energy from interacting with groups of people, or do you need a break to be by yourself after social gatherings?  Try this exercise:  draw a diagram with you in the middle and all the big challenging issues you can think of that impact your life in a circle around you.  Draw a line between yourself and the issues.  Where do you put the points of the arrows?

We are all different and perceive the world in unique ways. Sometimes this is due to things beyond our control.  Understanding and appreciating that fact seems like a good place to start for getting along with each other.

Further reading:

Director Message

Toward a Modern Conservation Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Many of you are familiar with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles codified in the 1990’s that has defined wildlife management in recent years. The core tenets of the model recognize that wildlife belongs to everyone, that access to hunting opportunities should be available to all, that no commercial markets for wildlife should exist and that science should be the basis of wildlife policy. Historically, inland fisheries management in the U.S. was a disorganized hodgepodge with fundamental questions regarding ownership of resources largely unresolved. In the late 1800’s and the first part of the twentieth century some management structure was instituted. Congress established the US Commission on Fish and Fisheries and many states formed their own Commissions in response to declining fish populations. The initial focus of these groups centered around determining causes of the declines, mitigating the effects of dams and developing fish culture and stocking programs. For coastal fisheries, concern over declining commercial landings ultimately lead to the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in the mid-1970’s, the goal of which was (and still is) preventing overfishing. 

Florida created the post of State Game and Fish Commissioner in 1913, followed by the Department of Game and Freshwater Fisheries (1927), the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (1935), Marine Fisheries Commission (1983) and the current Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC, 1999). In tracking this evolution, you can see a clear progression from a focus on limiting overharvest, expansion of law enforcement, conservation of habitat, incorporating non-game issues and integrating social issues into decision making. On the law enforcement policy side, federal and state agencies have built on the foundation established by the Lacey Act (the nation’s first conservation law signed in 1900 that prohibited trade in illegally harvested wildlife) to establish an encyclopedic array of specific regulations that is continually updated to prevent over-exploitation. In 1902 Guy Bradley was hired by the American Ornithologists Union to police plume hunters in the everglades. Bradley, one of the nation’s first game wardens, was murdered by plume hunters at age 35. In just a few generations, conservation law enforcement in Florida has evolved and expanded to today’s FWC force of over 700 sworn officers. While these policy and enforcement advances occurred social and political factors have framed a body of ethics adopted by most hunters and anglers characterized by concepts such as fair chase and catch and release that has resulted in a more conservation minded user base. 

As conservation agencies were building capability to minimize the risk of overharvesting, habitats were becoming lost and degraded.  Public awareness peaked with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), which spurred the birth of the environmental movement and ultimately spawned hundreds of organizations promoting the appreciation of healthy, functioning ecosystems.  Shortly thereafter, social scientists began focusing on the human side of conservation, creating conceptual models for how people perceive and value healthy fish, wildlife and habitats. Collectively, these policy, enforcement and social constructs have created a conservation landscape where the risk of over-exploitation is minimized, and the focus has increasingly transitioned to habitat quantity and quality, ecosystem structure and function, socioeconomic aspects of conservation, change due to extreme environmental events (climate change, harmful algal blooms, storms, etc.) and the impact of invasive species. These are the elements that will define the conservation landscape moving forward.

How is FWC positioned to deal with these challenges?  FWC recognized the need to focus on habitat conservation and restoration before the trend became fashionable. Science driven management ranging from Objective Based Vegetation Management and prescribed burning on our Wildlife Management Areas to comprehensive lake restoration projects and restoration of coastal wetlands have created an impressive portfolio with far-reaching impact.  Dedicated research teams focusing on terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, coastal and marine habitats have advanced the state of the science and informed countless management actions taken by dozens of agencies.  Similarly, FWC has been on the forefront of incorporating human dimensions elements into our conservation planning since its inception.  I want to highlight two initiatives that seek to build on these efforts.

