AFS 2011 – Big Ol’ Recap

Sweet logo.

I’ve spent the last week at the 141st Annual Meeting of the American Fisheries Society, where nearly 4,000 fish nerds from the worlds of academia, management, and even art descended on Seattle for four days of talks, socials, interesting conversation over beer.  It was good to see plenty of people from last year’s annual meeting and the smaller chapter meetings and much catching up was had.  Thanks to the elasmobranch fisheries symposium organized by myself, Andrea Dell’Apa, and Lyndell Bade, we also got some AES regulars in on the action.

Ready for a massive recap?  Here goes.  I’ll be summarizing all the talks I made it to, which is certainly nowhere near all of them.  In fact, I focused exclusively on bycatch, feeding habits, and (of course) shark talks, and didn’t even make all of those.  Don’t worry, I’ve interspersed various tourist shots of Seattle to break up the eyesore.


After spending just about all Sunday on planes and chatting up old and new friends at the welcome social, we began the conference in earnest.  Unfortunately I was volunteering at the Info Desk on Monday morning and missed the plenary talks, so if anyone saw those feel free to summarize in the comments.  Honestly, working at the desk ended up being almost as effective as the socials in terms of meeting people, and hopefully I gave out the right information to everyone.  This conference was truly huge and some of the rooms and presentations involved literally venturing into unmarked rooms.

I caught a couple talks in the afternoon, both involving bycatch of sharks.  Patrick Lynch summarized the latest knowledge about bycatch of highly migratory species (usually sharks caught in billfish and tuna fisheries, where some species can actually make up the majority of the catch).  He also showed that incorporating habitat into models estimating the level of bycatch in longline fisheries can improve accuracy, but only if the most accurate habitat data are available.  Stephen Kaijura gave the first of two talks (I missed the second one later in the week) on reducing shark bycatch using the electronegative metal Neodymium to deter sharks from taking bait.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to work, and the effects seem to vary wildly between species.  Back to the drawing board.

That night we joined current students/faculty and alumni from NC State, ECU, and one brave soul from Duke for the semi-official North Carolina social.  While there I met up with good friend/former roommate Matt, who now plays around in Puget Sound salt marshes.  I also met Oceanographer Sam in person, who recommended some quality local bars.

The view from the conference center down Pike Street. Pike Place Market was clearly visible at the end of the street, but got washed out by the glare in the photo.

Dogfish in the world-famous Pike Place Fish Market (known for literally tossing fish around). It had a string rigged up to its tail, allowing staffers to pull it and snap the head up towards unsuspecting customers.


Jet lag fooled my body into thinking it was in the future for most of the week, so I never really had any problems waking up for early talks.  Tuesday morning’s talks included a little diadromy.  Nicole Mehaffie assessed the importance of diadromous river herrings as prey for marine predators, and found that some predators clustered near river mouths and showed different feeding habits than those typically sampled further out in the Gulf of Maine.  Dogfish had the distinction of being the only predator to eat salmon (are there even any Atlantic salmon left to eat?) and were second only to cod in river herring consumption.  Eating river herring leads to larger dogfish and other predators like cod and silver hake, so alosines must do a body good.  In other diadromous news, fellow ECUer Jacob Boyd updated the maturity and fecundity schedules for striped bass in North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound.  It may not sound glamorous, but management agencies have been using data from 20 years ago and someone had to do the dirty work of making sure striper growth can be accurately predicted.  I’m actually using his scale ageing curve to figure out how large some of the striped bass I’ve found in dogfish stomachs were when munched.  Jeff Dobbs (another ECU peep) discussed the early phases of his research using otolith microchemistry to figure out where striped bass are breeding in other North Carolina rivers.

Predators were a theme of most of the talks I caught on Tuesday.  Melanie Hutchinson went further into the use of electronegative metals to reduce shark bycatch, finding that they only really work on hammerheads.  Useful information for one of the more hard-hit groups of sharks, but not terribly helpful in reducing shark bycatch in general.  Elliot Hazen used climate models to estimate how optimal predator habitat would change with global climate change, and predicted an increase in the range of tuna but a decrease in the range of all sharks except great whites.  Janet Nye did a little simulating of her own (co-author Robert Gamble filled in on speaking duties) by removing dogfish, cod, herring, and birds from the Northwest Atlantic ecosystem.  Dogfish and cod removals had variable effects, with some species benefiting and others crashing, and the ecosystem really didn’t seem to care whether birds were there or not.  Herring, however, caused massive ecosystem shifts, suggesting that the Northwest Atlantic may be more bottom-up controlled.  Michelle Staudinger looked at the trophic ecology of some non-shark pelagic predators off of North Carolina (wahoo, yellowfin and blackfin tuna, and dolphinfish).  I caught the prequel to this talk at Tidewater, so it was good to see the work continuing.

