Fish Scientists: From Childhood Aspirations to Amazon Expeditions


Most professions offer a range of sub-specialties to choose from.

Do you want to be a doctor? What kind? Surgeon, pediatrician, neurologist…?

Want to work in construction? What kind? Plumber, electrician, carpenter…?

The study of fish differs only in that the sub-specialties are much less familiar to people outside the field.

Nathan Lujan and Mary Burridge of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Brad Utrup and Jan-Michael Hessenauer of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources helped sort out some of the differences between fish scientists.

Hatching Fish Scientists

If there is a common denominator for women and men choosing a career in fisheries research, it may be rooted in early childhood.

Hessenauer remembers visiting his uncle’s house on a lake near Kalamazoo, Michigan. “As a kid, fishing was always one of the big highlights and just being on the water. I wanted to be able to do that for a living,” he said.

Utrup also grew up fishing with his grandfather who ran a charter boat on Lake Erie. “I spent a lot of time on the Great Lakes at a young age. I’ve always been a little in love with lakes. So I knew that was ultimately where I wanted to end up,” he said.

Burridge spent his childhood summers “playing all day in the water” with his mother and sisters at their family cabin in Muskoka, Ontario, a few hours north of Toronto. His favorite uncle was a fisheries biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and chairman of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in the 1970s.

“I always thought it was really cool work,” Burridge said.

Lujan grew up further south in Tennessee. “As a kid, I found the streams to be a fascinating corridor through the landscape, something I had going for me that wasn’t populated by cars and people,” he said.

Each researcher has developed a deep connection with water and fish from an early age. But while fishing played a major role for Hessenauer and Utrup and would continue to be the focus of their work, Burridge and Lujan’s dreams took a slightly different direction.

“I always wanted to be the first person to dive into the water and see something completely new,” Lujan said.

Knowledge of animal husbandry

A bachelor’s degree in biology is a foundational degree for most fishing jobs.

“When you’re a biologist, you’re just studying some form of life. It could be a deer. It could be fish, whatever,” Utrup said. “I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental studies.”

Utrup is a biologist who works in fisheries management for Michigan DNR, but his job title is not a fisheries biologist.

“I’m a fisheries technician,” he said.

The technician’s role varies depending on each station’s goals, but Utrup said the fishing station in Mount Clemens, Mich., where he works, focuses primarily on research.

Fish population surveys involve a lot of hands-on fieldwork, which Utrup loves. In the winter, he does everything from fish aging studies in the lab to repairing torn nets.

“We break a lot of things during the season on the pitch, so we spend a lot of winter fixing things. I think my talents really match the work we do,” he said.

Hessenauer holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a doctorate in natural resources and environment from the University of Connecticut. He currently works as a Fisheries Biologist at Michigan DNR.

“I really liked the research process. I like having a question and trying to find the answer. I really like the process by which this happens,” he said.

Hessenauer is particularly interested in the impact of human activities such as fishing and environmental change on fish populations.

“Like, how much can we fish? Where can we fish at this time of year? Can we fish during breeding season and what does that mean for each species of fish? Those are the questions that have always interested me,” Hessenauer said.

Burridge holds a BSc in Fisheries Biology from the University of Guelph. She is Assistant Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum where she helped develop the Schrad Biodiversity Gallery, one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Burridge also coordinates and leads the ROM’s Fish Identification Workshops. To conduct fish surveys successfully, fisheries biologists must be able to correctly identify each fish they catch.

Distinguishing an Emerald Minnow from a Silvery Minnow is a challenge and an example of why a ROM Fish Identification Workshop certificate is often a requirement for any municipal, conservation authority job. , provincial or federal fishery in Ontario, Burridge said.

Nathan Lujan is an ichthyologist with a doctorate in evolutionary biology from Auburn University. He is Associate Curator of Fish at the Royal Ontario Museum, where he oversees and manages one of the top 10 fish collections in North America.

“Ichthyologists ask why we see the biodiversity we see today and what kinds of factors are critical to causing that biodiversity and maintaining that biodiversity,” he said.

As an ichthyologist, Lujan studies the origins of fish and their evolution over time. Its museum role also consists of cataloging biodiversity by collecting and describing new species.

Each of these fish specialists followed a different career path to achieve similar childhood ambitions and all were successful.

liberate science

Burridge has worked at the Royal Ontario Museum for 35 years.

Much of the museum’s work involves collecting and describing new species, and Burridge has participated in expeditions to the Indo-Pacific, from Madagascar to Fiji, as well as throughout South America. She identified and described 15 to 20 new species of fish.


Looking back on her career, Burridge is very grateful for the opportunities she has had to travel.

“You feel like Dr. Livingston or something going somewhere no one’s ever been before. It was just such a thrill,” she said.

The young woman who learned to scuba dive as a teenager and taught canoeing while her friends worked in retail at the mall, ended up traveling the world discovering new species of fish and stocking up on memories of stories like when a teammate was bitten by an anaconda. .

(They dressed the wound, had lunch, and went straight back to the river.)

Utrup and Hessenauer worked for the Michigan DNR for 15 and 7 years respectively. Utrup appreciates the variety of tasks required by his role as a technician.

“I have to set up the nets; drive boats and every day is different. We are on different bodies of water all the time. The variety of work we have to do is neat and always makes it interesting,” Utrup said.

Hessenauer also appreciates the diversity of his work.

“In the spring and summer, when the weather is nice, we’re out working on the water, and then in the fall and winter, back in the office, reviewing the data, analyzing it and writing about it. So I really enjoy both parts of my job,” Hessenauer said.

They agree that the best part of their job is being on the water.

“You can actually hold the fish in your hands, look at it, and try to figure out how it’s doing as a population,” Hessenauer said.

Young men who loved to fish and dreamed of working days spent on the Great Lakes also achieved their goals.

“The work we do is incredibly rewarding,” Utrup said.

And the boy who wanted to dive into a net and find a new species of fish recently returned from a collecting expedition down the Amazon River in Peru.

“I’ve done about two dozen expeditions to various parts of South America and discovered and described over 40 species of fish,” Lujan said.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:

I speak for the fish: a discordant look at gizzard shad

I speak for the fish: take the measure of a rainbow dart

Feature Image: Each jar in the Royal Ontario Museum contains one or more individuals of the same species collected at one time, from one location. This is important because it provides a historical record of biodiversity. (Photo credit: GLN)


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