Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet, Book Review by Don Orth

Mark Spitzer’s latest book, In Search for Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet, will appeal to all types of anglers and adventurers. Mark Spitzer is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas and author of over twenty-five books.  His previous forays into fish writing include three non-fiction books: Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America’s Most Misunderstood Fish (2010, Return of the Gar (2015), and Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (2017).  He has also written fishy fiction, e.g., Garapaima: A Monster Fish Novel (2015).     

In Search of Monster Fish is a series of stories in which Spitzer seeks out a new monster fish.   Although he doesn’t formally define “monster” fish, it is apparent that size matters and big teeth add to the mystique. The term was popularized by National Geographic’s Monster Fish show.  But there are so many monster-fish stories to tell, we cannot get enough. The author’s purpose goes beyond showing off his fishing skills.  It’s more about the search. 

Book cover of In Search of Monster Fish shows Mark Spitzer with a Doitsu variety koi carp. 
Fishing is often a never-ending series of quests. Many serious observers have identified 5 stages of an angler’s life, stated simply as Any Fish, Many Fish, Big Fish, No Fish, and finally Give Back Fish (McKenna 2013).  Each monster fish was something new for Spitzer to pursue.  Each quest required new skills and a new place. Every story contains some daily conversation with himself about why he's here. He asks "What was I put here to do?This is a deep and difficult philosophical question to pose in a book entitled In Search of Monster Fish. It is those daily conversations that make this book most interesting.  In the first chapter, “Demythologizing Demonologies,” we join Spitzer, guide Wilson, and Lea the fun-loving poetry professor, in the Amazon in pursuit of monster fish myths. Their first fish, which the guide called dormelinas, was captured by swinging a machete. He begins the conversation about the monster fish mystique as they learn to catch and eat local fish (piranha fritta) from their guide. 
In “Catfishalonia,” Spitzer seeks to catch a Wels Catfish, Siluro or Silurus glanis.  This is the biggest freshwater catfish which can exceed 200 pounds and 7 feet. It is an opportunistic catfish and in the Ebro River it’s referred to as "The Ebro Monster.”  Like other catfish, it feeds at night on fish, ducks, voles, and the misplaced American red crayfish (Procambarus clarkii).   In 1974, a German fisheries biologist named Roland Lorkowsky introduced young Wels Catfish to the Ebro River to create a recreational fishery. The Ebro is no pristine river; rather, it’s a working river with hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, chemical plants, orchards, and animal agriculture. By the late 1980s, anglers were boasting of catches of catfish over 90 pounds, which led to guiding industry for tourist anglers. While I was reading this book, a British angler caught an 8-foot albino catfish that weighed 194 pounds. Spitzer does not exaggerate about monster fish. Watch Spitzer vs Wels Catfish to see the outcome.
In “Cuda Chaos in the Dominican Republic,” Spitzer and his now fiancée are beaten by ocean waves in search of barracuda, in particular small ones because the largest Barracuda have toxic levels of the ciguatoxin. Nothing prepares one for rough waters, but Lea and Mark eventually catch and eat Barracuda in a Cuda creole. In “Sportfishing Gar,” Spitzer explores his local fishing water, Lake Conway, which contains three species of gar. Spitzer is experienced catching them with jug lines and trot lines, but this adventure represents his very first efforts at catching gar with a rope lure.  See Doug Jeffries YouTube video for instruction on making a rope lure.  After initial success, his next trial is to catch a gar on a fly.   But this quest becomes a lesson in learning to fly cast like an experienced fly fisher—not a goal for amateur.

