Modeling Gig Over Spring Break!

Folks…we have our first Guest Author!  Below you will find an account of an Undergraduate Student’s all expense paid trip to the Florida Keys to model for Spring Break.  PARTY TIME!!! 

While I have not lied, I have misled.  The student attended a high level fish population modeling course called the Marine Resources Population Dynamics Workshop at the Mote Tropical Research Lab in Summerland Key put on by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS through NOAA) scientists and University of Florida faculty where she learned to model fish populations.

Gretchen Stokes (Undergraduate Student at North Carolina State University) is the kind of person we all hope to have as a graduate student or colleague.  She is exceptionally kind and easy to get along with, is amazingly efficient, grasps complicated concepts quickly, and enjoys dumping the sweat from her waders at the end of a long field day.  While volunteering for some of my research a year ago, she told me: “I wish there was an opportunity to take a Marine Population Dynamics course.”  While these aren’t typical words from an undergraduate, they are exactly what I would expect from Gretchen.  Amazingly, a few weeks later, an advertisement for this workshop was in my inbox, and what do you know, several months later she was on a plane to Florida.
Enjoy reading about Gretchen’s experience, and please challenge
yourself to create more opportunities to Recruit, Train, and provide Research opportunities for outstanding fisheries undergraduates like Gretchen.  -Patrick Cooney
Reflecting on the past few years, I can’t say I have ever really had the “typical” spring break experience.  First there was my trip to the US-Mexico to study border issues, then studying abroad in Equatorial Guinea, and now this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Resources Population Dynamics Workshop in the Florida Keys instructed by the best and brightest scientists from the University of Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service.  It was an intensive week of coursework, eye-opening field trips, delicious food, and of course, fishing.

Prior to arriving, there were readings on loggerhead sea turtles, coral reefs, and bluefin tuna.  Once in the Keys, I was welcomed by a diverse group of fifteen students from Alaska to Maine, studying everything from studio art, mathematics, and marine biology, to aquaculture and computer science.  This diversity incredibly enhanced our class discussions and modeling exercises and our field trips and hands-on learning activities on neighboring keys.  Course topics included production modeling, fisheries economics, international fisheries management, loggerhead ecology, and stage-based modeling.  You know…your typical kind of Spring Break activities!

After a crash course in fisheries stock assessment and population dynamics, we dove into a discussion on bluefin tuna populations and management.  With a basic life history and ecology knowledge under our belts, we learned about probable causes for a detrimental decline in the 1970s.  It was then that demand and prices skyrocketed, particularly in the sashimi market in Japan.  Since then, commercial overfishing, primarily by longlines, has continued to deplete these populations, particularly the largest adults.  We used real data sets of bluefin tuna fished by Canada, Japan, and the United States to create production models and to suggest possible recommendations on fishing regulations.  These data allowed us to look at catch rate, landings, gear type, and catch-at-age data in order to see the peak of longline efforts in the 1960s, likely due to the Japanese targeting waters east of Brazil, and again in the 1970s when the demand for sushi increased, followed by a sharp decline in tuna populations.  We also looked at changes in western and eastern Atlantic stocks following the decision to regulate these waters separately.  One of the most important take home messages from this exercise is that managing a migratory species spanning the Atlantic Ocean is no easy task because regulations are challenging to enforce, stock assessment is costly, and there is an abundance of opinionated stakeholders involved.
Mid-week we moved into our discussion of endangered and threatened species, using loggerhead sea turtles as our capstone species.  We traveled to a sea turtle hospital and had a policy workshop to prepare us for our mock stakeholder meeting.  Our task: Develop a policy that would ensure a 1% per year population growth rate for loggerhead sea turtles at the 2012 Interagency Turtle Conservation Taskforce (IATCT) meeting.  Stakeholder groups were Turtles Unlimited, Beachfront Property Owners Alliance, Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Fishery Federation, and the Atlantic Pelagic Fisheries Association, the latter of which was my group.  Using stage-based modeling, we were able to examine predicted population changes for the hatchling, pelagic juvenile, neritic sub-adult, and adult life stages.  We had to take into account factors such as sex ratio, egg survival and nests per female, survival at each life stage, and years spent in each life stage in our model as we examined the overall population growth rate.  Our stakeholder meeting provided us with a realistic scenario of each group having their own agenda and interests in mind.

Our meeting was open to the “public” (instructors who argued for a particular group), which proved to add an additional strain on the decision-making process.  The turtle lovers wanted to save every turtle, the shrimpers and fishermen wanted only higher profits without compromising catch, and the property owners wanted four-wheeling and bright lights.  After several hours of deliberation, we reached a compromise that would phase in Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) to shrimp fishing equipment, enforce the use of circle hooks for the fishermen (suggested to reduce turtle mortality on longlines), phase in the use of amber lights instead of white lights by beachgoers, and begin an education campaign by Turtles Unlimited to raise money to support the other three groups.

One of the highlights of my week was Todd Gedamke’s observer talk about his many adventures at sea, including on the Bering Sea, as a NOAA observer.  He brought to light the realities of life at sea and gave us an inside look at what he saw behind the scenes on commercial fishing vessels.  Though not a glamorous job, he reflected on how gaining the fishermen’s perspective has helped him in his job as a scientist for NOAA and in making management recommendations.
 Another really meaningful component to the workshop were the conversations I had with the nine instructors and two Teaching Assistants.  Whether sharing dinner with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Director of Sustainable Fisheries, Clay Porch, or frying fish with University of Florida’s fisheries scientist Mike Allen, I had ample opportunities to interact with each instructor and learn about their unique journeys to reach where they are today.  We had Career Night where each instructor shared this information in detail and the major message was that while we can only plan our next step, each progressive step will lead us somewhere greater.  Not a single one of them could have guessed that this is where they would be in their career today nor did they regret having a diversity of experiences along the way.
Our field trips throughout the week included a tour of the Keys Fisheries, a visit to the sea turtle hospital, a talk about port sampling at a commercial landing site, and a half-day fishing trip.  Along with those came the freshest and most delicious fish I have eaten in my life: more grouper, snapper, tuna, mahi, stone crab, and shrimp than we could ever imagine.  And you can’t forget about the key lime pie (which we are all convinced tastes better when you’re actually in the Keys)!
By the time Friday rolled around, we had all had our fill of population dynamics and were treated to an afternoon and evening in Key West.  We made our way to the Southernmost Point of the US and then found ourselves in the middle of street performers, artists, and comedians at the Sunset Festival.  No better way to end our night than a delicious Cuban dinner and salsa dancing.
In many ways, I think I learned more during this week than I would have in a semester-long course.  And I don’t just mean learning course content, but also about career opportunities, networking, personal goals and interests, and international marine resources.  I now have a much better grasp of population dynamics and the opportunities in this field to make a real difference by using field data to create models and make management recommendations to policy makers and stakeholders.  I cannot thank Patrick Cooney and Dr. Tom Kwak enough for helping to make this trip a reality, and all of the instructors, especially workshop director Dr. Jim Berkson, for an enriching, challenging, and fun week in the Keys!
-Gretchen Stokes
For more information on this workshop, and to learn about applying, please visit:
If you would like to watch our stakeholder meeting, here is the video (download):

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew Durso says:

    Did your model take into account the potential effect of climate change on hatchling sex ratio of loggerheads due to their temperature-dependent system of sex determination? 🙂

  2. Linda says:


    I am Ryan Jones' mom. Thanks so much for writing this. I loved reading about the week you guys had. He had a wonderful time and I know he made some life-long friends. I really enjoyed reading your article. You are a very gifted writer as well as “model”!

    Linda Jones

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