Hook, Line, and Sinker Hook, Line, and Sinker

Hook, Line, and Sinker - Melissa's Blog

Melissa Lenker is a young conservationist who is attending McGill University in Quebec, Canada to pursue a Master of Science in Renewable Resources, focusing on fishery management.

Marine Protected Areas: What You Need To Know

Marine conservation got a major boost last week with the White House’s announcement of the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. President Barack Obama will more than quadruple the size of the existing monument, making it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. At twice the size of Texas, the enlarged reserve will help protect over 7,000 marine species and improve ocean resilience to threats such as ocean acidification and climate change.

The newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will protect ecosystems and reefs like the one seen here in Hanauma Bay on the Hawaiian Island of Oʻahu. 

With the web abuzz with MPA news and articles, here is what you need to know:

What is an MPA?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines protected areas as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Not all marine protected areas are “no-take,” or protected from uses that remove or damage plants or animals. In fact, no-take marine reserves are actually quite rare. Many MPAs involve recreational use including diving, boating and fishing.

What are MPAs used for?
Ocean conservationists use MPAs to protect ocean resources, such as fish stocks or coral reefs, from activities that might harm ocean life, such as fishing or boating. 

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located between Cape Cod and Cape Ann in Massachusetts, is known for its superb whale watching. Did you know that scientists can identify individual whales from unique markings on their tail? See MacGillivray Freeman’s film Humpback Whales to learn more.

How many MPAs are there?
There are 1,600 MPAs in the United States alone, covering diverse habitats from intertidal zones and open ocean to the Great Lakes. Roughly 41% of US marine waters are protected in some shape or form, while no-take reserves occupy just 3% of US waters. The story worldwide is a little different. According to a 2015 study, 3.3% of the world’s oceans were protected by nearly 6,000 MPAs in 2013. 

Where are MPAs?
MPAs are located in marine environments all over the world. Use the National Marine Protected Area Inventory or MPA Atlas’s interactive map to find the closest MPA to you. 

MPAs are located in diverse marine environments across the United States and the world. Even the waters off of Laguna Beach, California, home to the One World One Ocean Campaign crew, are designated a no-take State Marine Reserve.

Are there any downsides to MPAs?
Some scientists think that increasing the number of MPAs may hurt ocean biodiversity by shifting fishing pressure elsewhere. Instead, scientists like University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn advocate altering fishery management techniques and increasing collaboration between fishery managers and conservationists to preserve ocean biodiversity.

What does this mean? Increasing the number of marine protected areas is part of the answer, but it’s not a stand-alone solution. MPAs might be best treated as one part of a unified conservation strategy that involves collaboration and diverse management across a wide range of natural resource professionals.

It’s also important to remember that creating MPAs through legislation is only half the battle. Resources are also needed to enforce the area’s protection. An MPA without enforcement is known as a “paper park” and offers little practical protection of the marine resources within it. 

Many marine protected areas allow fishing for recreational or commercial use, but may require stricter gear restrictions or catch limits than the surrounding area.

What is the future of MPAs?
In 2010, governments around the world signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to protect 10% of the world’s coastal and marine areas by 2020 in line with Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. Now, a new movement, called for by the IUCN World Parks Congress in 2014, is underway to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. No matter how you slice it, the number and percentage of MPAs will likely increase in the coming decades. 

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

After the Ivory Tower: How to Stay Relevant in Ocean Conservation

Once a scientist, always a scientist? As a recent Master of Science graduate of McGill University, I certainly hope that this is the case. I officially graduated in February and I am still adjusting to post-grad school life. I have been interning with a consulting firm while I apply to jobs and finish the remainder of my graduate work.

The first chapter of my thesis – the Follensby manuscript – is out! The article is the culmination of more than two years of work with four co-authors, multiple field assistants, three academic institutions, two government offices, one nonprofit, more than half a dozen outside advisers, one editor and several anonymous reviewers. It can take a lot of people to publish a study and I am thankful to everyone who contributed, particularly those who took the time to critique the manuscript during the peer review process. Click here to check out the completed article!

Did you know that the phrase “the ivory tower” originated from the bible? Today it is commonly used to refer to academia or universities. This is my personal representation of the ivory tower, the clock tower at my alma mater Cornell University.

Although the national unemployment rate is low, the underemployment rate for millennials is staggeringly high. According to a 2015 Forbes article, this number hovers around 45 percent for the average college educated grad in their 20’s. Finding full-time work as a recent graduate isn’t easy, especially if you are looking to stay in your field of study. For better or for worse, most people pursue careers that take them far away from their academic background. The good news is that you do not have to be a research scientist to stay involved in science. So here are a few tips for staying engaged with ocean conservation:

As a consumer:

Buying fish and other seafood products

Not all seafood is created equal when it comes to ocean health: factors such as method of capture or culture, region, and diet, all help determine the environmental impact of our choices. Piscivorous fish (fish-eating, like tuna, that are high on the food web) are generally worse for the environment than herbivorous fish (plant-eating, like tilapia) because they must eat many smaller fish to survive. In other words, it takes a large quantity of feeder fish to produce a small quantity of piscivorous fish. Eating piscivorous fish also puts you at a higher risk of ingesting toxic compounds such as mercury, which bioaccumulate in top-of-the-food chain fish. Adding in the choices of wild-caught and farm-raised complicates the matter further, with some species (or even subspecies) being more sustainable in either situation. 

The good news is that you do not have to figure all of this out yourself. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch consumer guides or app to help pick tasty and environmentally friendly seafood choices. Seafood Watch also suggests sustainable seafood recipes and business partners for your next night out. Plus, for infographics and other content, check out the One World One Ocean Go Fish! Campaign. 

The seafood selection at my local grocery store. Do you know which choices are sustainable? Check your knowledge at Fish Watch, the U.S. government’s sustainable seafood database.

Plastic packaging and waste

The products and packaging that we buy can make its way into our oceans, harming humans and marine life along the way. Sarah recently discussed the growing plastic pollution problem in her latest blog. Try following her tips – like buying in bulk and carrying reusable canvas bags for grocery shopping – to reduce waste whenever possible. For more information on our ocean’s plastic problems, see the One World One Ocean Plastics Breakdown page.


“Don’t Dump: Drains to Boston Harbor” plaques educate citizens on opposite sides of the intersection at Beacon and Tremont Street in downtown Beantown. 

As a citizen scientist:

Data collection

Citizen science, also called crowd-sourced science, uses citizen volunteers to collect the data scientists need to enhance conservation. Today’s connected world has made data collection and reporting even easier through the use of apps and online forms. For example, the Marine Debris Tracker app lets citizen scientists report marine trash to enhance awareness and provide key scientific data. Volunteers can also help transcribe museum records online to enhance biodiversity and conservation efforts on Notes from Nature. See Ocean Sanctuaries and other agencies for endless ways you can get involved.

I am a citizen scientist too. I recently reported a white squirrel sighting to Biomes of the World, which maps and studies the distribution of white squirrels of North America. This particular white squirrel happens to live on my block in Boston, Massachusetts.

Clean up your waterways

Nonprofits and other entities around the world organize volunteer efforts to clean our oceans. Join the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on September 17, 2016 or instigate your own cleanup of local beaches and waterways.

Stay up to date and speak out!

Get involved and follow conservation groups like the One World One Ocean Campaign, The Ocean Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy. They can alert you about petitions, keep you up to date on environmental issues and let your voice be heard. Join the One World One Ocean movement to learn more ways you can protect the oceans.

Do your conservation efforts seem like a drop in the ocean? That may not be a problem.

Every choice we make as a consumer seems small, but in sum, this behavior drives the economy and encourages sustainable business practice. To quote David Mitchell in his novel Cloud Atlas, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Will I return to science someday? It’s hard to say. Life is an adventure and no adventure is complete without a leap into the unknown. Still, all of us can work together as citizens to protect the ocean.

I hope that you have enjoyed my last blog as a graduate student and learned something new.
See you later, alligator!


Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

To Ph.D., or not to Ph.D.

I once asked my Cornell University adviser why he chose to pursue a career in academia. He explained to me that after his undergrad, he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he extended his education by pursuing a Master’s degree. During the course of that degree, he figured out that “people actually pay you to do this stuff”. He never left.

Sightseeing at the Burlington Earth Clock on Lake Champlain. It looks a bit like Stonehenge, but it’s actually closer to a giant sundial. The stones mark the horizon where the sun sets at the Equinoxes and Solstices each year.

Did you know that Lake Champlain also hosts a thriving yellow perch fishery? Local fishermen spend the winter on the ice catching and selling yellow perch to local restaurants. This isn’t a commercial fishery, but something closer to a “market fishery.” There are no nets, just a group of dedicated fisherman armed with recreational fishing licenses, rods, hooks, and some tasty bait. I was hooked on this great article about Lake Champlain’s “yellow gold.”

All graduate students must either choose to remain in academia or return to the “real world.” The advantages to academia are many: fulfilling work, autonomy, travel, and a flexible schedule. And yet the disadvantages can outweigh the benefits: high stress, high workload, disproportionately low pay, and the pressure to “publish or perish.”

These disadvantages are compounded by the relatively small chance of actually securing a tenured professorship. The Royal Society’s 2010 Report, The Scientific Century, estimates that only 0.45% of STEM Ph.D.’s in the UK will become tenured professors. Similarly, a mere 9.4% of 2011 life science Ph.D.’s found academic employment by graduation, according to an estimate based on National Science Foundation data.

A successful academic career can be a much longer and bumpier road than many originally imagine. The bright side? The handful of professors who have spoken honestly with me about their career trajectories seem to love their job.

No summer of mine would be complete without a trip to New York’s Adirondack State Park. This time, I skipped the field work and spent an afternoon cruising on Raquette Lake. Raquette Lake also happens to be the study site for my research on lake trout spawning phenology: do you know why lake trout don’t need a calendar to tell time?