Mark Spitzer with Alligator Gar.  (c) Mark Spitzer
After a honeymoon in Borneo, he is jet-lagged while “Monster-fishing shark off Montauk,” the eastern end of the Long Island peninsula in New York.  He solicits the help of Captain John Krol aboard the Let’s Go Fishin. Captain John has been fishing these waters since the 1980s.  Montauk is the site of an annual shark tournament with big money prizes and donation of shark meat to food pantries. Spitzer opens a brand new bucket of chum, and raises questions about shark hunting. Captain Krol tells him “it used to be all about tuna out here, but when the tuna thinned due to the mushrooming markets, something else had to take its place.  Shark then became the thing.” According to the experienced Krol, everything is down compared to the past.  Before tuna were completed fished out, “there was only shark hunter in these waters...Frank Mundus. After trying to kill everything in the ocean, he became a conservationist…then tried to save everything in it.”   True, “Monster Man” Mundus is well-known in the region and was the inspiration for the character Quint in the book and movie, Jaws. 
After a Great White Shark terrorized a New England town in the movie, Jaws the interest in shark fishing grew and shark tournaments incentivized shark harvest.  Shark are extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to low reproductive output, high extinction risk, and intrinsic vulnerabilities to overexploitation.  Recreational fishing for sharks is a global management concern (Babcock 2009; Shiffman 2014; Gallagher et al. 2017).  Frank Mundus was responsible for calling shark fishing “monster fishing,” which gained notoriety when he harpoon-captured a massive white shark off Montauk that he estimated at ~2000 kg in 1964 (4500 pounds) (Mundus and Wisner 1971). It’s true that Mundus became a shark hunter turned conservationist.  He was promoted circle hooks, initiated a shark tagging program, and advocated for catch and release. Today there is a one shark per day limit with 54-inch minimum regulation. 
Shark hunting is very controversial, and Spitzer gets his facts straight.  Worm et al. (2013) estimated that the total number of sharks killed by fisheries each year is between 63 and 273 million, with an average of approximately 100 million. The problem is overfishing and as Spitzer writes “monster fish have a lot to teach us, but to learn from them we need to keep them around.” While chumming for sharks, he observes large fishing trawlers and reflects on his fishing quests for monster fish.   Spitzer writes “…I was heading in the right direction, but if this monster-fish thing is really more than just an excuse for me to go fishing, then I need to look even harder. Way harder!” 
In Monster carp in France, Spitzer tries a week of extreme carp angling.  Carp know no borders and the Itkus fishing lake is designed to make carp anglers respect their borders.  Each section of the fishing lake is called a ‘swim’ and anglers reserve their swims. If you get skunked in your assigned swim, no wandering to other areas of the lake is permitted.  Spitzer must admit his ignorance in order to catch a monster carp. Specialized carp rigs include hair rigs, boilies, long carp rods, and pop-up rod alarms. These are extreme carp anglers who drive and survive during a long week of carp angling. Fish are caught, photographed, and released to bite againbut only after the extreme angler applies first-aid cream to damaged carp lips.  Anything that helps reduce the ingress of bacteria into open wounds is likely to benefit the carp.  However, this technique has not been transferred to North America.  Carp are a learned preference for monster fishing.  Clearly, in managed waters they can reach monster sizes, as long as one practices catch and release.  Mirror carp, a genetic mutation with scattered scales covering only part of the body, were a target here. Spitzer was skunked on some days, but did land the Doitsu variety Koi which is pictured on the book's cover. It remains a great paradox that carp are such a highly desired species in some places while reviled for its dominance and damages in lake ecosystems in other places. 
“Bananas from Tarpon” is Switzer’s quest to catch tarpon and supersize stingrays in Gambia.  With his “boss lady” Lea, his guides Farmara, Junior, and Fabu, he eats his first stingray, complete with gelatinous skin and cartilage.  Although he was thrilled to catch a “large” tarpon, it was barely large enough to qualify as an adult specimen.  His conversation gets back to his development as an angler and what he can put back. Food security in Gambia depends on catching and keeping fish.  The old saw “Game fish are too valuable to only by caught once” really doesn’t make sense here. Humans are a species that looks out for itself first. His thinking is turning as he travels to Senegal with thoughts of monster billfishes, Zane Grey, and Ernest Hemingway.  Here near the heart of the world’s richest fishing areas, the local fishers were harvesting Skipjack Tuna Katsuwonus pelamis with handlines from small boats, called pirogues.  But larger vessels and foreign trawlers are threatening the livelihoods of Senegalese artisinal fishers. Spitzer casted for small tuna and used them as bait for his pursuit of billfishes including the Blue Marlin Makaira nigricans, a species threatened by overfishing.  Before long, he switches his target to the Dorado, or Mahi Mahi Coryphaena hippurus, and he reflects again on putting back.
In the “Italian Zander” the conversation continues with twenty ways to put back more. His interest in Monster Zander peaked after a story of monster fish terrorizing swimmers in a Swiss lake. It’s very unusual for Zander Sander lucioperca to attack humans, but the strange story initiated his quest. The Zander is closely related to the Walleye Sander vitreus. In fact the world record Zander at 25.3 pounds, is only slightly larger than the world record Walleye at 22.7 pounds, from Greer’s Ferry Lake in Arkansas. With his guide, Fabrizio, he fishes Lake Como in northern Italy.  This natural lake has a fish fauna that is altered by widespread stocking of non-native fishes (Volta et al. 2018).  After catching a Zander, European chub, European Perch, Northern Pike, and a North American favoritea Largemouth Bass, he returns to the conversation before traveling to the boot heel of Italy to pursue Conger Eel.   You see there is a myth about a 130 pound Conger Eel landed off the coast of Devon. The European Conger Conger conger reaches a maximum size of 3 meters though more typical big ones are 1.5 m. I suspect this trip was more about the seafood. His guide, Antonio, had a mis-shapened finger from a Moray Eel encounter and spoke only Italian.  The longline they fished encountered several species, including some Conger, but mostly the longline caught immature fish.  While his reward was buona murena fritta, the reminder of overfishing immature fish troubled him.

