Fisheries Science “Unplugged”

SRD - swamp boats
Nicholls State University biology graduate students head down the bayou and off the grid. Photo Credit: Gary LaFleur Jr.

If a sturgeon leaps from the water and no one’s there to tweet about it, does it make a splash?

Earlier this week, fellow Nicholls State University biology professor Dr. Gary LaFleur Jr. sent me photos from his biomarkers class after they “went off the grid”. Students took pirogues (a type of canoe) to a local Louisiana swamp for a class discussion. “We escaped electricity and had class surrounded by the plants and animals of the estuary.”

The photos reminded me of a time I was forced to get off the grid and enjoy nature (relatively) unplugged for a bit. As someone who’s almost always connected to the interwebs, making sure social media gets its dose of gar puns and #BirdsVsFish trash talk, this was somewhat jarring for me…but eventually appreciated.

It was May 2015, and I was doing fieldwork near Green Bay, Wisconsin, studying populations of Great Lakes migratory fishes with researchers at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The day was ending, but work had been particularly stressful from home base in Chicago; I needed a distraction. I heard from some colleagues that Lake Sturgeon had started migrating up a nearby tributary, gathering below a dam, getting ready to spawn. I had always wanted to see a sturgeon aggregation, so I made my way out to the site.

I parked my car and walked down to the river below the dam; iPhone and GoPro in hand, of course. I had been tweeting about the local Northern Pike migration, and figured Lake Sturgeon would make for an exciting fishy complement to the story. Almost immediately, I saw a 4-foot sturgeon leap from the water! Scientists are still unsure why they do this, but I was going to document it nevertheless. Unfortunately, the river was wide and my phone camera couldn’t zoom in well enough to capture the porpoising dinosaur fish. I was frustrated. I moved closer, but noticed I had no cell phone reception either. I saw several more sturgeon make their leaps, and all I could do was sit there and watch; sit there and experience it.

AP - Gulf Sturgeon Jump
A relative of the Lake Sturgeon, a Gulf Sturgeon leaps! Read Patrick Cooney’s post on leaping sturgeon here. Photo Credit: Associated Press

I gave up on tweeting or trying to capture air-sturgeon on my phone. The water was only two feet deep, and I was going to step in for a closer look. Although the river was relatively clear, the sunlight against the flowing water and sandy gravel substrate made it challenging to see details on the bottom. I put away my phone, but took out the GoPro just in case; the light-enhanced turbidity did not get my hopes up for capturing anything on film. I carefully made my way toward the middle of the river and watched as Longnose Suckers darted past me, too fast to track with the camera. Finally, I stopped and stood there in the river, figuring I’d take a few deep breaths, relax, and head back to shore. Then I saw something.

It looked like a beat up construction helmet moving toward me. The light was reflecting off sand in the water, so I could barely make out movements. The “construction helmet” was nearly twice the size of a football; as it edged closer I could make out a body at least 4.5 feet long behind it. It was a giant Lake Sturgeon slowly cruising the river bottom…and it was mere inches away! The ridges on its head had been scuffed up, likely from spawning activity. I realized I had the GoPro running and figured I may as well point it in the general direction. Not knowing if I was capturing anything on film, I was enthralled to just be there standing next to the largest fish species in the Great Lakes, whose ancestors date back over 200 million years!

SRD - Lk Sturgeon Headshot
Lake Sturgeon appears from the shadows. Note the scuffed up head. Screen-shot from video (sturgeon arrives at 1:25). Photo Credit: Solomon R. David

The peaceful “river monster” eventually lumbered back into the shadows, and I headed back toward shore. I didn’t tweet any jumping sturgeon, and I had no clue if I captured the fish on camera. I was happy to have had that (relatively) unplugged moment. Refreshed and less stressed, I headed back for the day, appreciative of my forced break from the grid.

SRD - Lk Sturgeon Fullshot
Close encounters with a big Lake Sturgeon. Photo Credit: Solomon R. David

Sharing what I see in the field is a big part of what I enjoy about being a science communicator; and let’s face it, many of us are almost addicted to sharing things on social media. Regardless, it’s good to get off the grid sometimes; if I can enjoy nature without having to finstagram all of it, so can you!

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