However, statistics dictate that most graduate students will not pursue academic careers; most will enter industry, which I am loosely defining here as for-profit work in a field dedicated to delivering goods or services. While research in academia and industry can be similar, they are controlled by different forces. As Sarah noted in her blog, research in the commercial sector is driven by the short-term need for profits, while academics are pushed by the constant pressure to publish.

So how can lifelong students ease this transition from academia to the workforce? Sarah helped close this gap by taking a course on international scientific careers. I took a slightly different route, and interned with The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Division Science team for eight weeks. The Eastern Division is responsible for scientific projects that span the eastern seaboard. Much of their fascinating work is focused on GIS (geographic information system) mapping and analysis, which they use to classify habitats types and regions of climate resilience.

I am a fish nerd, and my summer travels took me to some of the fishiest places in the Northeast. Pictured here is the Fisherman’s Memorial (also known as “Man at the Wheel”) in Gloucester, MA. Gloucester is a historical shipbuilding and commercial fishery center with long ties to the ocean. The Fisherman’s Memorial honors over 10,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea. Does the Man at the Wheel remind you of the guy on the fish stick box? That’s because the Gorton’s fisherman (of Gorton of Gloucester) is modeled after the memorial.

I held various summer internships throughout college, but this was my first working in a traditional office environment. I was assigned my own cubicle and worked 9 AM to 5 PM. Overall, the experience was great. I learned how to use Microsoft Access and ArcGIS, and helped create habitat guides for the Northeast Lake and Pond Classification System. The lake habitat guides will serve as a companion to the classification’s online story map: when a user clicks on a particular lake, a document will appear describing the lake type (e.g. very cold, oligotrophic lake), and its associated characteristics.

My internship ended three weeks ago, and I have been biding my time by finishing miscellaneous graduate work while I await my fate in “student purgatory,” more commonly known as a semester of thesis review. My thesis – the last barrier to graduation – is being examined and critiqued by a professor within the university, much like the journal peer-review process. I need to respond to the criticism and revise my thesis by December in order to complete my degree.

Got cod? Cape Cod is home to striking salt marshes, a historic fishery, and the ultimate summer playground for Bostonians ready to escape to the sea.

Like Gloucester, Cape Cod is also home to one of Massachusetts’s historic groundfish (cod, haddock, flounder and others) fisheries. The Northeast’s cod fishery is perhaps most famous for its crash in the 1990’s; despite more restrictive catch limits, the fishery has yet to recover. Catch limits aside, recent science indicates that climate change  might keep cod in hot water.

I am also using this time to apply to and interview for jobs in the greater Boston area. As much as I miss that salty California air, I have committed the next few years of my life to living in Beantown. But I’m not complaining – with a great transportation system, a mild winter, and fresh seafood… Cod I really ask for more? (I will leave the punny humor to Sarah from now on.)

Despite the fact that I still spend much of my time hunched over a computer, I no longer feel like a student. And yet, I have not graduated, which somewhat hinders my attempt to enter the workforce. Much like Dante’s damned souls, I am stuck somewhere in student limbo. But what’s a good party without a little limbo?

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Why Lake Trout Don’t Need a Calendar

Have you ever wondered why fish spawn when they do? For that matter, how do insects know when to emerge in the spring, or how do birds know when to migrate? As it turns out, two environmental factors largely control the timing these biological processes: temperature and light. Light is more accurately described as something biologists call photoperiod, or the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset.

Did you know that given a day of the year and location coordinates, you can calculate the photoperiod for anywhere on earth? Photoperiod is time spent between sunset and sunrise. The picture above shows Follensby Pond in New York State’s Adirondack Park at sunrise during Lake Trout spawning season.

Imagine a day with little sunlight and cold temperatures. Does winter come to mind? As you probably know, day length is longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Coupling photoperiod and temperature can be used to predict the time of year. Lake Trout and many other species use these environmental cues to determine when to perform certain life history events. The timing of life history events (such as fish spawning, spring budbreak, insect emergence, etc.) is called phenology.

If light and temperature control the timing of life history events across many different species, what happens if temperature increases with climate change? I have been using historical Lake Trout spawning records and climate data from New York to answer this very question.

Before I delve into the answer, let’s talk a little bit about Lake Trout biology. Lake Trout are coldwater fish; warm water temperatures can cause them great stress, and even warmer water temperatures (< 25ºC or <77ºF), can kill them. Lake Trout are native to Alaska, Canada, and northern regions of the United States. However, climate change is predicted to eradicate Lake Trout from the southern extent of their range and areas of low elevation.

Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush

Lake Trout generally spawn for two to three weeks from September to November, the timing of which is triggered by cooling water temperatures (8-13ºC) and shortening day length. If the late summer and early fall are particularly warm, it often takes longer for lake temperatures to cool. For this reason, Lake Trout spawn later in years with warm late summer and early fall temperatures, and earlier in years with cool temperatures during the same time period.

This means that if the climate continues to warm, Lake Trout are likely to spawn continually later in time, and populations subject to very warm conditions may stop reproducing altogether due to thermal stress and sub-optimal environmental conditions.

While climate and photoperiod determine the general timing of the spawning period, it’s likely that weather events such as wind storms may trigger Lake Trout to spawn on a shorter temporal scale. Storms are common in Montreal due to the region’s hot and humid weather. I took this photo from the balcony of my apartment.

You might be wondering, “Why should I care about this research?” A few reasons:

     1. Scientists all over the world are trying to figure out how climate change will affect earth’s biology. Research like this adds to the growing body of literature on the sub-lethal impacts of climate change on fish species and other organisms.

     2. If natural Lake Trout reproduction declines, management agencies will need to compensate by reducing Lake Trout harvest or increasing stocking of hatchery-reared fish.

     Recreational Lake Trout fisheries are substantial economic assets. Reducing harvest could also mean a reduction in the economic benefits associated with these fisheries. An increase in stocking could also increase the negative environmental effects associated with fish farming, such as water pollution.

Have I piqued your interest? This research currently comprises the second chapter of my Master of Science thesis for McGill University, and is currently being finalized for journal submission. Read again next month (or perhaps a few months after that, realistically speaking) for more information on the publishing process.

The books that have collected on my desk over the past month of thesis writing. The blue book on top is “Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment” by Hilborn and Walters, otherwise known as the fishery science bible.

It’s been over two years since I temporarily moved to Quebec, Canada to pursue a Master of Science in Renewable Resources at McGill University. Last week I submitted the initial version of my thesis to McGill for review. In one week, I move again, this time to the seat of the American revolutionary war: Boston, Massachusetts. Looking back, my time in Quebec has been a blur of traveling for workshops and conferences, pulling fishing nets in the Adirondacks, and long days glued to my computer.

While I prepare to finish, Sarah has decided to prolong her stay in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen to study science business and policy. Congratulations Sarah!

Several undergraduates have asked me for advice on how to get into a natural resource based graduate school program like Sarah and I have been pursuing. The advice from my two year post-undergraduate wizened self is three fold:

     1) Take a modeling class. No, not that kind of modeling.

     A working knowledge of statistical modeling is one of the most useful skills a new graduate student can possess. Already know how to use programs like R, Matlab, or Python? You are way ahead of the game. Many of these programs, like R, contain user guides for beginners, so you can also learn the basics on your own, without taking a class.

     2) Get some field or lab experience.

     Spend a summer or a semester gaining experience as a field or laboratory research technician. There are a lot of important skills to gain outside of the classroom, and there are a lot of graduate students looking for extra help gathering data. While a paid position is obviously preferable, an unpaid position can also look great on a resume.

     3) Do an independent research project.

     This could either be an honors thesis or another project carried out with a graduate student or professor. Want to take it even further? Publish your results in a peer reviewed journal and present at a conference.

Speaking of modeling, I finally caved and ordered myself a Canada Goose parka as a graduation present to myself. It’s one of the warmest winter jackets on the market. Here’s to hoping it curbs the severity of my Raynaud’s (unpleasant but generally nonthreatening circulation disorder) for the upcoming Boston winter.

I have submitted my thesis and finished my course requirements; the congratulations from happy friends and relatives have been pouring in. However, my work here is not yet done. My thesis is now in review, and I will need to address reviewer comments before submitting the final thesis in December. Furthermore, the Follensby Lake Trout management manuscript is back from review and requires modifications in line with the reviewer comments. And on top of that, I am preparing the Lake Trout spawning manuscript for journal submission. With a full time internship, and a substantial list of activities to complete on the evenings and weekends, I will also be searching for a full time job.

In hindsight, those congratulations may have been a little hasty.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Lessons from the Pond

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec has once again completed its annual transition from a frozen wonderland to a stunning summer paradise and tourist destination. The air is hot and muggy, the Saint Lawrence River is flowing swiftly, and the trees are full and green. This is my last summer in Quebec as an MSc Candidate at McGill University, and I plan to make the most of it… that is, when I am not glued to the computer writing my thesis, which I imagine will occupy most of my hours this June and July.

Lab ice-fishing trip. Here I am using an auger to drill a hole in the ice.

Beginner’s curling lesson at the Royal Montreal Curling Club. Because when in Canada eh?

I heartily regret that it has been over two months since I last posted a blog. Graduate student life has proved extremely time-consuming of late. The harsh winter weather slowly yielded to spring, and spring brought my final thesis committee meeting, a final thesis presentation in front of the entire Department of Natural Resource Sciences, and a guest lecture for the Fisheries and Wildlife Seminar at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks.

Guest lecture at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, New York.

I spent the past month finalizing and submitting the Follensby Pond Lake Trout manuscript and analyzing the Lake Trout spawning data that I collected last summer. In fact, I am still working on that analysis, which is slotted to become the second chapter of my thesis. My thesis, which focuses on Lake Trout management and how climate affects the timing of Lake Trout spawning, is due mid-August.