The concluding chapter is “Solutions for  Disenlightenment” where Spitzer finishes his conversation about giving back.  Without giving away the ending, he examines why monster fish are so sacred to him.  What is a man without monster fish?  What are reasonable solutions?  We need scientists and discovery and more types of FishLove.  No single, simple answer exists “to sustain the terrifying beauty of this mind boggling, mind blowing, and mind altering monster fish world.” (Spitzer 2019, p. 180).  I recommend that you join Mark Spitzer on his expeditions in this fun- and monster-filled book and plan your next fishing quest.


Babcock, E.A. 2009. Recreational fishing for pelagic sharks worldwide.   Pages 193-204 in I.-M.D. Camhi, E.K. Pikitch, and E.A. Babcock, editors. Sharks of the open ocean: Biology, fisheries, and conservation.  Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
Gallagher, A.J., N. Hammerschlag, A.J. Danylchuk, and S.J. Cooke. 2017 Shark recreational fisheries: Status, challenges, and research needs. Ambio 46(4):385-398. doi: 10.1007/s13280-016-0856-8
McKenna, M. 2013.  Five stages of a fisherman’s life.  Sun Valley Magazine   March 18, 2013.  Accessed 7 February 2019 from https://sunvalleymag.com/five-stages-of-a-fishermans-life/
Mundus, F., and W.L. Wisner.  1971. Sportfishing for sharks. Collier Books, New York.
Shiffman, D.S. 2014. More large sharks were killed by recreational anglers than commercial fishermen in the US last year. Retrieved November 3, 2019. Available: www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=17834.
Spitzer, M. 2019. In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 189 pp
Volta, P., E. Jeppesen, P. Sala, S. Galafassi, C. Foglini, C. Puzzi, and I.J. Winfield. 2018.  Fish assemblages in deep Italian subalpine lakes: history and present status with emphasis on non-native species.  Hydrobiologia 824:255-270    Worm, B., B. Davis, L. Kettemer, C. Ward-Paige, D. Chapman, M. Heithaus, S. Kessel, and S. Gruber.  2013. Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy 40: 194-204.

