A year in the life of a fisheries biologist
Part two: Fall brings a mix of fieldwork and data analysis.
Chris Penne is an aquatics biologist in the DWR's Ogden office, where he specializes in reservoir and lake management. He works with a crew of six other biologists and is responsible for fish and amphibians in seven counties of northern utah.
Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series that will describe a year in the life of a DWR fisheries biologist.
FALL IS a transitional time for a biologist. It’s also one of my favorite times of year. The season begins amid a frenzy of fieldwork and ends with days behind the desk. The transition between these two modes of work is anything but gradual and naturally anything but boring. During this season it is not uncommon for me to spend one day monitoring fish in an icy mountain stream, only to attend a meeting on fish habitat improvements the next. It’s that sort of diversity that makes fall such an enjoyable time to work.
Fieldwork in the fall is always exciting because you find yourself working with a variety of fish in wide-ranging weather conditions. Over the past couple of months, I have:
- Netted fish at Newton and Willard Bay Reservoirs during routine fishery monitoring.
- Walked buckets of live fish to a stream on the snowy mountain benches near Kaysville, helping a group of Eagle Scouts with a native cutthroat trout reintroduction.
- Waded chest-deep in the cold waters of the Weber River while assisting with trout population research.
At this time of year, the weather can be some of the best and worst a biologist experiences, but the enjoyment I get from working outside on the brisk sunny days far outweighs the discomfort of blowing rain and snow.
When the last fish survey is done, I settle into a regular office schedule. This usually comes as a bit of a relief after all the excitement and unpredictability of a long field season. My role as a biologist is to provide fishery managers, policymakers and stakeholders with meaningful information about the fish in the waters I study. I spend my time in the office analyzing data, writing reports and communicating with other natural resource professionals and enthusiasts. The largest portion of this time is spent analyzing data collected from each waterbody and interpreting the results. I will use the results of these data analyses to write fishery-assessment reports during the winter.
My favorite data analysis activity is determining the age and growth of fish populations. To do this, I visually assess fish scale samples. Just like a tree, fish scales have ring impressions that we can use to determine the age and growth of individual fish. The best way to count these rings is to take digital pictures of each scale through a microscope and then analyze them with computer software. I usually look at hundreds of fish scales during each age and growth assessment I perform, recording the age of each fish and taking measurements of each scale. This process requires time and patience, but it provides extremely valuable information that helps me determine how fast fish are growing, how much forage they have to eat and whether they are being utilized properly with current fishing regulations.
As I write this, I find that another fall has passed. The scramble to finish my fieldwork is over, and my sampling gear is safely stowed. The seasons are changing and so is my routine at work. There will be some long days in front of the computer, but I look forward to exploring this year’s collected data and determining what it means for Utah’s fisheries. It’s all just part of a year in the life of a fisheries biologist.