I feel as if now is a good time to wrap up what I learned from my Lake Trout management research, aside from the obvious lessons of wearing bug repellant and avoiding frostbite. The three big fishery lessons that I learned are:

    I. Restoration can be slow
Our research indicates that restoration of a very high quality recreational fishery from one that has been heavily fished could take as long as two to three decades in the absence of fishing or stocking for slow-growing fish species like Lake Trout. It’s good to remember here that Lake Trout are thought to be able to live up to 70 years, and typically start reproducing between the ages of 6 and 20 years.

To put that in some context, the marine fish Orange Roughy can live nearly 150 years while the Common Goldfish has been reported to live past 40 years. While I am on the topic, Seafood Watch recommends avoiding eating Orange Roughy due to the decline of commercial fisheries for this species.

    II. Limited entry could be the future
Fishery managers already limit angler effort in several different ways, such as seasonal restrictions (i.e. no ice fishing), size limits (i.e. no harvest of fish larger than 21”), and bag limits (i.e. maximum harvest of three fish per day per angler).

These tactics generally work pretty well, but some slow-growing species are particularly susceptible to fishing pressure and require additional stocking from fish hatcheries to maintain population size. Fish hatcheries are places dedicated to the artificial breeding and rearing of aquatic species; these facilities are often run by state governments in reference to regional fish stocking for recreational purposes. Although stocking can be a good way to increase angler catch, raising fish in hatcheries for stocking incurs its own set of problems, such negative environmental effects and the potential to spread fish disease.

Limited entry fisheries restrict the number of anglers allowed on the lake by using a lottery system or some other means. Our research suggests that limited entry systems might be another great way to maintain high abundance in a trophy fishery setting if fish are not being replaced by stocking.

Although limited entry lottery systems are commonly used in the distribution of hunting permits, they not often used in recreational fisheries management. Could limited entry be the future of recreational fisheries in North America?

    III. No one “best” management practice
Not all management practices are created equal, but they are also not created for the same purpose. Some work to maximize harvest, while others maximize the number of fish caught or the size of fish caught to create unique angling experiences. Personal opinions abound, but there is no one correct or right way to manage a fishery.

Attending the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution annual meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. For my American readers, Saskatoon is located in the middle of Canada, north of Montana.

Saskatoon has been nicknamed the “City of Bridges” and “Paris of the Prairie”.

For more specific research details, you will just have to wait to read the manuscript once it has finished the review and publishing process. In the meantime, it’s back to thesis writing for me.

Looking for more? Check out the Solomon Lab YouTube video made in conjunction with McGill University’s Linking Action and Sustainability research series.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

If You Give a Grad Student a Conference

A day and a half after returning to greater Montreal, my lab group hopped in a McGill branded mini-van and drove to Ottawa for a joint conference between Canada’s fishery scientists and limnologists. Although I presented a poster at a small conference last February, this was my first time giving a talk at a conference. This was also my first trip to Ottawa, and I was looking forward to ice-skating down the famous Rideau Canal and gawking at the stone-covered Parliament building.

The door to my lab’s office space

Instead I spent 12 hours each day sitting inside a cold hotel conference center and eating at the local mall food court. To be fair to the Rideau Centre, it was the nicest mall food court I have ever seen. Kudos. However, I expected the life of a professor to be romantically exotic: traveling around the world to parts unknown to speak at conferences while tasting the local cuisine and sight-seeing, all while on someone else’s bill. The reality burst my bubble, so to speak.

Conference SWAG: name tag, information booklet, and a cool tote bag

My talk was also less rose-colored than I originally envisioned. Instead of my calm practiced speech, my typically absent fear of public speaking got the better of me; both the words coming out of my mouth and the rate of my heartbeat were too fast for my liking.

Conference highlights included drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee and listening to great presentations, like the influence of climate change on the distribution of Lake Cisco in Ontario or the biology of salmon sneaker males and their impact on the aquaculture industry. Sneakers are small males that “sneak in” or steal egg fertilizations from larger, dominant males of the same species. The mechanisms for developing into a sneaker male are partially genetic and partially environmental. I learned that the aquaculture industry cannot sell sneaker male flesh, so figuring out how to avoid the development of eggs into sneaker males can increase efficiency and output. Pretty cool, right?

Jake and I were lucky enough to make the cover The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter’s annual report. How cool is that?

One of the most interesting conference aspects was a chat that originated afterwards among a few young female graduate students about the challenges faced by women in academia. Areas of discussion ranged from the difficulty of having children during an academic career, to unequal representation among tenured professors, to specific instances of unequal treatment in a work environment. If you are interested in learning more, this topic is continually touched upon and associated with a myriad of great articles, such as Dr. Stavrakopoulou’s Female academics: don't power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed.

The point I am trying to make is that instigating discussions like this are exactly what conferences are for; conferences allow researchers to network, collaborate, discuss, and bounce ideas around.

Soaking up the sun on a winter time trip to Santa Catalina Island, part of California’s Channel Island Chain

I thought that two years of graduate school would somehow make my life path clear. Five hundred and forty-five days after walking out the door of Montreal’s Elliot Trudeau airport with suitcase in tow, all I know for sure is that my career plan involves living in a warmer climate. Strapping ice crampons onto your boots to buy groceries is not nearly as exotic as it sounds (true story). Then again, an inch of frozen rain seems mild compared to Sarah’s field work traversing wind-swept mudflats before sunrise in freezing temperatures.

My study permit and funding expires in 232 days, otherwise known as the end of August (cue dramatic music). That means I have approximately 8 months to finish the analysis on both of my lake trout related projects, write and submit my thesis, publish two manuscripts, attend at least one more conference, give two seminars, and find a job in the Boston area. Eight months is not so long when you consider the expense reports, server updates, chemical inventories, equipment purchasing, etc., that every graduate student must continually deal with to keep the lab running.

What I am trying to say is that its crunch time, or the beginning of the end of this Canadian adventure.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

This Canadian Goose is Ready to Fly South

It has been more than two months since my last blog and Montreal’s once lush trees are mostly bare; a few orange leaves still cling to the otherwise naked branches. The overly abundant squirrel population of McGill’s Macdonald Campus also seems particularly rotund and well-fed, a sure sign of the coming winter. It is mid-November, and there is roughly another month left of the Fall 2014 semester.

Setting minnow traps in the Saint Lawrence River for McGill’s Fisheries and Wildlife Management class

The last I wrote, I was heading on a grand road trip across New York State to several fish hatcheries, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) station on Lake Ontario, and my alma mater Cornell University. The trip was a success, and I was able to procure historical lake trout spawning records from around the state for the second chapter of my thesis. I am attempting to analyze historical lake trout datasets to determine the impact of climatic variation on the timing of lake trout spawning and the quality of eggs produced. Unfortunately my data collection has resulted in hundreds of scanned PDF files which need to be checked for accuracy and converted to Excel tables, by hand. Lucky me.

I also finished working up the lake trout otoliths (used in fish aging) with more than a little help from one of the project advisers at the USGS station on Lake Ontario (thanks Brian!). We used the otoliths to finalize the Follensby von Bertalanffy growth curve, which we use to convert length to age in the population model. Lake trout are very slow growing species; some of the fish we caught are older than me. Shorter-lived fish lower on the food chain are generally considered more sustainable to harvest.

View of Lake Ontario from the USGS field station

I admit that walking the paths of the Cornell campus for the first time since graduation a year and a half ago felt strange. I know the campus so well that I could walk it blindfolded, and yet, all the passing faces are now unfamiliar. It is a place exactly the same and yet completely different from my well-cherished time there, which I find very unsettling.

This semester has been mostly work. In fact, I actually have not taken a full day off in over a month since field-work related activities (including preparation and clean-up) have occupied up every weekend in the last five weeks. I need a break, but such is the life of a graduate student. However, before field work and report writing invaded my life, I escaped Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue to have a little fun. 

To celebrate the fall, I went apple picking on nearby Île Perrot. Unlike my boyfriend, I did not grow up in the Northeast and I find apple picking a very exotic and exciting pastime. (On par with pouring maple syrup in coffee). I imagine that East coast Canadians find the of idea year-round sandal weather equally exotic.

Apple picking: who doesn’t love a couple in matching flannels?

I also played hooky on a Wednesday to go kayaking at the famous ski resort Mont Tremblant. The fall colors were at their peak and the hillsides were a beautiful collage of red, yellow, green, and orange. As an experienced ocean kayaker, I was amazing at the ease of lake kayaking; freshwater kayaks are smaller and more agile than their ocean-savvy counterparts. And there is also no need to worry about large waves or sneaky California sea lions following you. Although I sorely miss the ocean (and sunshine, and warmth, and everything wonderful about California), freshwater kayakers might be onto something good.

Lead peeping (kayaking) in Mont Tremblant; too bad that fetching sandal tan won’t last the winter

At the beginning of October, I packed up our Ford F-150 lab pickup truck (affectionately and forever named Princess) and drove to back to my field site in the Adirondacks. As you may recall from the October 2013 blog post, last year’s field work trying to catch spawning lake trout did not go as planned. In fact, I may or may not have gotten mild frostbite on my fingers last year (still a matter of discussion), the month ended with my entire body bruised and sore, and most importantly, we only caught four spawning lake trout. A disaster, I know.

This year was better. Perhaps not a wild success but not disaster material either. We caught roughly 50 spawning lake trout, which improved our population size estimate and let us estimate age at maturity. It only snowed a few times and morning temperatures never dropped below 20ºF. I am frostbite free, and ended the field work relatively devoid of of bruises and pulled muscles. Now I am back in the lab, and it’s report writing time.