While much good work has been done on protecting and restoring terrestrial habitats, much of that has been accomplished either through acquiring land into public ownership or habitat management efforts on publicly owned land. As the pressures on Florida’s ecosystems intensify, landscape-level approaches to conservation based on sound principles relevant to all types of landowners will be necessary.  Significant progress has been made on this front including establishment of strategic habitat conservation areas, statewide wildlife action plans, the critical lands and waters identification project, the cooperative conservation blueprint, and landscape conservation cooperatives which establish sound technical foundations to inform landscape level conservation.  A new Landscape Conservation Team has been formed with representatives from multiple FWC divisions and led by Beth Stys of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) to review progress to date and identify actions the agency can take to promote conservation across a wide spectrum of landowners and conservation groups.

However, reaching a working consensus on landscape-level goals that will get buy-in from multiple public and private partners will require additional background work.  Understanding the social and economic aspects of conservation will be the focus of the new Center for Conservation Social Sciences Research (CCSSR) recently established as a work unit within FWRI and led by Dr. Nia Morales.  CCSSR is a research center focusing on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife, and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects as well as investigation of the roles people play in fish, wildlife, and conservation issues.  The center will also assist groups within FWC to develop their own social science capacity through collaborations on projects, seminars and training.  For more information on the Center see

While the traditional conservation approaches preventing overharvest will and must continue, the efforts highlighted above will leverage that work and promote large scale, durable conservation outcomes.

Director Message

The Case for Science Within Government

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness…”
– George Washington, Inaugural State of the Union Address, January 8, 1790

Following the American Revolution, the founding fathers faced the daunting task of setting up a government.  The war, which had for all intents and purposes ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  At that time, the US was still a loose confederation of states with little to no central authority.  Nothing got done without the agreement of a majority (or in some cases the entirety) of the thirteen states.  That remained the situation until the US Constitution was ratified by a majority of the states.  The Constitution, which became effective in 1789, established the president as chief executive and one of the requirements was that the president shall “…from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…”, which brings us to the above quote by George Washington.  The quote is from his (and our) inaugural state of the union address which was read to congress in New York City, the capital at that time.  Washington D.C. did not yet exist, and the area was literally a swamp. 

The fact that the first president of this new country would take the time to highlight the importance of an educated citizenry (unfortunately at the time, only white men) is very telling.  Among the various powers the Constitution assigned to Congress is the “promotion of science and the useful arts”.  The founders of our country realized that the idea of the United States was more important than the mechanics of government and that our fundamental principles – government based on consent of the governed, individual rights, freedom of speech and no state sponsorship of religion – needed to be widely taught for our system of government to endure.  Because the concept of the United States was not yet widely accepted the big concern was how to promote national awareness.  Along those lines, Washington and many other early leaders were extremely interested in establishing a national university.  Washington, who was the nation’s wealthiest president excluding (perhaps) the incumbent even provided for the national university in his will.  The idea of a national university did not pan out, mainly because the states developed their own universities to complement those that existed prior to independence.

In challenging times our nation has repeatedly turned to science to inform policy, although the pathway has not always been quick or straightforward.  The National Academy of Sciences was established by Abraham Lincoln in March 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.  Earlier that year, Lincoln had introduced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the union.  One of the first tasks assigned to the newly established Academy was to figure out a way to stabilize compasses aboard the newly deployed ironclad ships, whose iron hulls interfered with the navigational tools.

In Florida with the establishment of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a constitutional agency, the inherent value of science within government is recognized.  Although the word science does not appear in Florida’s Constitution, the word research occurs 3 times: 1) in establishing the mission of the state university system, 2) in exemptions associated with the net limitation amendment, and 3) in defining the mission of FWC.  The three pillars of the FWC mission:  management, research and law enforcement are enshrined in perpetuity in the constitution.

