ASCS Proposal: Drop HABs like a bad HABit

ASCS Proposal: Harmful Algal Blooms

Clara Robison, VIMS


I plan to create an infographic to describe these key concepts:

  • What is a harmful algal bloom (HAB)?
    • Address each word in the phrase individually, ie:
      • What makes the event Harmful?
      • Why is it considered Algal?
      • What defines a Bloom?
    • What factors can facilitate the formation of a HAB? (we don’t know the precise combination of influencers that cause a bloom)
      • Circle containing an image of a HAB with arrows pointing inward from surrounding bubbles containing images representing factors that can facilitate HAB formation (e.g. a storm cloud representing weather, a bag of fertilizer or a sewage treatment plan to represent nutrient pollution, etc.)
    • How can a HAB adversely affect the environment?
      • Circle containing an image of a HAB with arrows pointing outward to bubbles containing images representing adverse effects of HABs (e.g. a fish kill, a VDH sign reporting shellfish beds are closed for harvest, etc.)
    • The usual suspects – a short list of common Chesapeake Bay HABs, a sketch of each (I’d like to do these myself), brief description of the species, appearance, general time of year, and any negative impacts that have been associated with the species

Additional information

  • Number for the HAB hotline and perhaps a description of how to collect/submit water samples to VIMS.

Audience and Desired Impact:

I would like this project to be informative to shellfish growers (and other industry members) and members of the public. I hope the descriptions of the HABs will benefit growers who may encounter blooms on their farms – based on the appearance and time of year, I hope the infographic will help growers identify the most likely subject in order to mitigate potential adverse impacts (e.g. wait to harvest until after the bloom has dissipated for some time). I hope the more general info will inform the public about the causes and effects of the blooms, perhaps to facilitate political action and/or work to reduce nutrient pollution.

Because, after making the infographic, I will have many of the elements necessary for an animation, I may create one of those as well, but that will depend on time.

Project Proposal: “Reconnecting Coastal and Inland Waters of Appalachia”

American eels (Anguilla rostrata) occupy a broad range of habitats along the Atlantic coast of the Americas. They reside in estuaries, lakes and rivers, as far north as Greenland and as far south as Venezuela. American eels employ a catadromous lifestyle, which means they spawn in marine systems (Sargasso Sea), migrate into freshwater systems to live as adults and then return to the ocean to spawn. American eels are the only catadromous fish species within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and provide many unique ecosystem services. In the Chesapeake Bay, young eels are ecologically important as a food source for other organisms and economically important as an exported delicacy. Eels rely on the Chesapeake Bay because it acts as a nursery for the elver stage of their life cycle. However, their complex life cycle makes them vulnerable to a multitude of threats including habitat fragmentation, pollution and overfishing. A recent increase in dam removals has resulted in greater inland migratory range for American eels. My current research is investigating their relationship with these newly available habitats where they will spend a majority of their life. This data has implications for biotic resistance of invasive species, long-term resilience of eel populations and cross-boundary energy subsidies. Informing the public about the current status of eel populations, the increasing range of eels inland and the benefits that eels provide is an essential step towards successful management of American eels in the future.

An infographic will be developed to communicate general background information on American eels and also specific findings of my current research. The goals of this infographic are to simply raise awareness about American eels and alleviate the misconception that they are a ‘marine invader’. Interesting life history strategies, the reason for their expanded range and their benefit to inland ecosystems will be addressed within respective sections of the infographic. Images will be included to complement the background information (e.g., pictures of different life stages), the reasons for increased migratory range (e.g., dam removal figures) and the results of my study (e.g., a graph showing minimal competition with game fishes). The infographic will conclude with a simple call for action or a statement of need for future management. This document will be made available to target audiences as a hard copy and a digital copy.

The target audience of the proposed infographic includes a subset of the general public, individuals who enjoy the outdoors. This broad group of people is likely to not only entertain new information about their environment but also to act on the newly obtained information. As a hard copy, this infographic will be posted at park kiosks, trail heads, prevalent angling areas, angling stores and park visitor centers. It will also be available online through relevant websites (e.g., Trout Unlimited). The placement of the infographic will reach members of the audience along a spectrum of involvement, from occasional park goers to wildlife rangers. The purpose of this communication tool is to promote future interest in local and national conservation of freshwater eels. The infographic will gain interest of those who are unaware of eels and their ecological role, and alleviate misconceptions of those who believe that eels are disrupting freshwater communities.

Project Proposal: “Why is Seagrass So Important to Blue Crabs?”

Seagrass serves as a valuable nursery habitat for blue crabs throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, including Chesapeake Bay. It provides shelter from predation to incoming juveniles and food as they grow. However, with climate change and human impacts, seagrass is in decline around the globe. It is possible that we may lose this important species, which will negatively impact the ecosystem, various marine fisheries, and the economy that depend on industries tied to the marine environment.

My outreach product will be designed to communicate the importance of seagrass to younger generations in the form of a game. I will focus on three different substrate types juvenile blue crabs may encounter: a flat surface to represent sand, rocks with some shell, and artificial seagrass (maybe high and low densities). Each of these substrates will be constructed as a 3-D interactive display. Within each substrate type, I will hide objects representing blue crabs on the substrate. These objects will be around the average size of the crabs I have been finding in my samples from the York River, between 5-10 mm (blue beads or marbles). The goal of the game would be to find all the “crabs” hidden within each of the substrates, which have varying levels of difficulty, with sand being the easiest and seagrass being the hardest.