A little snowy field work with my fellow graduate student Jake; all of our nets and ropes froze this night

My current report synthesizes everything we know about the lake trout population so far and details management scenario results from the population model. I have been so busy working on the report and cleaning up from the field that everything else I should be working on has fallen behind.

I would be nice if this blog was filled with witty anecdotes, hilarious stories, or tales of exciting adventures from the field (we caught a few big pike… does that count?). Unfortunately the last few months, while busy and travel-filled, has consisted almost solely of work. And eating more Timbits – Canadian donut holes from Tim Hortons – than I ever recommend eating in one sitting. Perhaps Sarah can spice up my life by sending me some of those “absurdly adorable baby seals ” (her words, not mine) from Ecomare in Texel?

The skies overhead have been filled with thousands of Canada geese traveling south for the winter. I do not blame them. It’s almost time for me to join my feathered brethren and fly south as well. Next Friday I am traveling to Boston to spend time with Tory. We will then travel back to upstate New York for Thanksgiving. Just a few days after that, I am flying home to California to enjoy a little winter sunshine. Unfortunately that sunshine will also include long periods of time spent at the computer working each day.

C’est la vie étudiante de troisième cycle.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Pass the Poutine, s’il vous plait.



The French Canadian specialty of golden, grease-sodden fries topped with rich, dark gravy and cheese curd beckoned my taste buds. I had never heard of poutine, but still tried it.  As a savory bite of fried potato dropped to my tongue, I thought, “Montreal will be a good change for me.”

Photo by bhamsandwhich via Flickr, Creative Common License

I recently moved to earn a Master of Science degree in Renewable Resources. I will try to create a trout fishery management model for a land-locked lake in New York State; I could not be more excited.

I am a novice in the field of fishery management.  My undergraduate research at Cornell University concerned seasonal variation of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, more commonly known as the frog-killing fungus.  But the difference between a leopard frog and a pickerel frog is of no use when attempting to learn calculus-based fishery models. I feel as if my head is barely above water.  Good thing I have my three faithful goldfish – Butter, Ginger, and Awkward Fish – for moral support and encouragement as I dive head first into the world of fisheries.

The best and worst part about being a graduate student is the field work.  While studying amphibians, I spent many chilly nights shivering in muddy waiting for elusive bullfrog. While trudging around in muddy water in the early spring is cold, sitting in an aluminum boat for hours while rain soaks your clothing is even colder.  Thus describes my experience with fishery field work. Weather can be a finicky companion while performing field work, but nothing beats being engulfed by unspoiled nature.

As much as I may wish it otherwise, moving to Quebec has not been entirely scenic cityscapes and delectable Canadian food.  When I moved into my little studio apartment, I was greeted by a family of mice, hordes of mosquitoes, and hot, muggy weather.  I never truly appreciated the movie Mousehunt (1997) until I waged my own frustrated battle against the charming rodents.  Is it actually possible for a few mice to drive someone insane?  Based upon my limited experience and newfound mouse paranoia, the answer is a resounding “yes.” 

I am trying to enjoy the summer weather before the infamously cold Montreal winter threatens to send me sprinting back towards southern California’s sunshine. Fingers crossed (while I still have them), that I do not turn into an icicle this winter.

I have high hopes that the coming year will bring heaps of poutine, my first ice fishing experience, scuba certification, and French proficiency (or, at least, the ability to mumble more than a few mispronounced words).  I was looking for a new adventure, and I have found it.  Grad school, je viens!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Studying the World’s Rarest and Smallest Dolphin

This week, we are focusing our attention on another graduate student researcher abroad, Lindsay Wickman. Read on to hear about this marine biologist’s work to study and protect Hector’s dolphin in New Zealand!

Did you know that the land of the long white cloud is also home to the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin? The critically endangered Māui dolphin averages a mere 4.5 feet in length and is only found off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. In 2010/2011, scientists estimated that the shrinking population was comprised of roughly 55 individuals over the age of one.

Hector’s dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: Lindsay Wickman

Māui dolphins were recognized as subspecies of the more abundant Hector’s dolphin in 2002. Although the two subspecies are closely related, geographic and genetic isolation has resulted in small differences between each subspecies’ skeleton. The more abundant subspecies of Hector’s dolphin, which numbers between 12,000 and 18,500 individuals, is found in the coastal waters of New Zealand’s South Island.

In 2008, the New Zealand Department of Conservation created the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary to help protect these small, endangered cetaceans. The sanctuary restricts activities associated with acoustic seismic surveys and seabed mining. In addition, the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries has set fishing restrictions on set nets, drift nets and trawls over much of the sanctuary’s range. Given current fishing restrictions, scientists recently predicted that the Māui dolphin population has fallen to 43-47 individuals, approximately 10 of which are mature females.

So why are Māui dolphins continuing to decline? These petite, pale grey dolphins are typically seen swimming close to shore in shallow water in small groups or pods. According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, this behavior means that Māui dolphins are affected by human coastal activity, and are at risk of ingesting marine trash and being hit by boat propellers. Most significantly, they are threatened by fisheries entanglement: dolphins caught fishing nets often drown. In addition to human threats, Māui dolphin are at risk of disease, predation and small population effects such as low genetic variability and variability in yearly survival and reproductive success. 

Hector’s dolphins are found off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, near beaches like the one pictured above on the Otago Peninsula. Photo credit: Melissa Lenker

The good news is that Māui dolphin research and conservation isn’t starting from scratch. Although Māui dolphins were recognized as a sub-species just 14 years ago, scientists have been researching Hector’s dolphin for decades. This means that scientists already have a great research database to jumpstart conservation efforts.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lindsay Wickman, a marine biologist and graduate student studying Hector’s dolphins at the University of Otago, about her research and what it means for the conservation of this well-studied species. Before starting her Master of Science, Lindsay interned with the Department of Conservation to enhance Māui dolphin media and communications. Read on to hear about Lindsay’s research and life as a marine biologist!

Melissa Lenker: How did you get into this field? Have you always been interested in marine biology?
Lindsay Wickman: I have been interested in marine biology since the age of eight. I grew up in land-locked Tennessee, but our school mascot was a dolphin. Our school slogan was “we can’t hide our dolphin pride!” As silly as it sounds, that’s what first sparked my interest in the ocean and marine mammals. When I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Miami and majored in marine science and biology.  I found my current place at the Otago University Marine Science Department’s Marine Mammal Lab after a semester abroad. 

ML: What kind of research are you working on right now?
LW: I am currently involved in the Otago University/NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust long-term study of Hector’s dolphins in Banks Peninsula. By photographing unique marks like the ones seen below, we can identify individuals and track them over time. This technique is called photo-ID, and we use this data to count how many dolphins use the area, determine social structure, and estimate parameters like survival rate. 

Researchers like Lindsay use unique marks on Hector’s dolphins’ dorsal fins to identify individuals. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

The marks can help determine population parameters such as abundance, social structure and survival rate. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

Not all dolphins have these marks. The proportion of individuals that have these distinct markings is called the mark rate. Dolphins get these marks through interactions with others (e.g., play or aggression), predators (like shark bites), and from non-fatal encounters with fishing gear. In 1988, the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary was established to protect dolphins from unsustainable set netting. The sanctuary has had positive impacts on the population. However, it’s a catch-22 – since fewer individuals are becoming entangled, fewer of them have marks, and this may make them harder to study.  This brings us to my main research questions:

  1. What is the current mark rate of Hector’s dolphins at Banks Peninsula?
  2. If mark rate has declined, what are the implications for our ability to monitor how well the population is doing?

ML: How does your research influence dolphin conservation efforts?
LW: We may find that as mark rate declines, population changes may become harder to detect. For example, if survival rates are imprecise, it may take years longer to detect a population decline. In some of these populations, it may mean we need to refine photo-ID methodology or find alternatives for monitoring population change. Additionally, if we do find that mark rate has declined, it may lend further support to the success of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in reducing dolphin encounters with fishing gear, which could bolster the credibility of using Marine Protected Areas to protect marine mammals.

ML: What kind of data do you collect?
LW: When we do surveys and find a group of dolphins, we stop and take photos of the dolphins’ dorsal fins. Usually, we purposely target dolphins with marked fins to ensure we have a good photo of each marked individual. However, for my research, I take pictures of each group of dolphins randomly, not paying attention to which dolphins are marked or not. By shooting randomly, I can determine mark rate as the ratio of photos showing marked dolphins to total photos taken.

Lindsay taking pictures of Hector’s dolphins in the field. Photo credit: Will Rayment

ML: What are the best and worst aspects of field research?
LW: The best! Hector’s dolphins are a joy to see in the wild, and every day in the field is different! I’m also thankful for beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife (penguins, seals, and others), getting to work with my talented fellow lab members, and learning new skills like boating.

The worst! Non-marine scientists may think I spend most of the day with the dolphins, but actually we spend most of the day looking for them! Some days, we may find very few dolphins, if any at all. Field days can be tiring and long. After an early wakeup, we may be on the water for up to ten hours. Once off the water, there are often hundreds of photos to sort through before dinner and bed. It’s an intense time, but extremely rewarding.

Hector’s dolphin. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

ML: What can citizens in New Zealand and abroad do to help conserve Māui dolphins?
LW: New Zealand citizens should write to the Minister of Primary Industries about their concern for the species and their support for a ban on set netting out to 20 nautical miles throughout the Māui dolphin’s range.  If you live abroad, your voice will still be heard!

Choose seafood caught using dolphin-friendly methods, like line- and trap-caught fish. Avoid fish caught using set nets or trawls. Also, tell your friends! You can also subscribe to the Department of Conservation’s Māui watch newsletter and learn more about the campaign to end set netting in Hector’s/Māui habitat.

University of Otago campus where Lindsay is a graduate student in the Marine Science Department’s Marine Mammal Lab. Photo credit: Melissa Lenker. 