Friday, October 25, 2019

When I Was In Graduate School, by Don Orth

If you are currently a graduate student or have been out for sometime, let’s see if you can guess when I was in graduate school. All my graphics and maps were created with Rapidograph pens with different tip sizes, lettering stencils, and rub-on letters and numbers.
Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph.  Source
PrestoTM Rub-on Letters and Numbers. Source.
I had a Texas Instruments handheld calculator. For data analysis, I used programmable calculators that were secured to benches in the statistics department. 
TI-30 handheld calculator.
I learned computer programming on a mainframe IBM 370 Model 155 with the FORTRAN language.  
IBM 370 Model 155   public domain Source.
Data were entered manually on punched cards. The sound of punch machine room was deafening. Wish I had those Bose noise deafening headphones for the many days I spent punching data on Hollerith cards.
Used Hollerith punch card. Pete Birkinshaw from Manchester, UK • CC BY 2.0
Classic computer keyboard: The IBM 029 Keypunch  source

4.5 megs of data on 62,500 punch cards in 1955. Source.
Starting a program meant either carrying your card deck or tape to another building where the computer was likely in a basement room and submitting to a computer operator. Or you could use a terminal, such as the Decwriter, a line printer terminal. Yes, we would communicate with the computer one line at a time!
A DEC LA36 DECwriter II Terminal   Source.
Magnetic tape drives were standard parts of mainframe computers through the 1980s.  The nine-track tapes (10.5 inch reel) developed by IBM for its computers could store up to 175 MB per tape.
IBM tape drives.  Source.
Data manipulation and analysis was with SAS.  I learned SAS 76.  This was pronounced “sass,” never “Ess Ayy Ess”.  SAS was an acronym for “Statistical Analysis System, which was developed in 1966 with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to 8 land-grant universities to analyze agricultural data. SAS was taken private in 1976, and henceforth called “SAS Institute, Inc”. In 1976, Base SAS consisted of ~ 300,000 lines of code.  A SAS program was written on punch cards, in a language similar to PL/I.  Semicolons were required at the end of each line.  If you left one out, the program failed and you ran back to the punch card room to fit your error. And PROC statements were and rigid syntax were required. 

I learned fish population dynamics with my TI-30, FORTRAN and BASIC programs.  Imagine how disruptive my teaching was which had students play fishery simulation games on the computer (Li and Adams 1976). My first personal desktop computer was an Apple II. was one of the first computer with a color display, and it has the BASIC programming language built-in, so it is ready to run right out of the box. I never used a spreadsheet in graduate school  VisiCalc, a spreadsheet, was the first killer app for the Apple II.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/VisiCalc  Lotus 123 was released later.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_1-2-3
Apple II with monitor and floppy disk drives
I typed my thesis and dissertation on an IBM Selectric electric typewriter. Even all equations with subscripts and superscript and special mathematical operations. I never had email in graduate school.  We used snail mail to submit applications and multiple copies of manuscripts.  The first email I had was in early 1980.  Orth@bitnet. net was my address. BITNET was the precurser to the world wide web and file sharing was done with ftp and Gopher.  

One equation from Master’s Thesis (Orth 1977)

I didn't think it was difficult at the time.  I simply didn't know of any other options.   I received my PhD in 1980.

Li, H.W., and P.B. Adams.1976. Three computer simulation games for the instruction of fish population dynamics. Fisheries 1(1):22. https://swfsc.noaa.gov/publications/CR/1976/7626.PDF     
Orth, 1977. Development of a computer simulation model of largemouth bass population dynamics.  Master’s Thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. https://shareok.org/bitstream/handle/11244/19142/Thesis-1977-O77d.pdf

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

An Introvert Does Outreach by Don Orth

I was honored and proud to receive the Excellence in Public Outreach Award from the American Fisheries Society last week. It raised many questions in my mind and the minds of others.  These questions form the basis for this post.  Why do I do public outreach?  I am an introvert. One in three people you know are introverts (Cain 2013).  Introverts love quiet places and working solo and loathe noisy crowds and self-promotion. Introverts don’t seem naturally adapted for outreach activities.  But it doesn't have to be an excuse for not engaging with the public. 

