Fish guts fascinate AAAS Member Cheryl Barnes.
To Barnes, the viscera of groundfish species such as Pacific halibut and Arrowtooth flounder are pieces of a puzzle, a way to solve complex conservation problems through science. That’s because Barnes, a doctorate student in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studies the ecological interactions among Alaskan groundfish species – some of the most sought-after fish stocks in the world.
“They’re in fish and chips and some of the more economically important species in Alaska,” Barnes says of Alaskan pollock. But she emphasizes that the management and study of Alaskan fish species like pollock, flounder and halibut, isn’t only for humans that like to eat Filet-O-Fish. The abundance and overall health of the groundfish species Barnes studies also impact seal and whale populations, for example.
Using fish guts and other parts of fish anatomy, Barnes can estimate and compare growth rates, length and age at maturity, and diet compositions for fish species that are economically important and vital to many other marine species’ survival. This type of information allows for better management of resources and also identifies potential areas of study for the future.
“We’ve seen a shift in the average size of Pacific halibut through time,” she says. “One hypothesis for decreases in size-at-age is intensified competition with Arrowtooth Flounder. Assessing their overlap in resource use can help us understand the potential for competition between the two groundfish predators.”
Barnes’ research requires maintaining close relationships with direct stakeholders; including seafood processors, stock assessment scientists and recreational and commercial fishers.
“I worked really closely with a couple of fishing lodges – this is a space for guests in Alaska to go fishing – where they also catch sablefish, rockfish and salmon. I asked if I could use fish caught by their guests to look at their lengths and weights and identify what they [the fish] were eating,” Barnes says. “I was able to make use of their carcasses for science.”
According to Barnes, these types of stakeholder relationships are essential to helping her develop research questions and sampling designs. And in return, Barnes can answer some of their questions as well.
“The fishing community is really interested in why they are seeing smaller sizes of halibut and reduced biomass. They want to know what is going on and how we can stop it from happening,” she says. “I try to identify areas of research that can answer some of those difficult questions.”
It’s not all about carcasses though. Barnes’ typical day has gotten less messy as she digs deeper into studying the numbers that help explain changing fish populations.
“More of my time lately is spent coding large data sets and writing and presenting those results,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to conduct research that will inform fisheries management and promote sustainability; fisheries that effectively balance harvest and conservation provide fishing opportunities for future generations.”
This is just one of the ways Barnes is creating opportunities for younger generations. She also volunteers for programs like , which can connect classrooms in Missouri and rural Connecticut to research that scientists like Barnes do in the Pacific Ocean, for example.
“Kids can ask whatever they want,” she says of her Skype a Scientist sessions. “I try to be as open as I can. They want to know how I got into science and what’s it like being a woman in science. They ask me what my favorite fish is. They often get excited about seeing videos and pictures of Alaska. I show them fish on the sorting table; they like the super old fish, the ones we’ve pulled up from the deep. They love that.”
Experiences like these are important for her because an elective at Barnes’ own high school initiated her interest in marine science.
“My first elective course was a general marine biology course. I remember getting into dissections of sea urchins – things I had never seen at the time; they were so alien-like. It really sparked an interest in me in marine science that has lasted.”
Another passion of Barnes’ is including LGBTQ+ youth in science. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, she serves on a number of committees focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (commonly known as ‘DEI’), and works on increasing opportunities for queer students and under-represented individuals in fisheries, such as establishing travel awards. She has also listed herself on 500 Queer Scientists, a website that shares individual, self-submitted bios and stories of queer scientists.
“I listed myself on it [500 Queer Scientists] to increase visibility and to show everyone that I’m here and I’m a resource if they need it. I’m at a point where I’m comfortable being out and open and showing people who I am,” Barnes said.
Barnes, a first-generation-college student, remembers how she didn’t have many role models growing up.
“I want to show young people they can pursue a career in science, as long as they are interested and motivated,” she says.
She also offered tips for organizations that strive to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive, such as advocating for gender-inclusive bathrooms and removing gender-specific titles from outreach to students.
“You can include a diversity and inclusion statement on your website for all to see or put a sign on your office door to share that it is a safe space regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, and that everyone is welcome,” she says. “That can leave a lasting impression.”