Our FWC mission as laid out in the constitution seems straightforward and laudable but there are some realities relative to science that are not often understood.  While our Commission has a proven track record of basing natural resource decisions on sound science, they are not required to follow that approach.  Technically, our Commission is bound only by something known as the “rational basis test” which simply means that they must act rationally related to a “legitimate government interest”.  Former supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “The constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws”.  The same could be said for our state constitution and our Commission.  While we can all be proud of the scientific legacy we have built over more than six decades at the Institute (and the fact that our Commission has been committed to science-based management) it is important to realize that does not necessarily have to be the case.  The facts will usually win out, but it can take a very long time for that to happen – consider our ongoing struggles with racial and gender equality.

While it has taken a while to get there, policymakers are beginning to reach out to scientists on the biggest environmental challenge of our time, anthropogenic climate change.  The conditions that result in a warming and less stable climate and the acidification of our oceans have been with us for decades and the rate of accumulation of green house gases in our atmosphere is accelerating.  Florida’s fish and wildlife are and will continue to be impacted by climate change.  Governor DeSantis has introduced bold policy initiatives related to water quality and has hired the state’s first ever Chief Science Officer within DEP, Dr. Tom Frazer who is a longtime FWC partner and a great choice for the position.  As of this writing, the state is advertising for a Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate Florida’s preparations for “environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise”.  While much more needs to be done at the national and international level to combat climate change, these are positive and encouraging steps at the state level.

Policies are not always required to be based on science, but the enduring ones almost always are.  It is our continuing challenge to build on our foundation of success and to be prepared as new opportunities arise.

Director Message

Thanks for Stepping Up

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Remember the days when your workload was predictable, and you could plan and dictate when tasks were tackled and completed?  Well, neither do I.  One fact of life for us as public employees is that we are expected to be flexible and adaptable, and often we are the first (or only) responders associated with potentially damaging environmental events.  In most cases we cannot plan or budget for the rare events like fish and wildlife disease or die-off events, and the occurrence of large scale environmental problems can be a real challenge relative to prioritizing staff time and resource allocation.  Often additional workload is created when we return to postponed or rescheduled activities.  Despite these challenges, FWC and FWRI staff have always risen to the occasion in response to unforeseen environmental events, and I never cease to be amazed at your resolve, commitment and creativity in dealing with these issues.

This year has been particularly challenging with the red tide that affected a large portion of the state.  This red tide, which is still lingering today, has impacted tourism, killed millions of fish and hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins. The event also created tremendous demand on our staff for a very prolonged period.  Our Harmful Algal Bloom Group lead the way continually adjusting to unpredictable and seemingly endless streams of water samples coming into our St. Pete headquarters for analysis.  To date, over 14,000 water samples have been examined tied to this event.  The HAB group also developed innovative approaches to monitoring and communicating results including aerial surveys with the assistance of FWC Law Enforcement and a near-real time interactive sample reporting tool developed with the invaluable assistance of our communications and GIS specialists.  Our fish health team monitored the fish kill hotline and fielded a record number of calls, responded to countless inquiries and provided data and information in a timely manner.  Our manatee folks, particularly those in the Southwest region, worked long hours under very demanding conditions to respond to an overwhelming number of manatee carcasses and the occasional rescue while assisting partners in responding to dolphin strandings.  Our sea turtle team also distinguished themselves by responding to and documenting a record number of sea turtle mortalities associated with this event.  Our fisheries team spun up specific monitoring programs to assess the effects of red tide on our fisheries, generating data that will be critically important in defining the short and long-term effects of the event. Through it all, our administrative support team managed logistics and budget that form the foundation of an effective response and your leadership team was there every time I needed support.

I have often said that FWRI staff are at their best when the challenges seem insurmountable.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been contacted by representatives from other agencies praising our response capability, professionalism, and quality of the work you all do associated with unforeseen events.  It is not lost on me that the time demands, and stress associated with this work and the lost time with family and friends takes a toll.  I trust that you all take comfort in the fact that you have leadership that understands and supports you and is willing to do what it takes to make us collectively successful.  Although I join each of you in keeping my fingers crossed that these events do not become routine, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that whatever comes our way we have demonstrated the ability to rise to the challenge.

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.