“Be a loner. That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth. Have holy curiosity. 
Make your life worth living.” Albert Einstein
AFS Executive Director, Doug Austen, congratulates me on Excellence in Public Outreach Award.  Photo by Valerie Orth.
Introverts can engage in public outreach. My first priority is research, which requires building a team of collaborators and connecting with other researchers to share ideas and conduct research.  But writing requires time alone.  And public outreach requires writing long before engagement begins.  Let me answer some questions:

How do you see science communication fitting into the future of fisheries education?

Public engagement is the connection between science education, communication, and policy. Increasingly scientists are expected to engage with the public at multiple levels. On Twitter, the hashtag #scicomm denotes engaging the general public in the world of science.  We need to engage with the public in science in ways that may influence policy. The decline in news reporters and newspapers has influenced how people obtain science information.   Google and Facebook have replaced the newspapers and TV news, for better or worse.  Today, most people depend on online sources for science news (Su et al. 2015) and some argued that the scientific article is obsolete (Somers 2018).  

Newspaper and Google revenues over time.  Source.
The problem as I see it is that we learn very little about public outreach in college.  Outreach and public speaking are not natural skills, especially for introverts. There are many communication skills, beyond public speaking, that are needed by today’s fisheries scientists.  Add these to the growing list of skills a scientist needs to master.  It’s not enough to tell students “Go read this Science Communication book by Bowater and Yeoman (2012).” Scientists and managers in agencies are often stymied in attempts to do public engagement.  Who should do it?  How should we do it? Too often we assume it is someone else’s job to do.  People are often knowledgeable but don’t act in ways that show that knowledge.  The communication of science began with the deficit model in which scientists try to fill gaps in the knowledge of the public.  Modern #scicomm encourages two-way dialogue between experts and non-experts.  

Was there a single, memorable public outreach event that galvanized views and methods, or was development more gradual?

I’ll never forget my first visit to speak at an elementary school. I brought a bullhead in a small aquarium and talked about senses of fish.  Wow!  I was blown away by kids filled with curiosity and questions.  My Department required that all students translate a thesis or dissertation into form readable by the general public. Consequently, I’ve always worked with students to create a popular article related to their thesis question (e.g., Leonard and Orth 1985; Graham and Orth 1986; Austen and Orth 1988).  However, my interests in public outreach built gradually over time from occasional popular articles or talks to local angler or Kiwanis clubs to more focused activities. 
What have you learned along the way?
There are many benefits to public engagement. We all want to change the world and we want people to take action based on evidence.  It is not enough to educate the public and expect them to act based on the knowledge.  Even regulations and laws do not always result in compliance with desired actions.  I wish to learn more about human behavior.  The idea of the nudge, or positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions, can influence behavior and decision making (Thaler and Sunstein 2009). A fascinating example of this is about bathroom urinals in the Amsterdam airport.  Men have terrible aim, which leads to unpleasant effects in busy airport bathrooms.  A nudge would be to include a realistic image of a fly in the urinal based on the belief that if you give a man a target, he cannot help but aim at it.   We need to learn much more about how to connect and influence various publics.   Market researchers and Cambridge Analytica have proven it possible even with dastardly consequences (Wylie 2019).  

Urinals with a fly.  by WissensDürster CC-By 3.0 Source
Another major benefit to public engagement is to stay informed on emerging trends.  Twitter is a great platform to learn and contribute to ongoing discussions.  Here are a few hashtags that are relevant: #GRExit, #gradstudents, #MeTooSTEM, and #SciComm. Twitter lists are curated groups of Twitter accounts.  You can either create your own lists or subscribe to lists created by others.   Join a twitter group that fits your interests, such as Virginia Tech Things, #TeamGar, or AFS Member Tweeps.   Or create your own.

How do you make content accessible to diverse audiences?   

