Redefining the term ‘Hip to be Square’… Introducing Dr. Julia Parrish
Dr. Parrish is an associate professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington
CB: Describe your research interests in a nutshell (think filbert rather than brazil).
JP: Okay, but fair warning – I suffer from “Thanksgiving Dinner disease” (everything on the table looks good, so you end up with a huge plate of great, but unrelated, things) and the diversity may seem confusing. At the most nerdy end: I’m interested in animal aggregation – why hang out in a group? And, if you’re in one – like a fish school – how does it work? Literally, how do you know when to turn left versus right when a predator is barreling into the school and you have to respond to a gazillion panicked neighbors? In the middle: I’m interested in seabirds, including basic biology, essentially what makes populations grow – or shrink. Most of this work happens on the outer coast of Washington state, although I’ve worked from Oregon to Alaska. At the ‘public impact’ end: I’m interested in making science relevant. That includes translation, on-the-ground conservation, and public involvement in research.
CB: Your research encompasses many aspects of marine conservation, so you must find a way to work with various government agencies, NGOs, and private industry. How easy is it to work closely with such groups?
JP: Totally easy. Sometimes an email or a phone call is all that it takes to start a collaboration. Conservation problems are tough to solve – impossible to tackle as just one person. Like Hilary said, it takes a village…
JP: COASST is cool. My favorite program. Hundreds of coastal citizens walking “their beach” on a monthly basis, searching for beached birds. And when they find them, taking a set of measurements, and using foot and plumage characters to identify what’s in front of them using our Beached Bird field guides. How geeky is that? Because of the measurements, foot characters, and photographs, we can independently confirm species identity, and that makes the COASST data powerful (and useful), because it’s believable. We’ve logged more than 20,000 carcasses of over 130 species in the last 10 years. Those data have been used as oil spill baselines, as well as baselines for fishery bycatch, avian flu, harmful algal blooms, El Niño, winter weather, and climate change. Because we can do all of that, COASST monitors nearshore ecosystem health, and allows the public to be directly involved – central, really – to both data collection and the stories that come from those data.
CB: Have you found citizen volunteers to be effective for gathering data?
JP: Absolutely. Turns out there’s no law that says that only scientists can gather data. Anyone who is careful, and observant, and curious, can be a great data collector. I think those qualities describe a huge number of people who wonder about their local environment and how human actions – both locally and globally – are affecting the resources they know and love. Doesn’t matter whether you are a backyard bird-watcher or an extreme backbacker or a beachwalker, most people connect with the natural environment in some way. People often feel powerless to understand the world around them, or help stop change they see as bad. Offering the public a way to get directly involved in “figuring it out” is a great thing – and our volunteers respond by taking their COASST surveys seriously.
CB: What’s a typical field work day like for you?
Usually up with the sun and into a bird blind (plywood box with one-way mirror glass windows) to watch what fish parents are bringing back to their chicks for breakfast. After an hour of cataloging the herring, smelt and anchovies, it’s back to the cabin and breakfast for me – usually pancakes and coffee – before zipping back for a second “fish watch” at 9AM. The rest of the day is a combination of watching and counting. Maybe out to the cliffs with my binoculars and telescope to count and map the location of murre chicks in the rock-wall crevice nesting areas; maybe a quick boat trip around the island to count Pelagic Cormorant nests. If it’s sunny, maybe the “nap monster” grabs me for a quick snooze on our deck. Three more fish watches (at noon, 3, and 6 PM), a few hours on the cliff edge recording eagle (our major seabird predator on Tatoosh) activity. Then dinner – pasta putanesca, lemon risotto with blueberries, or chicken molé are faves – and a relaxing hour or two before starting some of the night work. If it’s not raining we might set out screen traps at the entrance of Rhinoceros Auklet burrows to collect the fish they’re bringing back to their chicks, or maybe we’ll mistnet (think 7 foot by 40 foot badminton net for catching birds) for Leach’s and Fork-tailed Stormpetrels. Then,… sleep, and starting again the next day.
CB: What is your most recent publication?
JP: There’s a 2009 pub I’m really proud of – written by a former graduate student Nathalie Hamel (I’m anchor author):
Hamel et al. 2009. Bycatch and beached birds: Assessing mortality impacts in coastal net fisheries using marine bird strandings. Marine Ornithology 37:41-60.
CB: Here’s a PDF Ornithology Paper
It examines the frequency and severity of wrecks (large strandings of marine birds) associated with fishery bycatch in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea relative to the baseline signal as assessed by COASST and our sister program in western Canada, British Columbia Beached Bird Survey. There’ve been some fairly big events over the years, the most recent was hundreds of murres floating onto central Puget Sound beaches in 2008. Nathalie figured out that even though fishery wrecks could be severe, and certainly newsworthy, their total magnitude was a drop in the bucket when compared to the background accumulation. She also discovered that the incidence of wrecks has generally been going down – as fishery effort has declined, but that in El Niño years, birds appear to be more prone to bycatch mortality in these inside waters – even recently. All of this spells out a responsible management plan: don’t close net fisheries, but do institute the use of bird-safe gillnets, and monitor the fishing grounds in real time in El Niño years. I love this paper because it sets a tone of calm and well-reasoned analysis about a controversial subject, that has drawn passionate exhortations from fishers and animal activists alike. And, it makes use of our baseline COASST data – how cool is that?!
JP: Fish, sea turtles, porpoise, and seabirds encountering the oil stand little chance of survival, and unless they wash in we just don’t see them. We’ve come a long way with oiled bird rescue, but how can you rescue the bluefin tuna who uses the Gulf as a spawning area, or the sea turtle yearlings far from shore? What’s the protocol for diverting subsurface oil from reaching reef areas in Florida or Cuba?
Here’s what I hope for – that Gulf coast residents will unite behind the demand that safety, disaster, and clean-up technology move forward as fast as deep-water drilling technology and oil company profits; that the public and the government won’t forget this spill once the immediate concern – capping the well – has been accomplished; and that everyone will understand that oil at sea can be just as devastating to wildlife and commercially important species as oil on the beach.
CB: Any advice to budding biologists?
JP: Go for it! Every generation of students grows up thinking their teachers and professors know it all. But what you really find out when you do science is how much we don’t know. There’s a lot of room for enthusiastic, curious young scientists. And there’s no time in history that we’ve needed environmental and conservation scientists more than today.
CB: You started off your career as an artist! Can you tell me a bit about your non-biological talents?
JP: Hmmm. Guess I can say that I found science easier than art. Art takes true talent. Science can use talent, but the majority of us can make great headway with persistence and type A-ness. I will way that I find my years of life drawing comes in handy on a regular basis – it makes me really see what’s in front of me, and that can come in handy when a murre parent whips by with a fish half out of it’s beak. I’ll bet I have the largest collection of fish “gesture drawings” in the world…
CB: If you could have 3 guests for dinner…alive or dead…who would they be?
JP: Yeow! There’s a question. Teddie Roosevelt, Angelo Pellegrini, and Meryl Streep. Angelo, btw, was an Italian food writer I always wanted to meet. We actually intersected at the University of Washington (he was an English professor here), but I found out about him just after he died.
CB: What would you eat?
JP: Well, since I’m eating with dead people, I’d have a dinner of formerly sustainable things, starting with abalone sashimi, followed by Nassau grouper, and ending with chocolate seduction topped with fresh huckleberries picked at the peak of ripeness.
CB: Purely fantastic. Thanks so much for taking the time for a chat Julia!