The Road Less Traveled: Fisheries scientist working for power producing industry

Author: Patrick O’Rouke
Editor: Patrick Cooney

“So, you’re going to the dark side?”

That’s a question I got a lot when I told my colleagues that I was going to work for a power company after five years as a state agency fisheries biologist.  While I would laugh and play along when I heard that comment, the truth is that it is actually far from reality.  The opportunities I’ve had to promote conservation as an industry biologist are tremendous.  There are many different roads that a fisheries career can travel, and it may well be that a similar road is the right one for some of you reading this.

Shoal bass are a keystone species for conservation in Georgia; part at-risk endemic, part gamefish, and highly mobile, it brings together a diverse set of stakeholders (photo credit: Andrew Taylor)
Shoal bass are a keystone species for conservation in Georgia; part at-risk endemic, part gamefish, and highly mobile, it brings together a diverse set of stakeholders. (photo credit: Andrew Taylor)

As we proceed through a fisheries education, we often see two distinct tracks: academia or agency.  Walk the floor at an American Fisheries Society meeting and at first glance you won’t see much to convince you otherwise.  But look closer, and there are more people working on the industry side of the ledger than you realize.  They may work directly for a utility or other large company, or they may work for a consultant that performs research for these companies.

The need for biologists in industry is a growing one.  In addition to local and state requirements, industries must comply with federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act.  Having staff who understand the underlying issues behind these regulations from a technical standpoint can be key to keeping operations running.  Having a good working relationship with the agency regulators in one’s area can also help to identify concerns before a regulatory problem arises.  As regulations on new and existing industries grow, the demand for qualified biological support staff in these industries will also increase.  In many cases, these individuals can become a voice for conservation that reaches a different audience in a different way than agency staff, from policymakers to the general public.

Like most fisheries jobs, fieldwork is still one of the most enjoyable responsibilities for an industry biologist. (photo credit: Pat Snellings)

The company I work for primarily exists to produce, transmit, and sell electricity.  However, beyond that business purpose, we have made a considerable effort to be considered a conservation leader in our state.  Our philosophy is that if we work to conserve species and their habitats on the front end, we won’t be forced to account for their loss on the back end. As one of the largest private landowners in the state, we have the opportunity to manage our lands in a responsible, sustainable way that benefits both upland species as well as riparian areas contributing to watershed health.  We also own a number of hydropower projects and have spent considerable effort trying to understand effective ways to operate them for at-risk fish species such as Robust Redhorse and Shoal Bass.  For someone who has invested in a career of resource conservation, these opportunities are quite rewarding.

Robust Redhorse
Robust Redhorse were once thought to be extinct, but industry partnerships have played a key role in its conservation since being rediscovered. (photo credit: Jimmy Evans)

It is important to point out that it takes a sense of pragmatism to work in an industry role; the idealist can often find themselves challenged when faced with the need to compromise.  A good industry biologist should embrace the opportunity to figure out better ways to “build the mousetrap”, so to speak.  Ultimately, power is going to be generated whether I work for the power company or not; better that I’m there to make sure we do it in a way that is best for fisheries conservation.  If I can use my role to leave our resources better than I found them, I consider that a win.  If you can picture yourself in a similar role, perhaps a career as an industry biologist may be for you.

About the Guest Author

Patrick O’Rouke is a Fisheries Biologist for Georgia Power. He has previously worked for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia General Assembly, and the American Sportfishing Association. He has a BSFR from the University of Georgia and a MS from the University of Florida. He is originally from Sugar Hill, Georgia and now resides in Gainesville, Georgia.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed says:

    It’s great to see this perspective. Too often, industry or consulting biologists get written off as shills by the ivory tower academics. In reality, we should all celebrate the biologists that work closest with industry, as they’re generally in a far less insulated environment than those of us in academia and agencies, hold more practical power to directly affect environmental impacts, and are probably not always the most popular people in their company. At the very least, we should all be acknowledging that industry needs good biologists just as much as agencies do.

  2. Jon Walsh says:

    I’m a biologist working for a utility working for a utility as well (in California). This article is spot on. I have heard a bit of disparagement (“biostitute”) from some research and agency biologists in the past of consultants and industry counterparts, it always struck me as particularly lazy. I love my job. It has it’s cons like every job does, but you do get to figure out solutions to real problems that matter. Agency folks should realize that industry biologists are great allies in conservation. We can get the ears of people that aren’t always easy to get.

  3. Leanne Roulson says:

    As someone who has worked on environmental reviews for agencies and for utilities as a consultant, I would agree that this perspective is often dismissed. I find it rewarding to assist agencies in finding opportunities to promote conservation and mitigation as part of projects. It is also great to be able to educate project proponents on their responsibilities under our nation’s environmental laws so that they can AVOID impacts and improve their bottom line by designing compliance and conservation into their projects. This allows both groups to develop better projects and potentially create better partnerships with stakeholders.

  4. Dr Vijai Krishna Das says:

    Nice attempt as fisheries conservationist while working for power project. Wonderful.

  5. Jason says:

    After as a state agency fisheries biologist, you work for a power producing company. That’s wonderful!

Please leave a thought provoking reply. We reserve the right to remove comments deemed inappropriate.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.