This is a challenge and my advice is fourfold: (1) Start small; (2) Find your voice; (3) Identify an audience; and (4) Go beyond publication in scientific journals.  Several authors (See here and here) have described how they write a blogpost from a journal article.  Reaching diverse audiences will take time but you must first develop your authentic voice. So you can become a “Nerd of Trust”  and see that some people do value your knowledge (McClain 2017).
Writing scientific publications is not enough.  We need to realize how science affects society and how society may affect and determine the direction of science.  In the world of fisheries, we are learning to adapt to climate change.  Fishing fleets must adapt or move to follow fish.   GMO fish is an emerging issue (Pickrell 2006). Many in the scientific community have claimed to have reached a consensus that there is no well-documented threat to human health from consumption of genetically modified food. However, opponents including the Union of Concerned Scientists remain concerned that long-term effects of consuming bioengineered foods have not been tested thoroughly, and that it is irresponsible to release them into the environment before we have better data on their consequences.  Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food sectors and the issue of consuming farm-raised or wild-caught fish is on people’s minds and should influence the direction of future science. Society also demands that we address questions long ignored or thought unimportant, such as fish pain and welfare of wild-caught and farmed fish.
What blog posts are most read? My most-viewed blog posts were:
What advice do you have for the beginner?
First decide how much time you are willing to devote to public outreach.  Time is the number one barrier to participating in outreach (Weaver 2005).  Illingworth (2017) provides advice to the novice science communicator.   He advises that one examine these questions before jumping into science communication.  What and why are you trying to communicate? Who are you communicating to? What type of activity are you using? Is there a chance for two-way dialogue? Are you re-inventing the wheel?
There are additional questions to consider, but the field of science communication needs more evaluation of results and training for the would-be science communicator (Illingworth and Roop 2015).  Each public outreach activity represents another skill to master. One-time activities provide little chance to improve.  One must tradeoff public outreach with other job-related duties.   If you are struggling to find the time for doing science, you should consider partnering with others in the unremitting dialogue that is needed (Prokup 2017). 


Austen, D. J., and D. J. Orth.  1988.  Sampling of waters with electricityVirginia Wildlife 49(April):24-27.
Bowater, L., and K. Yeoman. 2012. Science Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists. John Wiley & Sons. 384 pp.
Cain. S. 2013. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.  Broadway Books.  368 pp.  
Graham, R. J., and D. J. Orth.  1986.  Living in the danger zone.  How do smallmouth bass survive?  Virginia Wildlife 47(April):22-25.
Illingworth, S. 2017. Delivering effective science communication: advice from a professional science communicator. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology 70:10-16 
Leonard, P. M., and D. J. Orth.  1985.  Are your streams healthy?  Ask the fish!  Virginia Wildlife 46(April):14-17. 
McClain, C. R. 2017.  Practices and promises of Facebook for science outreach: Becoming a “Nerd of Trust.”  PLoS Biology 15(6): e2002020. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2002020
Pickrell, J. 2006.  Introduction: GM organisms.  New Scientist. 4 September 2006.  https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9921-introduction-gm-organisms/
Prokup, A. 2017.  Communicating basic science: what goes wrong, why we must do it, and how we can do it better?  SciComm PLOS Blog https://blogs.plos.org/scicomm/2017/11/20/communicating-basic-science-what-goes-wrong-why-we-must-do-it-and-how-we-can-do-it-better/
Puckett, E.E. 2013. Outreach for introverts, WildlifeSNPits website. Available at https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/outreach-for-introverts/ accessed October 8, 2019.
Somers, J. 2018. The scientific paper is obsolete. Here’s what’s next.  The Atlantic. April 5, 2018.   
Su, L.Y.-F., H. Akin, D. Brossard, D. A. Scheufele, and M.A. Xenos. 2015. Journal of Mass Communication Quarterly 92:597-616.
Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein. 2009. Nudge. Penguin Books. 312 pp.
Weaver, A. E. 2005.  Scientists and public outreach: Participation, motivations, and impediments.  Journal of Geoscience Education 2005:1-22.
Wylie, C. 2019.  Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the plot to break America.  Random House. 270 pp.