Although my product is dedicated specifically toward communicating the importance of seagrass, I hope it will have a broader impact. My goal is to inspire curiosity and awe in children from pre-school to elementary school concerning the marine environment. I envision this group as possibly being the next generation of marine scientists. Through this outreach product, I want to show kids how environments they may never have even thought about are really important to life around them. By understanding their importance, I hope younger generations will desire to learn more about marine environments. Through an interactive game, I hope to teach them the importance of conservation, restoration, and caring for the environment.

Product Proposal: “What the heck is a Polychlorinated Biphenyls?!”


A crucial contributor to the James River’s infirmity is a group of fire-resistant, fat-loving chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Mixtures of PCBs were widely used in commercial and industrial settings. But their production was banned in the late 1970s in the United States because they are a human health hazard. However, PCBs are persistent and are found in sediment, water, and organisms. Larger organisms exposed to PCBs, like fish and us, accumulate more PCB over their lifetime and human consumption of fish is dangerous even at low concentrations (parts per billion).

As a fellow with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), I am assisting DEQ through its Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program to tackle the problem. The weathering of PCBs and inadvertent present-day production can severely limit TMDL development process because the sources of PCB to the environment are not obvious. My research focuses on using statistical analyses to “fingerprint” PCBs mixtures and find their likely sources.

Reducing PCBs in the environment requires not only identifying what the sources are, but public buy-in. PCBs are not recognized as a present-day hazard by the public. And unless people read all the signage at public access points or look for fish consumption advisories online, there is little to tell them how widespread and current the problem is in Virginia.


My intended audience is geared to the general public living in the James River watershed. More specifically, the general public includes students, non-profit organizations, community groups, and citizen monitoring groups. A good example of this group is the Middle James Roundtable. During the TMDL process, the interest of the general public are not represented as well or as consistently as industrial, commercial, and municipal interests. Audiences will also be reached by posting it to DEQ’s social media accounts (and perhaps the social media of other state agencies), contacting community groups and asking them to forward/embed videos in newsletters and blog posts, and web-based journal articles (e.g. Chesapeake Bay Journal, Richmond Times-Dispatch).

Proposed Product

I’ve attached a presentation I gave to the Middle James Roundtable on October 23 as a storyboard of sorts. The roundtable was a good test audience because there were a variety of stakeholders, from state agencies to citizens to municipalities. It went very well and I have contacted the roundtable’s steering committee for feedback to better focus my product. From the individuals I was able to talk to while at the conference, two common threads were apparent: “I did not know they were still entering the environment today,” and “Where else are they found?”

While the focus is on reaching those people that live in the James River watershed, I want to create an evergreen product that DEQ can use to educate parties on what PCBs are, how PCBs are addressed, and what the public can do to help. Because PCBs are a chemical compound for which most people do not have a mental image for and because there are many unfamiliar terms and concepts, I would like to create an animated video (around 5 minutes in length) to illustrate a brief history of PCBs and their uses, how and why they are dangerous, and how we can alleviate the issue from both a governmental perspective and individual perspective. By making a video, the information will be more quickly disseminated (what is shared more on social media, infographics or videos?) and can easily be embedded in e-newsletters and website posts by organizations and individuals.


PCB_MJRT Presentation

Project Proposal

Long-term sampling programs are a crucial component of fisheries research. Without long-term sampling programs, proper assessment of fish species and subsequent management would not be possible. Long-term fisheries surveys are a mechanism to obtain data for ecosystem-based fisheries management, assess community structure and diversity, act as a framework to collect research samples, and most importantly, be used as an indicator of relative abundance. We calculate relative abundance by implementing the concept of proportionality; we assume that catch is proportional to abundance in a given area at that time. Trends in relative abundance allow us to interpret patterns of abundance over time, which indicates the effects of over- or unregulated fishing and/or response of the population to management regulations.

I plan to create an infographic geared towards adult members of the public that can be shared formally and informally via social media and the internet. This infographic will start by posing the question, “How do scientists count fish?” This will act as a way to get the viewer to think differently about methods we use in fisheries science. I will then demonstrate a theoretical, standardized fishing set at two separate locations. The location with a high abundance will yield a high catch; the other with low abundance will yield low catch. This will demonstrate how we use proportionality to assess trends in relative abundance. After demonstrating how we calculate relative abundance, I will include explanations for how relative abundance is used with other sources of data (commercial & recreational catches, length distributions, etc.) in integrated stock assessment models to estimate actual fish abundance. I will also include explanations as to why we can’t use commercial fishing (fishery-dependent) data (i.e., fishers are too smart, and don’t waste resources sampling at scientifically designed locations if these sites will not yield a high catch; this significantly affects inferences of relative abundance).

This infographic can be specialized to accommodate different fishing gears (i.e., longline, trawl, gillnet) and different species (i.e., sharks, bottom fishes, sturgeon). Each specialized infographic can have an additional section including a graph of relative abundance of a species of interest over time, and how that trend can be interpreted with respect to key management actions, etc. For example, in the shark longline infographic, I can present results from my master’s thesis findings, and in the bottom fishes trawl example I can highlight work conducted by my research group at VIMS (Multispecies Research Group; MRG).