Other Duties As Assigned: Fisheries Engineers
By Jeff Finley
Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office
Quite often we find ourselves working in areas outside of our position description. Whether by necessity or by talent, our employees frequently perform "other duties as assigned." Fortunately, my additional duty is one I dearly enjoy. I call it "Fisheries Engineering."
Some folks have specific abilities for analyzing data, writing scientific reports, working with volunteers, or an affinity for using software programs which make everybody's job easier. Recognizing these unique skills and abilities, supervisors frequently task these specialists to work their craft for the good of the agency. Not all additional duties are fun and exciting. Some are just necessary, but when they do align with an individual’s particular passion, it results in an awesome day at work.
What is a Fisheries Engineer, you may ask? Coined from the true definition of engineering, a Fisheries Engineer can repair, replace, improve, design, fabricate and construct equipment used in sampling and collecting fish and aquatic organisms from the wild. Fisheries Engineering entails physics, mechanics, fabrication, welding and a lot of head scratching, and trial and error. Whether using steel, wood, plastics, aluminum, wire, line, chain, or netting, Fisheries Engineers construct equipment using an understanding of the habitats we sample, the behavior of the organisms we are trying to collect and the environmental and human extremes the equipment must endure.
Fish biologists are frequently confronted with the challenges of, "how can we catch species X, more of species Y, exclude species Z, while sampling in a specific habitat and keeping this gadget from breaking, again." Riverine habitats are often difficult to sample in because of their currents, flow, debris, grit, mud, rock and weather extremes. These considerations are all blended with field experience, a desire to dream and a preoccupation with tools, to ultimately spawn a Fisheries Engineer.
Jeff Finley records fish data as Wyatt Doyle sorts the catch from a push trawl run on the Missouri River. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Andy Starostka)
Fisheries Engineers save their station time and money by circumventing costly trips to the repair shop, getting their crews back on the water as quickly and safely as possible, and creating innovative devices. Not everyone has an engineering mind. There are few folks who can diagnose and repair a mechanical problem, imagine a better contraption, or that have the experience and skill to bring an idea to reality while knowing their limitations. They might help figure out why an outboard engine is overheating and correct the issue so crews can finish their work or get off the water before dark. They can wire multiple components for an electrofishing boat rather than buying an “off the shelf” boat at twice the cost. They’ll weld what breaks, patch what leaks, replace what was lost and advance the science of fisheries by developing new gear and techniques, or modifying old ones.
Applying Fisheries Engineering at the Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office has resulted in the development of several techniques and tools for the advancement of fishery science. Examples include:
The push trawl uses forward facing, mechanically lifted booms to deploy an envelope style, zipper cod, small board, benthic trawl off of the front of a jet boat. This technique has proved itself as a valuable tool in sampling riverine habitats too deep, too swift or with substrate too soft to seine or too shallow for traditional stern trawls.
The paupier net is a modification of techniques used in gulf shrimp fisheries. The paupier uses two frames mechanically deployed perpendicular to the gunnels of a boat to scoop up pelagic fishes. The intent was to come up with a method to collect Asian carp. While we have developed a solid framing system, a net design to retain these wary, fast swimming fish is still in development. We incidentally discovered the paupier technique is an excellent tool to collect young paddlefish.
Drifting trammel nets in the river can be an arduous task with the vast amounts of small woody debris and sand waves which can repeatedly halt the lead line of a drifting net. A net mule is a chevron shaped device made of dimensional lumber tied with a lead to the far end of the net. It helps plow the net through these lesser snags using the power of moving water in the river's current.
Keeping a thousand baited ganions for trot lines organized and separated is not easy. Several attempts were made to prevent them from getting tangled up on a rough river ride. Additionally, pre-baiting the hooks in a heated shop in the morning is preferred to baiting on the water or shore exposed to the elements, and safer than bait-as-you-go with a line in the swift water. To do this we finally settled on a ganion box. Each box holds up to 500 baited hooks, hung sequentially from a steel rod. The large clips hang below and are clamped to the side of the box with a flap. The lid is closed for a neat, tidy and space saving method to safely deploy and retrieve the ganions.
Opportunities arise to cooperate with other branches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently I am working with a “Malacology Engineer” from Ecological Services to solve some mussel sampling conundrums. We are in the process of developing a boat mounted washing and sorting stand for mussel quantification surveys. This stand will incorporate a space saving reel for the surface air supply line for the SCUBA diver and a freshwater pump to wash and sort the substrate sample collected by the diver.
We have tinkered around with other small projects like durable transducer brackets to replace the plastic ones, which inevitably break, various types of anchors to hold boats and gear in the swift waters of the Missouri River, racks to dry wet gear and drags to find lost nets and trawls. Those before me paved the way for stern trawling safely on the river and have built net wheels for cleaning nets and many other space and time saving devices.
The ingenuity and application has, and will continue, to help advance fisheries science from those whose minds think a little differently and understand how to speak the language of an engineer. I hope to identify the next person and one day pass the engineer torch to the next up and coming, “other duties as assigned: Fisheries Engineer.”