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September 27, 2018
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Faces of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center

Sarah Gaichas: Research Fishery Biologist, Ecosystems Assessments and Dynamics

We continue our series to introduce the people who work at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). Each month we feature a new "face" from the Center's five laboratories and share with you a bit about who they are, what they do at the Center, and what they enjoy doing in their spare time.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up outside Pittsburgh, PA. My family visited Cape Cod when I was about 12, and I really enjoyed going to the beach in South Chatham and catching all sorts of hermit crabs and other creatures. Until then, flipping rocks to find crayfish in the creek near my house seemed pretty fun, but the critter catching potential of big marshes and bays was at a whole new level. I brought home a lot of seashells. Last year, my mom brought them all back to me!

Where did you go to school and what did you get your degree(s) in?

I went to Swarthmore College and got a degree in English Literature. However, summer jobs lifeguarding with Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and a marine science education internship at Newfound Harbor Marine Institute in Big Pine Key, FL convinced me that I really wanted to be a marine scientist. For the record, I enjoyed literature, but not literary criticism.

A volunteer position with the resource management division at Assateague Island connected me with my first full-time job after college at the University of Maryland Horn Point Lab. My background as an English major helped, because they initially needed help writing and editing a major report on oil spill risks. Eventually, they had me reading ages from summer flounder scales, tagging summer flounder, and tagging American shad out of Ocean City. I took courses at Salisbury State University part time so that I could apply for graduate school in marine science.

I was accepted into a master’s program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). My master’s thesis was on age and growth of Spanish mackerel in Chesapeake Bay. I learned not just how old they got, but also that Spanish mackerel are really tasty broiled with chopped cilantro, jalapenos, and lemon juice. I also took advantage of numerous opportunities to work on the VIMS seine surveys, a pushnet survey, the shark longline survey, and other graduate student projects.  

As I was finishing at VIMS, I applied for a data analyst position in the observer program at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) in Seattle, WA. I interviewed on a sunny day in January, fell in love with Seattle, and worked for just under two years for the observer program. I then transitioned to a job with the stock assessment group at AFSC doing a lot of data-limited assessments. I was encouraged to go back to school for a PhD through the NOAA Fisheries Advanced Studies Program. This was an excellent opportunity that allowed me to take two years of coursework from the University of Washington while keeping my job at AFSC. My PhD thesis was on ecosystem modeling in the Gulf of Alaska. After completing that, I transitioned to the ecosystem modeling group at AFSC, which was basically my dream job: applying ecosystem modeling to fishery management issues. I worked at AFSC for 14 years total.

Can you tell us a little about how you came to work at the NEFSC?

I was collaborating with Drs. Jason Link, Mike Fogarty, and others at NEFSC on comparative ecosystem modeling work between Alaska and the Northeast U.S. Mike found out that I was from Pittsburgh, and although there are a handful of Steelers fans for the Patriots fans to beat up on at NEFSC, he must have decided they needed some more. So when Mike was looking to hire additional modelers for the expanding Ecosystems Assessment Program, he contacted me and encouraged me to apply.  It was an extremely difficult decision to leave AFSC, because I had great colleagues and friends there and still do. Ultimately, the opportunity to join the largest and most data-rich ecosystem program in the country was impossible to pass up.

What do you do at the Center?

I do research in two general categories: integrated ecosystem assessment and management strategy evaluation. Both are processes to help managers achieve their objectives while looking at a wide range of ecological factors and uncertainties. A large part of my job is figuring out how to adapt both types of process to the management needs in our region. For example, I work a lot with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in support of their ecosystem approach to fisheries management. The idea is to make sure you are looking at the big picture while trying to achieve specific goals, so that you don’t get counterproductive results. This past year, colleagues and I helped the Mid-Atlantic Council with a risk assessment that addressed ecological, economic, and social risks. The council is now in the process of using this risk assessment to decide on issues and fisheries that may be good candidates for a fuller ecosystem-based analysis. We will then help with the analysis they select.

Similarly, management strategy evaluation uses simulation modeling to experiment with different management approaches - we can test drive a new idea in our models first to learn if it may break something we care about. This is appealing to someone with a background in stock assessment and ecosystem modeling. The challenge is figuring out how to build models that can answer the management questions with the right balance of reliability and complexity.

What do you like most about your job?

I really like working directly with fishery managers and seeing what could be academic research get discussed, adapted, and eventually used in decision-making. I like that this work is supporting fishery managers who are trying to make the best decisions they can under a lot of uncertainty. And even if it's ‘So what?’, the feedback from managers and fishermen improves our science and how we communicate it by helping us connect it to things that matter to them.

I also really like working in an inter-disciplinary group, because I get to learn about other fields, and I think it improves our products. In our group we have experts in habitat, biological oceanography, survey and fisheries data, marine mammals, and modeling. I’ve worked a lot with economists and other social scientists here at the Center recently on ecosystem reporting, risk assessment, and management strategy evaluation. I’ve been able to work with international groups of scientists as well, with the benefit of seeing new places and learning about other management issues. The topics I work on have to be done collaboratively, and I’ve had many great collaborators at this job.

Lastly, I like that we are being encouraged to learn new ways to work that improve the transparency and reproducibility of our science. In the past couple of years I’ve learned how to use things like Rmarkdown and GitHub to streamline our reporting and manage collaborative projects. Even though it can be challenging to learn new technologies, the tools available now for open science are excellent.

What are some of your hobbies?

I am still not tired of the beach, and I go there as much as I can. I go swimming, snorkeling, and catching critters with my family, and a newer hobby is paddleboarding. We also like to go hiking around the Cape to see pink lady slippers in early summer, huge schools of small menhaden in fall, and even a snowy owl this past winter. My kids seem to like travel (we all went to Scotland last summer), so I see more of that in our future as well.