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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.

The Effect of River Discharge on Fish Year Class Strength in the Apalachicola River

Many rivers experience natural fluctuations in flow, including periods of extremely high water levels. As surrounding floodplains inundate, nutrients and habitat become available for numerous aquatic organisms.

Many species of fish have adapted to use these conditions for spawning and nursery habitat over time. Changes to the flow of water within a river system can affect the spawning behavior of adult fish and alter important food sources and refuge for juvenile fish. Water level fluctuations can also impact the number of fish surviving to enter a fishery. These potential problems created an opportunity for freshwater fisheries biologists studying fish populations in the Apalachicola River and associated sloughs in northwest Florida.

In 2005, biologists with FWRI’s Aquatic Habitat and Restoration Enhancement Subsection, the Office of Conservation Planning of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation and the University of Florida began a project to study the effect of water levels and flow, or floodplain inundation, on year-class strength on native fishes of the Apalachicola River. This research is part of a long-term monitoring study on the sloughs and mainstem of this important north Florida river system.

The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, with headwaters in Alabama and Georgia, combine to form Lake Seminole on the border of Georgia and Florida. The Apalachicola River originates from the Jim Woodruff Dam at the base of Lake Seminole and flows 106 miles south to Apalachicola Bay. Historic droughts and increased water demands in the upstream portion in Alabama and Georgia have decreased flow in the downstream portions. Over time, the Apalachicola floodplain has been inundated less frequently and to a lesser magnitude than it has historically. Biologists needed improved information on the effects of flow and floodplain inundation on important fisheries in the Apalachicola River system.

Researchers are collecting information on the relationship between water levels and flows and the recruitment of largemouth bass, redear sunfish and spotted suckers. These species were selected based on their feeding and habitat requirements within the river and floodplain. Fishes respond differently to hydrologic conditions based on life history traits, and these species occupy different trophic niches and provide a broad perspective on how discharge may impact fish populations in the Apalachicola River.

Following similar methods established for this research project in 2005, 50 transects between mile markers 80 and 20 in the main channel of the Apalachicola River are randomly selected and electrofished by boat (pulsed direct current) for ten minutes per transect. Randomly selected transects from ten sloughs connected to the main channel are also sampled via electrofishing. All largemouth bass, redear sunfish, and spotted suckers are counted and measured, and sagittal otoliths (largemouth bass and redear sunfish) and asteriscus otoliths (spotted suckers) are removed from a subset of fish. Otoliths, commonly known as “earstones,” are hard, calcium carbonate structures located directly behind the brain of bony fishes. Otoliths help FWRI biologists determine the age of fish as well as the growth rates of various species.

The extrapolated catch per unit effort (CPUE) for age-0 fish of each species is averaged among transects to obtain a mean catch rate. To compare CPUE data among years and perform more robust analyses, researchers collect CPUE at age data for each species from 2005 to present from both main channel habitat and slough habitat. FWC biologists obtain river discharge data from the U. S. Geological Survey on the Apalachicola River near Chattahoochee, Florida, and a linear regression model is used to evaluate the relationship between river discharge and year-class strength of largemouth bass, redear sunfish, and spotted suckers in the Apalachicola River.

Field work is ongoing, and additional statistical analysis will continue for years to come. The FWC has 12 years of data that cover a variety of meteorological and hydrological conditions, and annual field research will incorporate additional meteorological and hydrological conditions and more recruitment information over time. Data has shown that strong year classes for these species on the Apalachicola River system are strongly correlated with extended periods (or days) of floodplain inundation and flows. If more water is provided to Florida, these species will continue to thrive and prosper in this river system.


Mystery Creature

By Michelle Kerr

We receive some interesting calls and messages in the FWRI Communications Office. Sometimes inquiries require multiple experts’ input from a variety of agencies across the state. FWRI is the go-to for identifying unknown species, alive or dead, and on March 19 we received a photo from a news station in Jacksonville that stumped marine biologists and avid fishermen alike.

This ‘creature’ was sighted on the shore of Wolf Island, GA by a man and his son while out boating. Its long neck, small mouth, and distinct tail shape had experts stumped. The fresh-looking pink guts eluded to its authenticity. Biologists speculated it was a frilled shark, but it looked more like a dinosaur. Was this a well-done photoshop prank, or perhaps a movie prop?

Some said it looked identical to an Elasmosaurus – a genus of plesiosaur that lived in North America during the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous period (only about 80.5 million years ago). Layers of the story unfolded as others did more research. Someone stumbled on the Altamaha-ha: a legendary, mythical sea monster thought to inhabit the Altamaha River in Georgia. No one found physical evidence of the carcass, and the story was dismissed as a hoax.