One fish, two fish, no red fish, just blue fish

Well there are a lot more than two, but how many people would have guessed there were any blue catfish at all? Who even really thinks about what kind of catfish they’re dealing with when they find one in a river? I definitely didn’t, but thanks to my experiences this semester at the OBX field site, I definitely will in the future. My name is Thomas Hennessey, and for my semester-long internship, I’ve been able to work with Sara Mirabilio of North Carolina Sea Grant and Ladd Bayliss of North Carolina Coastal Federation to learn something about the invasive blue catfish crowding our waters, and do some pretty cool things along the way.

When I first heard about this internship opportunity, I knew it would be interesting since the topic hadn’t gotten much attention in this area before, but I wasn’t sure how we’d go about actually studying it. The best way, after some initial lit review on how blue catfish have impacted other areas, turned out to be the clunky and messy way, looking at Division of Marine Fisheries datasets that hadn’t been looked at in this way before. I had worked on projects similar to this one before, but never with the same level of interdisciplinary focus or data retrieval/analysis complexity. Luckily though, my mentors had, and were able to break down a long and complicated project into interesting and very unique workdays, with time split between the Sea Grant offices at CSI and the nice new Coastal Federation building down the road.

The main focus of the internship was on creating a Situation Assessment for the blue catfish population in the area. This basically came down to organizing DMF records for numbers of catfish (both young and old) and their lengths in a way that gave us a timeline for how the population changed since their arrival. One of the coolest parts of this was when I got to take a trip north to Edenton to see firsthand how this data is during one of the DMF Chowan River surveys. We stopped at a number of set locations and tossed a huge net behind our tiny boat, then trawled around for about 10 minutes before hauling the net back up to count/measure its contents. It was a long and sometimes painful process, but was a lot of fun and helped us feel a lot better about the data we were using.

The biggest highlight, though, was the opportunity to present what we had found during all those long data and policy analysis days to the public at a “Fish and Flights” dinner event last week. A good number of people were there for some really well prepared plates of blue catfish. (And I got some as well. Another great thing about this internship was knowing every day that I might be getting some really good food.) This presentation gave me some great experience in interpreting science for a general audience, which could certainly be in my future as I consider careers in environmental policy and ecosystem management. Thanks again to Corey Adams, my fantastic mentors, and the OBX field site for making this possible!

And as I’ve said in multiple presentations now: If you do a lot of fishing and catch a lot of these catfish, don’t hesitate to keep them! Our beautiful coastal ecosystem will be better for it.

Even a hurricane has a silver lining

Life at the Outer Banks is remarkably different from Chapel Hill.  The people are more laid back.  The seasons change more slowly.  And you learn to accept nature, and whatever it might throw at you, as part of your daily life.  I realized coming in that storms had always been a part of this area’s history, and that we might experience them since we’re here during hurricane season.  But major storms don’t happen here often, and since there was one five years ago, there couldn’t be another this year, right?

About two weeks before Fall Break, my assumption was proven wrong.  Hurricane Matthew, which peaked at a Category 4 in the Caribbean, was predicted to strike our coast and hang around a while before turning east.  We were advised to head inland for a couple days to wait it out and return for a full week of work before Fall Break week so we would lose as few valuable class days as possible.

Unfortunately, high rivers and extensive flooding in the flat coastal area kept us away for six days, with many of us staying in Chapel Hill in an awkward limbo between off-site work and early break.  We all figured we’d have a lot of ground to make up in both class and Capstone work with all the time lost.  And maybe for your typical college classes, it would have been a loss.  But the classes here work pretty much the same way everything else does, surviving and adapting to whatever nature throws at them.

Crews wasting no time fixing up the beach.
Crews wasting no time fixing up the beach.

After returning, we immediately began making up lost classes outside the classroom, discussing the hurricane’s impacts on both the environment and culture of the place while seeing firsthand how the infrastructure was being rebuilt.  Trips to Nags Head Woods and the Kitty Hawk beach accesses showed us exactly how badly the environment had been damaged, but also exactly why this place is so enduring and resilient.

The whole environment seemed a little different, maybe a little more fall-like, after the weather settled down.  New insects and birds appeared, and the plants seemed spurred into rapid change after the relative drought we had up until the storm.  The experience was a great example of why adaptability is so important here, and how even a hurricane can have some positives if you get used to taking what nature gives you.

Water so high it's crowding the wetland.
Water so high it’s crowding the wetland.
Definitely hadn't seen any of these before the storm/
Definitely hadn’t seen any of these before the storm.