ML: Do you have any advice to aspiring marine biologists considering graduate school?
LW: When picking a lab, talk to current students about their experience with their advisors and the lab culture in general. Keep in mind that you’ll have a close relationship with your fellow students and advisors, so personalities should match! Have a look at past graduates, and the kinds of jobs they’ve gained. Choose a lab group that matches both your research interest and your ethics. Lastly, make sure you choose a project you’re passionate about. While advisors can provide tremendous support, graduate school is primarily self-motivated, so you need to bring your own enthusiasm. 

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Publish or Perish

Montreal’s winter has been characteristically cold. I am currently defining a “warm” day as any day with a forecasted high above 0ºF. Above freezing outside? You might as well slap on a bathing suit.

If you are thinking that this weather is mighty cold for a girl from southern California, you are correct. To be completely honest, I have been avoiding most travel outside unless it is completely necessary. I even ate scrambled eggs for dinner several nights in a row because I didn’t want to walk to the grocery store in sub-zero temperatures. Sarah, my fellow Californian compatriot, seems to have similarly shunned the outdoors on her temporary island home of Texel due to the dreary winter weather.

Despite the cold, there are some perks to the frosty winter, such as this beautiful sunset over the
Saint Lawrence River 
in my adopted Quebec town of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

I don’t recommend shutting yourself in during winter months; my gym record has been appalling and you can’t live off of peanut butter forever (but I can try). However, the upside of being a winter-time recluse is that my work productivity has increased because I have nothing to do but work. Aside from some minor bumps like a fried laptop motherboard and a three day fever, I have been chugging away on the Follensby Pond manuscript.

Another winter perk? Cross country skiing in McGill’s Morgan Arboretum.

There is a saying in academia: “publish or perish”. It refers to the necessity of publishing in order to receive grants and other funding, without which, academics cannot continue their research. As a general rule of thumb, graduate level research should be both publishable and published. I spoke about publishing briefly in my blog post from last January, but it is not a subject to be glossed over.

My undergraduate research adviser gave me some great advice while I was writing my first manuscript: structure the paper like a wine glass. The lip of the glass is the introduction, which starts dialogue broadly and gradually tapers towards the subject of the paper. The stem is the methods and the results, which are narrowly focused on the research topic at hand. The base is the discussion, which begins tightly focused on a discussion of the paper’s results, and widens again to discuss the broader applications of the research. (Despite the analogy, drinking wine while writing isn’t particularly helpful, sorry).

Remember, the structure of a paper is like a wine glass.

Last to arrive are the acknowledgements, references, tables, figures and appendices. The acknowledgements contain a short paragraph thanking funding sources and anyone who particularly helped with the project. This oft-glossed over section can be quite funny, and is occasionally worth the read.

When not working and locked within my heated apartment, I have been traveling. There are many perks to being a graduate student, such as spending years of your life researching a topic simply because you love it, or frequently being on the receiving end of free food (so much pizza). However, having a flexible schedule is by far the best perk of all. I managed a day trip to Ottawa and finally toured the picturesque, stone-covered Parliament building, in addition to eating my first Canadian Beaver tail pastry. Beaver tails are a bit like warm, extra buttery American elephant ear cookies, often topped with cinnamon sugar or Nutella.

Standing in front of Canada’s Central Government based on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Beaver tail shops line Ottawa’s Rideau Canal and serve as the perfect snack for cold, hungry ice skaters

I also spent a week in Boston working, visiting my boyfriend, and exploring potential internship opportunities for my thesis review semester. Unfortunately, that particular trip to Boston also included a midnight trip to the emergency room and vomiting on an 8 hour Greyhound bus ride from Boston to Montreal. It’s a long story.

Two days after returning from Boston, I headed south in the ever-stylish McGill minivan for an Adirondack research conference. The conference was held in a classic, Adirondack lodge complete with log woodwork and blazing fireplaces. I had a fantastic trip, but my time there was short. Less than 12 hours after returning to my beloved apartment in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, I was en route to an aquatic limnology conference in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.

Presenting my research at the annual Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and
Aquatic Environments
symposium in the Laurentian Mountains. I made the Twitter feed!

Between both conferences, I networked, listened, and ate for four days straight. I learned about the effects of increasing dissolved organic carbon on aquatic food chains, and the benefits of building your own small scale PIT tag (used to uniquely identify fish) readers. And thanks to the all you can eat buffets, I also learned how to make the Quebec specialty pouding chômeur (unemployment pudding), which is more or less cake baked with maple syrup. It tastes amazing.

The last month and a half has been a whirlwind of traveling, working, and avoiding time outdoors. However, spring is on its way and the workload will only increase from here until I submit my thesis in mid-August. As the end grows nearer, I find myself looking increasingly towards the future. Is there a PhD in my future, or perhaps law school? Or finally joining the workforce like many of my peers? The uncertainty is driving me a little crazy, but I am constantly trying to remind myself that life is about the journey, not the destination.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Moose Spaghetti, Surprise Rock Climbing, and Other Summer Adventures

I have had a whirlwind summer of traveling, research, and fun. As you may remember from my last blog, I spent the month of May and early June gillnetting for lake trout in New York State’s Adirondack Park. After the spring field season, I worked up the spring field data and moved into a beautiful new apartment next to McGill University’s Macdonald Campus.

My body did not have time to recover from field work and the heavy lifting of moving before my family took me on week-long vacation to Quebec City. Quebec’s capital city, a French outpost founded in 1608, exudes a distinctly European vibe with winding cobblestone streets, cafes, and horse-drawn carriages. Whereas Montreal is roughly bilingual, Quebec City is conspicuously French.

Quebec City

View of Quebec City from the Citadel

Quebec City boasts one of North American’s largest waterfalls: Montmorency Falls. For adventurous tourists, there is a “via ferrata” on rock face next to the waterfall. Via ferrata, which translates to “iron road” in Italian, is basically rock climbing for dummies; iron rings are drilled into the rock for handholds so anyone who is physically fit can scale a cliff.

As is expected of attractions near Quebec City, sections of the Montmorency Falls website are completely in French with no English translation. Being relatively competent in basic French, I translated portions of the website and decided I wanted to sign up for the via ferrata… which I thought was simply a steep hike from my (poor) French translation. So you can imagine my surprise as I spent my 23rd birthday suspended several hundred feet over Montmorency Fall’s rock face, with churning rapids waiting below should I fall. The lesson here? Use Google translate.

Montmorency Falls

Climbing Montmorency Falls outside of Quebec City


A quick congratulatory selfie at the top of Montmorency Falls to commemorate my climb

My time in Quebec City was well spent. I snacked on cheese, smoked sausage, ice cider, and currant wine on Quebec’s agro-tourism island, the Île d'Orléans. I also attended the Fête nationale du Québec festivities, which celebrate Quebec’s founding and is roughly equivalent the 4th of July in the United States.

At a fromagerie with my sister

My sister and me enjoying smoked sausage and fresh cheese at a fromagerie on the Île d'Orléans

I toured the Citadelle de Quebec on my last morning in Quebec City. The Citadelle is an impressive stone military installation dating back to the 17th century. More impressive, is that the Citadelle remains operational despite its 400-plus year age and houses Quebec’s well-known Royal 22e Régiment. Back in Montreal, I attended the Montreal Jazz festival, and watched Montreal’s annual International Pyrotechnics (fireworks with paired music) competition.

Batisse the goat and the Royal 22 Régiment

Batisse the goat is the official mascot of the Canadian Force’s Royal 22e Régiment, located at the Citadelle de Quebec

Montreal Jazz Festival

Enjoying bustle of the Montreal Jazz Festival

At the end of my family vacation, I flew straight from Montreal to California to spend the month of July home in Laguna Beach. While in California, I hiked in the Sierra Nevadas, climbed Potato Chip rock in San Diego, and visited old friends, all while continuing to work on my research. I flew back to Montreal at the end of July only to leave a week later for Boston and camping trip in southern Vermont. I worked in the lab for another two weeks before leaving for another hydroacoustic survey of Follensby Pond in the Adirondacks to estimate the lake trout population size with sonar.

On Potato Chip Rock

Potato Chip Rock on the Mount Woodson Trail in Poway, California

Next week I leave for a road trip across New York State that will take me to two fish hatcheries, a United States Geological Survey field station on Lake Ontario, and my beloved alma mater Cornell University.

Despite the fact that my blog reads like an advertisement for Quebec tourism, my research has continued steadily this summer. I have spent more than a month in the Adirondacks doing field work, worked up most of the data collected this spring, finished revisions on my amphibian-Bd paper (recently published), and continued to research lake trout spawning timing for the second chapter of my thesis.

As I sit here eating moose spaghetti and drinking maple syrup flavored coffee (I kid you not), I am truly thankful for an amazing summer of adventures equal parts Canadian and American. Let the Fall 2014 semester commence, or as the 10th incarnation of Doctor Who would say, “Allons-y!”

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Summertime Living: After the Itching Stops

Didn’t think I would survive another month-long foray catching lake trout eh?

I battled agonizing 4:00 AM alarms, plague-like hordes of mosquitos, and winds nearly 40 mph less than gale-force to bring you this blog. It is with great regret that I inform my readers that I do not in fact look like the ripped Greek god Hercules after one month of pulling gillnets. But I think we all know that rippling muscles are overrated; in the immortal words of Justin Timberlake, hand callouses are what really brings sexy back.

Follensby Pond at its finest. 

For those of you keeping track, I managed to eat three boxes of grape nuts and 4-6 jars of peanut butter in the last month. I am utterly convinced that every single one of those calories was converted into muscle for my burgeoning six-pack abs (okay, more like a two-pack, if you squint a bit).