I want to make special mention of Skylar Sagarese‘s talk on the connection between spiny dogfish abundance and environmental factors, because I dealt with a similar subject in mine.  Skylar determined that adult male abundance was usually correlated with time of day, and that depth and time are important for all demographics.  However, females seem to fit the models the least, pretty much swimming off and doing whatever they want.  Slightly different from what I’ve been finding, but that’s why this was a worthwhile talk to see.

Tuesday night was the student social at the Seattle Aquarium.  This was where some issues related to the sheer size of the conference came in.  Apparently the organizers ran out of funding for drink tickets at this one, resulting in about half the students not getting drink tickets and having to pay cash all night.  Add in that the venue was on the small size for the number of attendees, leading to some students being turned away at the door, and you have a potential recipe for revolution.  These may have been totally unavoidable logistical problems (the long lines for coffee at the trade show were another), but they marred an otherwise pleasant evening.  I guess they can’t all be winners.

The Seattle skyline from the Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry.

A fair number of sea lions were spotted from the ferry. One was tossing a salmon around like a rag doll, giving me a little more respect for those furry lumps of shark food.


Wednesday was about as busy as I’ve ever been during a single day at a conference.  This was the day of the symposium we organized; Management of Elasmobranch Fisheries: Sustainability, Conservation, and Regulation of Global Trade.  This was a full day of talks (including mine) related to how sharks interact with fisheries, and included some of the biggest names in shark research and conservation.  Basically, if you’re into sharks, there was absolutely no reason to leave this room between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.  In the interest of space and the sanity of both myself and you readers, I’ll try to describe each talk as briefly as possible.  Here we go.

Matt Ajemian kicked it off by discussing the ecosystem impacts of cownose rays (a species quickly catching up to, or perhaps even surpassing, spiny dogfish in sheer notoriety) in the Gulf of Mexico.  Using predator exclusion experiments, he found that crabs and other small predators seem to be more important predators of shellfish and the rays.  Sonja Fordham gave a great summary comparing shark management in the U.S. to that in E.U., and it seems that the Europeans have quite a bit of catching up to do.  Vince Gallucci focused on the little-discussed topic of sharks in the Bering Sea, where you never hear about it but Pacific sleeper sharks are pulled in up surprising numbers.  Canadian fisheries science powerhouse Steve Campana used Canadian shark management to provide examples of how shark fisheries can potentially be managed sustainably, but stressed that international cooperation is still needed for those highly migratory species (even dogfish cross between Canadian and American waters).  Marcus Drymon looked at the ecosystem factors influencing shark distribution on a large scale (the entire Gulf of Mexico) and small-scale (just Mobile Bay, Alabama) and discovered that even among the same species those factors most important to shark abundance can differ on large and small scales.  Next up, my advisor Roger Rulifson showed how new data from both large-scale mark-recapture studies and acoustic telemetry are potentially throwing out the old single stock/north-south migration paradigm for spiny dogfish on the U.S. East Coast, and that perhaps there are really two stocks divided by Cape Cod.

After the coffee break somebody named Chuck Bangley discussed his research.  Broadly, I’m finding that spiny dogfish diet in North Carolina waters is determined mainly by size, and that both size and sex determine habitat use (males like it deep and warm, females like it shallow and cool, at least off of NC).  Also, dogfish seem to be eating a ton of menhaden (and a handful of striped bass) in February then going back to a generalist diet in March.  I don’t really trust my own judgement on how well my talk went, but I got nothing but positive feedback.  Any comments from the audience are welcome here.

