Editor’s note: This series will allow you to experience “a day in the life” with various individuals throughout the UC Davis community. After spending time as a male cheerleader last time out, we’ll give you a taste of life as a fisheries researcher today.
I was like a fish out of water when I accompanied a team of researchers onto a UC Davis fisheries research boat, but Denise De Carion was certainly in her element.
The senior environmental biology and management major is an undergraduate research assistant in UC Davis Professor Peter Moyle’s lab, where she helps research the ecology and biology of local bodies of water.
Many of De Carion’s projects are hands on and take her out of the lab and into the field, such as the trip on which I accompanied her on Wednesday.
De Carion and the other researchers were assisting in Moyle’s research sampling of Suisun Marsh’s ecology, an ongoing project since 1979.
By sampling the fish species, invertebrates and plankton long-term, the researchers get a better understanding of the ecology and species distribution of the marsh.
My day started early – try 5 a.m. early – to meet De Carion and graduate student and researcher John Durand at the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture on campus. Durand picked up the research boat and we were off.
We traveled about 40 minutes west to Belden’s Landing, part of the Suisun Marsh in Solano County.
There we met the other researchers: Alpa Wintzer, an ecology graduate student; Peter Cohen, a 2007 UC Davis alumnus; and Susanne Brander, a UC Davis environmental toxicology graduate student.
The sky was cloudy and the wind was blowing as we prepared to dock the boat – a small, roofless motor boat equipped with nets and other instruments used for research.
I was told by my fellow passengers that I would be traveling by foot through the water with De Carion, so I’d better wear the essential gear, including waders – waterproof waist-high pants – a pair of boots and a sturdy windbreaker jacket.
Once we were all suited up, we set off down the water. Altho ugh it is called a “marsh,“ the water is actually quite clear and not swamp-like as I had imagined. The boat picked up speed, and we traveled for about 20 minutes down the marsh when a few of us disembarked on a shallow stretch of water near a beach.
“You have to have a high tolerance for mud,” De Carion said, and I quickly discovered why. After wading through the water to get to the beach, I sunk nearly knee deep into the muddy shore, having to pull my weight up from under me.
But now that we were on the shore, it was time for me to get a taste of De Carion’s first project of the day.
The little fish
“We’re going to use a beach seine which will catch the fish that hang out along the shore,” she said, adding that this is a way to sample the diversity of the smaller fish in the marsh.
The seine contains a weight that drags along the bottom of the marsh and hangs vertically in the water, enabling the researchers to carry in the smaller fish.
De Carion and Wintzer traveled out into the water and used two wooden poles to drag the net back to shore. I attempted to help, walking waist-deep into the water and feeling the strange sensation of the water-drenched waders, while I actually remained perfectly dry.
The researchers opened the net quickly to retrieve the fish and put them into a bucket of water. De Carion had to comb through the net to find the little fish.
Then De Carion, Wintzer and Brander picked up the fish from the bucket one by one, measuring them with a long “fish board.“
“Yellow fin, 32 [millimeters] and 30 [millimeters],“ Wintzer said.
The researchers gather the fish on a completely “catch and release” basis. Once they have recorded the species and measured them, the fish are thrown back in to the water.
“You can see trends,” Wintzer said.
One of the fish De Carion caught was a small, speckled fish called a prickly sculpin.
“It has ‘prickles‘ on its side,” De Carion said, pointing to small, quill-like obtrusions on the fish.
They also caught and surveyed gobies and silversides, plus other species.
The researchers went into the water a few more times, each time moving further along the shore to get different samples, including sampling along the reeds growing in the water to determine what types of fish grow near the plants.
While the trip was about fish, that’s not all we observed. Quite unexpectedly, a cow trampled down the hill and into the water. It was joined by another cow, and then another, and another.
Eventually, a herd of approximately 50 cows came up to the shore and stared at us with their big brown eyes. I’ve never seen so many cows up close and unrestrained, and it was somewhat unsettling. The researchers were a bit surprised, too.
But this article isn’t about cows, it’s about fish, and eventually we got back on the boat – leaving the cows behind – and I was able to see the second part of De Carion’s research.
The big fish
This time, I would see the bigger fish on the marsh.
Throughout the day, the team would pull more than 20 otter trolls, big wooden boards submerged in the water with a net to catch large fish.
“They are called otter trolls because of the boards. It isn’t otters we’re fishing for,” De Carion joked.
The net was thrown off the boat and sunk to the bottom of the marsh. We cruised for about five minutes, and then the crew reeled the net in.
When the researchers retrieved the net, they counted approximately 50 big fish writhing about. I kept my distance as they flopped around the deck while the researchers began the task of putting them into buckets of water.
Durand picked up a large white catfish, and I was close enough to see its trademark whiskers.
Numerous other fish were found, too, including striped bass, a white sturgeon and a long-finned smelt.
The researchers would stay out on the water until 6 p.m., making for a full day of otter trolling on the Suisun Marsh.
ANNA OPALKA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.