The official non-food related tally is 115 lake trout caught, 102 lake trout released with internal PIT tags, three lake trout recaptured, and 17 more pairs of otoliths collected for the von Bertalanffy age/length growth curve.

We dissect lake trout that do not survive the gillnetting process for tissue samples, otoliths (ear bones), and stomach contents. This particular SANA (short for Salvelinus namaycush) had a stomach full of invertebrates.

The official non-food related tally also includes approximately two dozen mosquito bites. If graduate school has taught me anything, it is that female anatomy is poorly adapted to urinating in the woods when in the midst of a hungry mosquito blizzard. Enough said.

Those poorly placed mosquito bites have stopped itching, which means it’s time to get back to work. My current post-field work to-do list involves recoding the population model R script to incorporate angler effort, investigating the various ways to calculate age-dependent natural mortality, analyzing historic lake trout spawning data, reworking growth curves to include the recent field data, and other tedious tasks like filing expense reports and fixing ripped gillnets. Fishing sounds like more fun right? I think so too.

Setting a gillnet anchor in my survival suit during a particularly steamy sunrise.

Montreal is at its finest with sunny weather, farmers’ markets, summer festivals, and café terraces packed with locals and tourists alike. The sheer number of summer festivals in Montreal rivals even that of Sarah’s Amsterdam , and I have a feeling Amsterdam knows how to party. Last weekend I ditched my computer screen for a weekend downtown.

Summer yachts passing through the historic Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue canal.

The highlight of my journey was undoubtedly a side by side taste test of Montreal’s most famous bagels: sesame bagels from St-Viateur Bagel and the Fairmount Bagel Factory. Locals are divided as to which shop makes better bagels. It’s a surprisingly emotional issue (think USC vs. UCLA) and everyone seems to have an opinion. The verdict? They taste exactly the same.

Left: the seseme seed bagel from the Fairmount Bagel Factory.
Right: The seseme seed bagel from St-Viateur Bagel.


In other news, I am moving into a beautiful new apartment this weekend. My faithful goldfish are coming too. Given that one gallon of water weighs eight pounds, my goldfish tank holds twenty gallons, I do not own a car, and my new apartment is on the third floor of an elevator-less apartment building, how many street blocks and flights of stairs will I walk in order to bring every piece of the aquarium setup over separately? Cross your fingers for me.

In more exciting news, the pre-press abstract for my paper (citation follows) on the seasonal variation of amphibian fungal disease chytridiomycosis is online. Check it out here .

Lenker MA, Savage AE, Becker CG, Rodriguez D, Zamudio KR (2014) Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis infection dynamics vary seasonally in Upstate New York. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. doi:10.3354/dao02760

Next week I am vacationing with my family in Quebec City and then heading back to California for the month of July. Summer is the best.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Field Work: Day Four

I have traded in my blue jeans and hiking boots for plastic coveralls and knee-high waterproof boots. That’s right; I’ve abandoned the comforts of a warm desk for early mornings catching lake trout in the wilds of the Adirondacks, as part of a multi-year project for The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter. You might be wondering why we want to catch more lake trout after getting an initial version of the Follensby Pond population model up and running. The answer is simple: the more data we have, the better we can understand the lake trout population. So, how do we collect this data?

Field work. A lot of it.

A beautiful lake trout is the prize for a hard day’s work on Follensby Pond

It’s currently the end of day four of my month long stint in the Adirondacks. My back aches from pulling gillnets, my face and hands are tomato red from what was apparently not enough sunscreen, my knees are bruised, and I count at least five cuts across my knuckles and fingers. Follensby Pond at its deepest is 31 meters (102 feet). Lake trout are found throughout the water column this time of year, but most stay near the bottom in 20 to 30 meters of water during the day. Pulling gillnets from the depths is a terrific (brutal) workout. I have high hopes that I will look like Hercules by the end of this month.

You might be wondering “what are gillnets?” Gillnets are panels of strategically sized mesh that tangle fish around the body or gills, hence the name. We do our best to limit accidental mortality, but despite our best intentions, not all fish survive the netting process.

We also angle for lake trout in addition to setting gillnets

As of today, we have caught twenty-two lake trout. For each lake trout caught, we weigh, measure, and scan for an internal PIT tag. Each tag has a unique identification number that lets us determine whether we have caught the trout before and if so, when. If the fish are in good shape, we release them back into the depths of the lake. The few lake trout that do not survive are dissected for otoliths (ear bones that tell us the trout’s age), tissue samples, and diet analysis.

So far we have dissected three trout. It’s not a huge number, but one we are hoping to minimize as we become savvier at quickly removing lake trout from gillnets. But here is the cool part: one of those 340 mm lake trout had a 120 mm lake trout in its stomach. A mushy, partially digested fish corpse probably doesn’t sound exciting to you, but I could not be happier because we were able to extract its otoliths as well! The gillnets’ mesh is too large for the smallest of lake trout, and I need otoliths from a few youngsters to anchor down my von Bertalanffy (age with length) growth curve.

One of the perks of field work is being back in the wonderful U. S. of A. Sarah  can keep her fancy Italian pasta, lambrusco, and gelato outings: I’ve got a box of Grape-Nuts and some good old New York State sharp cheddar cheese. You might find it a bit odd that I am obsessed with eating Grape-Nuts in the United States, but due to food politics, finding Grape-Nuts in Canada is like finding a needle in a haystack. And nothing makes you crave a food more than knowing you cannot eat it.

Tomorrow we set out on the lake again armed with gillnets, fishing rods, and a fish finder. It’s still early in the month and we are trying to determine the best times, places, and net orientations to maximize the lake trout catch. We work rain and shine, weekend and weekday, although thunderstorms or particularly strong winds can keep us off the lake. It’s hard work for a few fish, but “The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.”

Before heading out to the field, I got the chance to visit the Butterfly exhibit the Jardin Botanique de Montreal

….And visit the New England Aquarium  in Boston. This amazing aquarium had a great brook trout tank, another favorite Adirondack fish.

Speaking of work, office life keeps churning on without me. Back in March, I promised I would speak more about the paper I am publishing on the seasonal variation of a frog-killing fungus in the Northeastern United States. Although final revisions took longer than expected, the paper is finally going through the publishing process and I could not be more excited. With any luck, this time next month I will be able to share the full citation from the Journal of Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

Tune in next month to find out whether I actually look like a Greek god or whether my sunburnt skin has simply turned to leather. Or to find out how many boxes of Grape-Nuts cereal I can eat in a month.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Dear Winter: It’s Not You, It’s Me

People seem to think that research biologists spend most of their time outdoors. I would like to dispel that misconception. For most people, field work lasts a few weeks to a few months each year, and some biologists never make it out of the laboratory.

Most of the time, I sit here in front of my computer writing reports, analyzing data, programming scripts, revising manuscripts, answering emails, reading scientific papers, and completing the odd homework assignment. So I look forward to any opportunity to soak up the skin cancer inducing UV radiation that I enjoyed as a southern Californian youth.

And that time has come again: it’s almost Field Work O’Clock ! Despite a particularly nasty Montreal winter, spring has finally sprung. Sure, there is still a foot and a half of snow on the ground, but the maple syrup tapping buckets are out and yesterday I traded in my down winter coat for a wool mid-calf length pea coat. It’s basically bathing suit weather outside (for people who enjoy the occasional arctic plunge).

I will head down to Follensby Pond to catch lake trout as soon as possible after the ice melts to supplement last year’s field data. On one hand, I want nothing more than warm, sunny weather to spend all day fishing. I lose circulation in my hands and feet quite rapidly when I get cold, and an otherwise relaxing day on the lake quickly becomes a struggle to keep from turning into ice like Anna in the movie Frozen. Warm May weather also brings black flies to the Adirondacks. And from what I have heard, black fly season nearly qualifies as a biblical plague.

On the other hand, warming temperatures are the enemy when it comes to spring lake trout fishing. As temperatures increase, the lake stratifies into a layer of warm water near the surface and a layer of cold water near the bottom. Lake trout are cold water fish and after the thermocline develops, they spend the summer in deep, cold sections of the lake where they are more difficult to catch.

Dressed to impress in my snazzy bug repelling head net

I have my cold weather survival suit and bug repelling head net ready to go. I cannot wait to get away from the computer, something I know Sarah commiserates with after spending so much time in the lab analyzing how mudflat diatoms are affected by heat waves . Luckily I have been able to pry my way away from an LED screen a few times this month, first with an amazing vacation in Hawaii (spring break baby!), again for the requisite spring sugar shack trip, and occasionally for Macdonald Campus’s Thursday night bar trivia. Okay, technically graduate students do not get spring break off like undergraduates, but I felt it was an appropriate time to ditch the snow and take a mini vacation.

Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Oahu, Hawaii

It took more willpower than I would like to admit to return to wintery Montreal after spending a week snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and eating fresh coconut in paradise.  But work called…

Taking a scenic picture with my boyfriend after hiking up Diamond Head State Monument in Oahu, Hawaii

…and coming back to Montreal was worth it to enjoy the end of winter. And by enjoy, I mean that same feeling of pleasure you get when a superhero destroys a hell-bent villain on television.

Spring is maple syrup tapping season, and I recently visited the sugar shack at the Village Québécois d’Antan  north of Montréal to chow down on traditional Québécois fare and drink my weight in maple syrup. Although most of the buildings modeled after historic Quebec were closed for the winter, dinner was a warm and welcoming experience with live music and enough flannel to please any aspiring lumberjack.

Historic style church at the Village Québécois d’Antan.

The family style menu included pea soup, fresh farm style bread, baked beans, pates, fried pork rinds, sausage, omelets, ham, potatoes, coleslaw, crepes, maple syrup taffy, and sugar pie. The table also had a jug of maple syrup to sweeten food as needed. Needless to say, I left in a sugar-induced coma. Have you ever poured maple syrup into coffee? I have. And it’s amazing.

