Interview: Q&A with John Waldman

John Waldman is a professor of biology at Queens College, Queens, NY 11367. E-mail: [email protected]

How did you get involved with the work you are doing now—what led you into this particular line of research?

Though I grew up in the Bronx, I lived in walking distance of Long Island Sound. There I had an urban “Huck Finn” boyhood with endless fishing and boating adventures. Also, my father would drive me north of New York City to fish various streams, where I discovered the magic of flowing water. Although only a casual angler, my dad always had some Outdoor Life and Field and Stream magazines around that whetted my appetite for broader knowledge of fishes. My incipient proclivities for the scientific side of the underwater world were given a huge boost on my ninth birthday with a copy of the epic, 1,156-page McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide, which I soon read from cover to cover and then back again.

Much later, my doctoral work at the City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History focused on the anadromous Striped Bass Morone saxatilis and its relatives, but as a taxonomic study. Though I enjoyed that research, I was more drawn to the many other biological aspects of anadromous fishes than I was to systematic biology. An offer to help launch a Striped Bass tagging program led to a 20-year career at the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research. Though a foundation is an odd base for a research career, with a generous leash I managed through collaborations and conferences to also become heavily involved with the study and conservation of sturgeons, shads, and Sea Lamprey Petromyzon marinus, in addition to Striped Bass, and in the process to assemble a respectable publication record. Publication of my book, Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor, prompted a speaking invitation to Queens College in 2004 and then to a professorship there, allowing me to reinvent myself as an academic and to focus more specifically on diadromous fishes. This culminated in 2013, after six-years of research (and a lifetime of experiences), with my book Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and their Great Fish Migrations.

What is the most challenging work issue you are dealing with now—what is unique that makes it challenging?

I think the deeper history of many conservation issues often remains far too little appreciated—we need more historical ecologists. In delving into the environmental history of New York Harbor, I was astonished at just how awful conditions were a century ago—its oil-coated waters caught fire and portions of its bottoms were covered in raw human sewage sludge 10-feet thick. Not surprisingly, many fishes, oysters, and herons and other birds of prey were only a memory. In restoring this remarkably compromised water body, we’ve done an even better job than most today are aware of.

However, the opposite is true concerning diadromous fishes and Atlantic rivers. There is general appreciation that runs in these rivers are markedly smaller than they once were, but in examining this history the decline is shockingly bad—with decreases as much as 4 to 5 orders of magnitude—what are pathetically small relics today rather than waters that once “ran silver” with the migrating fish.

This somewhat passive acquiescence to the current reality is a prime example of a “shifted baseline,” where we have accepted the mere persistence of these comparatively tiny runs (rather than their primordial abundances) as the new normal. Getting the public and resource managers to firmly reject the status quo and to set their sights higher is the challenge, and we need to rethink our reference points. I wrote Running Silver with the aim of not only informing about the incredible legacy that has been lost, but also to inspire society do something about it. That “something” is no mystery—most significantly, it’s removing dams.

What’s one interesting fact that most people don’t know about the field of research you are in?

There is a lot of valuable, practical information to be gained by being an engaged angler out on the water and in being part of the larger angling community—textbook knowledge only goes so far. To put serious time towards locating and fooling trout or bass, for instance, in the structurally complex realm of a flowing river or the various habitats of a lake is to begin to really understand their needs and habits. And enmeshing yourself in your own local angling world puts you in contact with keen and caring observers of nature, especially regarding changing phenologies and shifting ecological communities. So if you are a fisheries biologist, angling should be considered working!

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