Yasuko Semba represented the Japanese shark fishery, which we wanted to include to get the perspective of a group typically bashed on quite a bit in pro-shark circles.  She showed that the Japanese utilize more than just the fins, making products out of just about the entire shark’s body, and that they too are pursuing research to find out whether these fisheries can be sustainable.  Old-school shark research badass Jack Musick presented a thorough summary of the state of sharks as a resource, providing the scary statistic that the FAO worldwide shark catch data likely underestimates the number of sharks taken by 4-5 times.  Christina Conrath showed that Alaska is making progress managing salmon sharks by collecting that all-important basic life-history data.  Nick Dulvy determined that size limits will likely be more effective than MPAs at allowing thornback rays in U.K. waters to recover from overfishing.  Dean Courtney attempted to develop a model estimating the effects of bycatch on Pacific sleeper sharks, a species that has no reliable age and growth data as of yet (Steve Campana told him he had “huge balls” for even trying).

Dean Grubbs gave possibly the most provocative talk of the day, taking apart the Myers et al. (2007) paper that simultaneously popularized trophic cascades and demonized the cownose ray (I’ve also written about it).  He really took it apart piece by piece.  In short, the data set showing shark declines was based off of a survey that sampled a relatively tiny bit of ocean and didn’t match up to any other surveys along the coast, it’s biologically impossible for cownose rays to reproduce that fast, and the scallop fishery collapsed decades before this whole supposed cascade effect.  Overall, this was a great talk and needed to be given.

By now you must be starting to go mad from the sheer amount of text.  Time for more pictures:

Showing off my fancy underwater point-and-shoot by dunking it in to get picture of a Dungeness crab at a boat launch on Bainbridge Island (it's in the top left).

Space needle and piers from the ferry.

Colin Simpfendorfer filled in for Jennifer Ovenden, reporting on some interesting research from Down Under that proves that the globally distributed blacktip shark Carcharhinus limbatus (we have them here in NC too) is capable of breeding and producing hybrids with the local Australian blacktip Carcharhinus tilstoni.  Colin followed that up with his own talk about the challenges of shark management, stressing that the best-managed fisheries are always those backed up by the most research.  Rob Heuter from the Mote Marine Lab presented an initiative to manage the Gulf of Mexico on a tri-national basis, which involves getting Mexico (which is just starting to manage their shark fisheries) and Cuba (which has no management to speak of) in line with the U.S. in terms of data.  I ended up ducking out to support some other ECU students after Rob’s talk, so anyone who caught Ivy Baremore and Wen-Pei Tsai feel free to leave your impressions on their talks in the comments (gotta love that new media).  The symposium concluded with a panel discussion that didn’t quite create a fierce level of debate, but it was still interesting seeing all of these shark experts in the same room bouncing ideas around.  A mini-poster session was included; stand-outs were Andrea Dell’Apa looking at differences in spiny dogfish distribution by sex off of Cape Cod, and Matt Kolman gauging the bite force of cownose rays to see if they’re even capable of smashing bivalves.

Talks outside the shark symposium: Joey Powers determined what types of bottom habitat are best for young-of-the-year red drum and spotted seatrout, Annie Dowling found that current commercially-available test kits for the fishborne disease ciguatera aren’t quite accurate enough, and Larry Alade demonstrated that the biggest predator of silver hake is… bigger silver hake.  Cannibalism takes out more silver hake than monkfish, bluefish, or spiny dogfish, and disproportionately kills age-1 fish.

The social on Wednesday night definitely made up for the issues at the student social and then some.  We got free entry to both the space needle and the Experience Music Project, provided some great local live music (even the buskers are super-talented in Seattle), and beer was free (with craft options!) for the first three hours.  My camera was too bulky to carry around that night, but I did take a number of cell phone pictures, which I may post up here once I figure out how to get them off the phone.  Awesome night.

I was sorely tempted to take one of these home with me.

During our travels we found Kurt Cobain's house. There's a small park next to it where visitors have signed the benches. The notes left on the benches (some by well-known musicians) were in a lot of ways more poignant than seeing the actual house.


Not to slight those who gave talks on Thursday, but it was decided that Thursday would be the sight-seeing day.  Again, no insult intended, and if anyone saw anything cool on Thursday, let me know what I missed in the comments. 

Thursday night was the farewell social featuring some tasty sushi, then most of the conference invaded the Taphouse Grill (160 taps!) for one last night to drink/converse/talk trash while playing pool/generally say “catch you later.”  It was great meeting some new fish nerds (or some in person for the first time) while catching up with old friends.

Seattle was a great city, and I have every intention of getting back there sometime.  This was overall the best AFS conference I’ve made it to so far, and definitely sets the bar high for future events.  Now, all that said… who’s ready for Tidewater?