While I am enjoying the cultural experience of studying in Canada, I cannot wait to head back to the States and spend a month in New York. After spending four years studying at Cornell University, New York almost feels like home to me. And nothing beats coming home after spending so many months abroad.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

One Fish, Two Fish

“Counting fish is just like counting trees — except that they are invisible and keep moving,” John Sheperd, University of South Hampton

How do you count what you cannot see?  This problem is of particular concern to fishery stock assessment, the collection and evaluation of data to determine the biological parameters of a fishery.  Using basic biological descriptors such as growth rate, population size, and natural mortality, fishery scientists can quantify the impacts of different levels of fishing effort in terms of population sustainability and structure.  Fishery managers use the results of these models to help make management decisions, with political and economic factors also taken into account. 

In order to learn more about stock assessment, I spent a snowy Valentine’s Day traveling from Montreal, Quebec to Rutgers University’s marine field station in Tuckerton, New Jersey for a two day stock assessment crash course.  My adviser suggested I come down to learn more about population models and stock assessment since I am currently writing the code (statistical modeling language) for Follensby Pond’s lake trout population, part of my M.Sc. thesis project at McGill University.

Still enjoying Quebec’s frosty winter, but looking forward to summer, warmth, and sunshine – oh how I miss southern California.

The class was a two day modeling blur, punctuated by frequent snack breaks and good company.  I learned about age structured models, the pros and cons of modeling in R vs. AD Model Builder (turns out that R is user friendly compared to other programs – who knew!), and of course, how to count fish you cannot see.  As it turns out, there are a few options for counting invisible fish including hydroacoustic surveys (using sonar to “see” fish in the water column), capture mark recapture analysis (tagging and retagging fish to estimate population size), and catch per unit effort, the most common for established marine fisheries.  Catch per unit effort is exactly what it sounds like: the amount of fish caught (usually biomass in kilograms) per some amount of fishing effort (number of trawls, angling hours, etc). 

In the early days of fishery management, scientists would use a curve of catch per unit effort to determine the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the point of maximum catch that can be sustained for an infinite amount of time.  MSY forms the apex of the catch curve and catch beyond MSY results in less catch per unit of effort.  By graphing real data of fishery catch, one can usually determine the apex of the curve over time, but not until the fishery has passed the MSY.  By this time fisherman are working longer hours and catching less fish, meaning earning less money.  While easily said, it is almost politically impossible to reduce fisherman effort to return to MSY.  This method of fishery management is based on surplus production models and is rarely used today since it has historically led to fishery collapse.

Watching preparations for a dog sled run on a frozen lake at a resort in the Laurentides (home to this year’s GRIL conference).

After the stock assessment crash course, I spent another two days working on my population model at Rutgers University before returning to Montreal… and left the next day for my first academic conference at a beautiful resort in the Laurentides region of Quebec.  The conference was hosted by the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environments (GRIL) and consisted of academic talks, student bonding activities (limnology games), a poster session, and several delicious all-you-can-eat, gourmet meals.  Note: grad students never pass up free food.  Although I packed heels, pencil skirts, and fancy blouses, the dress code was more geared towards blue jeans and hiking boots.  Is this the norm, or a more conference-specific occurrence?  I still don’t know, but I was happy to be wearing hiking boots after frozen rain encased everything outside in a quarter inch of ice.

Pine tree following hours of frozen rain at the GRIL conference.

The resort was beautiful and I had a great time meeting other people from similar fields, but the majority of academic talks were in French.  Yikes.  Although the PowerPoint slides were often in English, I certainly missed the finer points of most talks, and felt a bit baffled when the entire room would break into laughter from a joke I obviously did not understand.

Presenting the initial results of my lake trout research at the GRIL conference poster presentation.

Another thing that baffled me was the rescheduling of presentations around the Canada-US Olympic hockey game!  Only in Canada eh?  Next month I will travel to Hawaii on vacation for some much needed sun, fine-tune the population model code for Follensby Pond, and plan the field work logistics for my next bout of sampling.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my amphibian paper (undergraduate thesis) was finally accepted for publication.  There are still a few edits left before this final resubmission, but I am pretty stoked.  More on that soon!


Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Ten Below

Cold weather and canceled airplane flights grounded me in sunny California a few days longer than expected, but I made it back to Montreal, Quebec for my second graduate semester at McGill University a week after the New Year.  And baby, is it cold outside!

Daily air temperatures have hovered around 0 degrees Farenheit the last few weeks, with daily lows dropping past -20.  Once you factor in the wind-chill, it is numbingly cold here for a girl who grew up in Southern California.  Walking outside is generally unpleasant, and my face is pink and chapped.  That being said, I still have all of my fingers and toes for the time being. Melissa 1: Winter 0.

Standing before the iconic 1967 sculpture L’Homme by Alexander Calder in Jean Drapeau Park

A layer of ice formed on the inside of my bathroom window (yes, you read that right: inside!) several days ago.  The delicate ice crystals melt from shower steam, but generally reform new patterns within a few hours.  Store front windows are spider-webbed with frost and people walking outside are unrecognizable apart from the occasional uncovered nose and chin. 

Freezing air temperatures have also iced over local Lake Saint Louis, which became the first frozen lake I have ever set foot on last weekend.  I was understandingly apprehensive about my first jaunt walking on frozen water suspended over an icy, unforgiving river, but my boyfriend Tory mitigated my fears by pointing out that a dozen large trucks had already driven onto the lake for ice fishing.  It was just as you would imagine it: slightly exhilarating, and very, very cold.  We did not stay out long.

Walking on frozen Lake Saint Louis near Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue

In the winter spirit, I recently purchased a pair of cross country skis.  I tried them out for the first time this past Wednesday morning in McGill's Morgan Arboretum by the MacDonald Campus.  I fell four times in a 3.8 km loop, and days later my body still aches from otherwise unused muscles.  Did I mention that it was -10 degrees that morning?  And I dressed too warm.  Hard to believe, eh? 

In addition to cross country skiing, I recently attended a McGill vs. Dalhousie woodsmen competition (aka, competitive lumberjacking).  Woodsmen competitions are a varsity sport here and include climbing trees, throwing axes, racing in snowshoes, balancing on logs, and chopping wood in every way possible!  And these competitions are not just confined to Canada (although they feel downright Canadian to me); woodsmen teams are apparently quite popular in universities throughout the Northeastern United States.

Woodsmen (lumberjacking) is a competitive varsity sport at McGill and other Northeastern universities

Other than short jaunts into the ice covered terrain and the occasional Thursday night bar trivia, I have been continuing my graduate studies.  This semester I am taking the statistics course Quantitative Methods: Ecology to fulfill a graduation requirement and continue learning how to model ecological systems in R.  R is a programming system and language which feels just about as difficult to master as French.

This semester I am also building the initial population model for Follensby Pond's lake trout population.  A population model is a virtual tool that allows scientists to understand the parameters that drive population changes such as shifts in abundance, age structure, fecundity, and other variables.  Parameters can either be estimated from scientific literature or estimated directly from your data.  More often than not, scientists must use a combination of both to adequately portray the population in question.  Once the population model is up and running, we can test different fishery management scenarios' effect on population dynamics.

Creating population models and testing the effect of management scenarios can help avoid fishery collapse in both recreational and commercial systems.  In her latest blog post, Sarah describes studying the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishery and the sustainability of Arctic communities.  I agree with Sarah that maintaining sustainable fisheries are of the utmost importance to maintaining ocean health and providing food for earth’s growing population.  Awareness of fishery over-exploitation is rising from non-profits such as Seafood Watch, but everyone can help by purchasing sustainably harvested fish, and avoiding over-fished stocks such as orange roughy.

Sitting in a giant Adirondack chair at Montreal’s annual snow festival Fete des Neiges

Next month I will attend my first academic conference for the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environments (GRIL) to present a poster on my thesis research, travel to Rutgers University in New Jersey to build and fine-tune the Follensby Pond population model, and take a quick trip to Boston to visit my boyfriend.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

The Beginning’s End: Finishing my First Semester

Each semester’s end brings a flurry of hurried activity as undergraduates prepare for final exams and chug coffee like water.  Life as a graduate student differs little; the end of my first semester of graduate school at McGill University brought my own personal marathon of work as I finished my water policy class, completed an initial report to The Nature Conservancy, and resubmitted a manuscript to a journal.

Our first report to The Nature Conservancy outlines the characteristics of Follensby Pond’s lake trout population in New York State’s Adirondack Park.  The report includes initial lake trout growth models and population size estimates.   Although we will continue to refine the estimates as we catch additional lake trout next May and October, the parameters serve as starting points to build an initial population model on which to test management scenarios.  The Nature Conservancy recently published a great article on the Follensby lake trout research initiative, “Conserving Lake Trout Among the Philosophers.”  Scroll down to the third picture to catch a shot of me holding a trap net!

Enjoying the snow before heading to California for winter break.

While I am fully engaged in lake trout research as a graduate student, I am still working to publish a paper concerning my undergraduate research at Cornell University about the seasonal variation of the amphibian fungal disease chytridiomycosis.  This is my first foray into publishing, and I would be absolutely clueless without the help of the wonderful members of the Zamudio Lab at Cornell University.

Publishing a scientific article involves several steps, the first of which is picking the appropriate journal to display your original research.  The most prominent articles are generally published in Science and Nature, widely considered the best and most influential journals.  Manuscripts detailing the methodology and results of your research are submitted to a journal, and then distributed for peer review to two or three anonymous researchers in your field.  Based on peer review comments, the editor in charge of your manuscript can either accept or reject your paper.  Quite often the editor asks the author(s) to change several aspects of the paper and resubmit for consideration.  Having been on both the receiving and giving end of reviewer comments, I feel that reviewers are truly trying to improve your paper by addressing what they feel to be inadequacies in the analysis and results.  That being said, reviewer comments have a tendency to sting your pride.

