A year ago, I arrived at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Brunswick Station in Glynn County on the Georgia coast. I was conducting my master’s research in the Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development Program at UGA’s Odum School of Ecology where I was advised by Laurie Fowler. It was my first day of field work, and I was meeting Patrick Griffin, previously the captain of the R/V Georgia Bulldog, to collect fish samples from my study site—the Turtle Brunswick River Estuary (TBRE) surrounding the Linden Chemicals and Plastics (LCP) Superfund site. Though my interests were academic, the Georgia coast is also of personal significance to me, and I was excited to be conducting research in a place near and dear to me.
I moved to Glynn County as a child, and I spent much of my free time fishing in Georgia rivers and exploring local beaches. At the time, I didn’t know that Brunswick was home to four Superfund sites, among them the LCP site (designated in 1996) where discharges of PCBs and mercury contaminated local fish. Superfund sites are areas in the United States designated for remediation by parties responsible for pollution, or by the EPA, due to presence of hazardous materials. As I began my master’s studies, I became interested in ecotoxicology, and I wanted to work on a project that would make a difference in my hometown. And to do so, I had to learn how to trawl.
Patrick and I settled upon a plan for our two-day outing to collect my target species— Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), star drum (Stellifer lanceolatus), and Southern kingfish (Menticirrhus sp.). The TBRE is under a fish consumption advisory by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and my research questions involve understanding shared health risks local human anglers and wildlife feeding from the TBRE might face, with a particular interest in exposure for anglers who may not be observing advisory guidance. Patrick and I planned to use a trawl net, dragging a net in the water behind the boat for a short period of time to collect fish samples. Once collected, I planned to submit fish samples to an environmental lab for mercury and PCB analysis. Results of our work would be used to create communications tools that Glynn County non-profits, health departments, and government agencies could use in continuing to educate residents about the importance of adhering to posted advisories. But before I could do that, I had to collect some fish, a task that proved more challenging than anticipated.
Fieldwork has provided excellent education in the unpredictability of life. Boats fail, weather rages, equipment breaks, and plans change, whether we like it or not. At first, each setback seemed weighty and important. But the beauty of unpredictability is that anything can happen when you least expect it.
On the first of our two-day outing, the equipment holding the trawl net collapsed. It was not an easy fix, so we decided to begin hook-and-line fishing to make best use of our time. We collected samples, but not as many as we would have trawling. In the midst of stressing out about my sampling goals, I received exciting news that I had been selected as a Georgia Sea Grant Graduate Research Trainee, which provided me the opportunity to work with my faculty advisor and a professional mentor in Brunswick to use the results of my research to address real challenges in this community.
Being part of the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant network meant that I had people to help me figure out how to adapt when my field plans failed. They were also there to teach me new skills along the way.
Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant marine resource specialists, Herbert “Truck” McIver, Lisa Gentit and Marty Higgins took me out on the R/V Georgia Bulldog to collect samples in the deeper areas of the seafood consumption advisory area. Gentit also took me fishing on one of their skiffs. One of my committee members, Assistant Professor at Odum School of Ecology John Schacke, volunteered his boat and his time to help me pull a hand trawl in the shallower waters of the TBRE. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s boat captains based at the UGA Aquarium, John “Crawfish” Crawford and Todd Recicar, taught us how to use the trawl net, and after an embarrassing day-and-a-half-long maiden voyage where I mistakenly pulled the net with the doors reversed, we made a few tweaks to my setup and we prepared for a rematch.
During the next field excursion using the trawl, we unearthed every branch and oyster-covered log from the bottom of the Turtle River. I suppose that counted as catching something, but I began to think I might never catch a fish again. Luckily, during our first trawl in Purvis Creek, the portion of the advisory area closest to the LCP site, we pulled the net in and there were fish!
After processing and recording our catch, we headed back to the office. This whole experience made me realize that getting stuck when conducting research makes success feel that much sweeter, especially when surrounded by such a supportive team. I was able to obtain my samples because Lisa, Truck, Marty, Crawfish, Todd, Patrick and John took an interest in my learning how to trawl. And for that, I am enormously grateful.