Semester’s end brought me a brief work reprieve in the form of winter break.  I am currently sitting at my parent’s kitchen counter in Laguna Beach, California, where unusually warm winter temperatures starkly contrast the Montreal’s icy chill.  According to my laptop, temperatures have been dipping into -20ᵒF in Montreal at night. Yikes!  I hope Sarah  is also enjoying a bit of California sun before heading back to the chilly University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

A snowy December morning at McGill’s MacDonald Campus.

For Christmas I received two much awaited books: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg and Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art by Harry W. Greene.  The first chapters of Four Fish have provided fascinating insight into the salmon industry and I cannot wait to reach the chapters about tuna, bass, and cod.  This book is a must read for anyone interested in ocean conservation and the future of the world’s marine fisheries.  Although I have not yet begun Tracks and Shadows, I cannot wait to start this combination of memoir and natural history written by my Cornell University herpetology professor Harry Greene.

Christmas Day in Laguna Beach, CA.

I only have a few more days left in California before my next semester at McGill starts in full swing.  If only I could bring some of this weather with me.

Soaking up the California sunshine.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Back to the Real World

After several days of cleaning, unpacking, and filing expense reports, I was forced to re-enter the real world after spending October fishing for lake trout in New York’s Adirondack State Park.  My rekindled appreciation for indoor heating was accompanied by a slew of deadlines and projects due early December. 

Although I would like to spend my time playing tourist to Quebec’s numerous attractions, I have spent most of my time aging otoliths, drafting reports, and doing homework.  Otoliths are fish ear bones, and you can age fish by counting annual otolith rings much like you would age a tree.  It sounds simple enough in theory, but preparing otoliths is an exacting process that leaves no room for mistakes.  Even if the otoliths make it through the preparation process well, aging otoliths is less of a science and more of an art.  One almost never “reads” an otolith, but “interprets,” an important distinction.  Lucky for me, lake trout otoliths are among some of the most difficult to work with due to lake trout’s long life and characteristically dark otolith cores. However, after a month of work, there has to be a little time for play, right?

My parents visited me in early November and I had the chance to simultaneously play both Montreal tour guide and tourist.  Montreal is a foodie paradise, known not only for its poutine, but also smoked meat and bagels.  I decided to take my parents to the most famous smoked meat restaurant in Montreal, Schwartz’s Delicatessen, a small unobtrusive diner on Saint-Laurent Boulevard.  Although the diner blends into the landscape of small shops in the shadow of Mont Royal, it’s impossible to miss the long, winding line of people outside the delicatessen door.

After consuming a deliciously thick, greasy smoked meat sandwich on rye bread, we walked several blocks to the Fairmount Bagel Factory for a famous Montreal bagel.  What makes Montreal bagels unique?  They are boiled in honey water and baked in a wood fired oven.  The Fairmount Bagel Factory only had standing room for a handful of customers; the rest of the small lobby was completely filled with floor to ceiling racks of bagels.  I cannot claim to be a bagel expert, but my fresh, sesame seed Fairmount bagel was by far the best bagel I have ever consumed.  No cream cheese, salmon, or avocado needed.

We concluded our day in downtown Montreal with a visit to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mont Royal.  The enormous, copper-domed shrine to Saint Joseph welcomes ill and crippled pilgrims hoping to experience the curative power of founder Saint Brother André.  Its oddest attraction is undoubtedly Brother André’s heart, which is preserved in formaldehyde and on display for tourists and pilgrims alike.

My parents’ visit also included a trip to Abbey Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in the Eastern Townships, and the Montreal Botanical Gardens and the Insectarium.  The Abbey’s blue ermite cheese is reputed to be the best in Quebec province, and it certainly delivered!  Not to be outdone, the Insectarium’s impressive beetle display could have easily been mistaken for a case of glittering jewels.

I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving eating turkey and pumpkin pie whist visiting my boyfriend’s family in upstate New York.  I am thankful for many things in my life, such as my wonderful family and my boyfriend Tory.  However, after my recent stint in the Adirondacks, I have realized that indoor heating is grossly underappreciated.  So this year, I sent my Thanksgiving gratitude to indoor heating… merci beaucoup!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Field Work O’Clock

For most people, October brings fall leaves, balmy weather, and a transition from summer shorts to heavy pea coats.  For me this year, October brought my first season of field work as a graduate student studying lake trout in New York State Adirondack State Park.

Lake trout generally spend most of their time in cold, deep water, but swim to shallow rocky beds in the fall to spawn.  Our goal this fall was to catch, tag, and release as many spawning lake trout as possible to estimate population size.  Although my taste in literature is a far cry from John Steinbeck, the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” currently comes to mind.

I arrived in scenic Tupper Lake, NY on October 3rd, spending my first week in the field learning how to handle boats, work nets, and identify, measure, weigh, and tag fish species.  During my time here I have also become familiar with basic car maintenance and the proper way to heal a badly bruised tailbone (following a nasty fall on a slippery boat dock ramp).  I can completely relate to Sarah’s plumbing and carpentry “training” for her graduate work in Grogingen.  Of course, I have also spent the last four weeks learning how to (or not how to) catch lake trout.

At the moment, we are averaging a lake trout per week.  This is a particularly bad statistic considering the man hours and effort I have spent trying to catch the slippery little devils.  The options are as follows: the fish are not spawning yet, the traps are not in the right spawning areas, the traps are not working correctly, or the fish are smarter than I am.  At this point, I am leaning towards the latter.

If not catching lake trout was bad enough, the weather has taken a turn for the worse.  I arrived in the Adirondacks during fall color’s peak.  The sunbursts of orange, red, and yellow made the forest feel warm and full of life.  But that was four weeks ago, and now almost every tree is bare.  Snow has arrived and I have switched my ski jacket and waterproof yellow overalls for a neon orange one-piece survival suit.  A typical day on the lake now includes two layers of thick wool socks, waterproof boots, long underwear top and bottoms, sweat pants, two layers of fleece, a down vest, gator, gloves, and hat… with the survival suit on top.  Just moving with all of those layers is a workout!  People who study tropical fish are onto something.

The lake has been cold, but it has also been beautiful.  The combination of crisp fall air, snow flurries, dark, clear water, and the stark beauty of bare trees surrounded by untouched landscape is breathtaking.  Surely a bit of cold is worth the landscape that impressed the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I was hoping to see a black bear or moose this field season, but both have eluded me.  However, I have twice seen Follenby Pond’s resident adult bald eagle, an impressive sight even from a distance. 

In addition to spending copious amounts of time on the lake, I have been continually driving back to the Montreal area for class each week.  The constant moving, driving, and working has been exhausting.  If the nets are empty tomorrow morning, I will have to start taking a serious look at alternative methods for estimating abundance.  So is the way of field work, and I suppose life in general.  Most things do not work out exactly as planned.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

The Four F’s: Fall, Fish, Follensby, and French

Summer’s sweat-inducing, humid days have surrendered to the crisp air of autumn. Fall has commenced and my graduate study at McGill University is in full swing.

My master thesis at McGill University involves creating a recreational lake trout management model for a landlocked lake in New York State Adirondack Park. If spending time in the Adirondacks is the butter to Sarah’s hagelslag, then working at Follensby Pond is certainly the chocolate sprinkles! Not sure what hagelslag is? Check out the blog of my friend and fellow graduate student Sarah Bedolfe who is studying in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen.

During the summer of 1858, Follensby Pond became a temporary retreat for intellectuals seeking to reconnect with nature, including poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell. The writings, poems, and paintings originating from the expedition contributed to shifting mid-19th century notions of nature, as beauty, inspiration, and an escape from urbanization. While I am anxiously awaiting field work for a project with The Nature Conservancy at Follensby Pond, the mornings will be cold, wet, and physically demanding. I am already deciding how to best fit my ski parka under my mustard yellow rubber outerwear, in which I bear a striking resemblance to the guy on fish stick boxes.

Life on campus is demanding but quiet compared to exciting days of field work. I am currently investigating the parameters I need to build an age-structured population model and learning how to determine the age of lake trout from otoliths. Otoliths are essentially fish ear bones; scientists can age fish by counting otolith rings which vary by season.

Aging otoliths is a delicate art form which requires practice and precision. To practice, I ordered five salmon heads in downtown Montreal. When I arrived to pick up my salmon heads, I was told that they were accidentally given to another female McGill University student the day before requesting the same order. Seriously, what are the chances of that? The fish market sent me several blocks away to their competitor to fulfill my order. I left the market with an enormous, heavy bag of ten Atlantic salmon heads and ice. My celebration of procuring salmon heads was cut short by the daunting hour and a half combination bus/metro ride back to campus… with a bag of fish heads on my lap. Luckily the fish was both fresh and tightly bagged, so the odor did not offend the other passengers. Sarah may enjoy abandoning her car for a bicycle in Groningen, but she is clearly missing the joy of hauling fish carcasses in her spare time.

Photo by Arlette, via Flickr, Creative Commons License

On Tuesday nights I take a beginner French class at the local CEGEP (Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel). My French teacher is a charmingly eccentric Italian man who speaks nine different languages and entertains the class with magic tricks. Encouraged by my progress in class, I recently began the horrifying process of trying to speak in French at the local farmer’s market. I now envy Sarah’s fluency in Dutch. My initial attempts have garnered two responses: a stream of unwavering, unidentifiable French syllables or an English reply to my French inquiry. For the former, the blank, confused expression on my face eventually leads the person speaking to ask “Parlez vous Anglais?” As for the latter, I assume my butchered French accent screams “Warning: Anglophone!” to anyone within hearing range.

October field work is rapidly approaching and I cannot wait to spend the next few weeks catching fish with the ghost of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bon voyage mes amis!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

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