Diversity and the Ecology of AFS

By Joe Margraf, AFS President.

The concept of diversity is ubiquitous throughout biology, ecology, and sociology and implies a greater likelihood of success and resilience. This is true of organizations as well, and the American Fisheries Society is no exception. The negative perception is that diversity comes at a cost to the most common demographic; generally, we are talking about the potential loss of jobs to underrepresented individuals or the potential of feeling ill at ease in our new human surroundings. The truth is that failure to achieve diversity comes at the far greater cost of surviving as an organization or as a profession. Without diversity, we cannot expect to be prepared for the inevitable changes that will occur in our environs, which will result in our eventual demise.

I have come to the conclusion that the issue is one of the perceived relevance of our profession… If a potential student is bright enough to enter the fisheries profession, why not go into a profession that will clearly be of benefit to and understood by their community?

Diversity is usually quantified as the number of nontraditional individuals employed in the endeavor. However, what we really mean is diversity of ideas, ways of thinking, experiences, solutions to problems, value to decision makers, relevance to society, and so forth. The American Fisheries Society and the fisheries profession—scientists and managers—have been making some progress in achieving greater diversity, but we still have a long way to go. What I want to do is explore some of the thoughts I have had on the roadblocks that stand in our way. I also want to make it clear that I am willing to open this column to other ideas that folks might have on this topic, but only if their objective is to help recognize and dissolve the roadblocks.

I have been concerned about diversity in our profession for some time now and have tried to do what I could to help. In the mid-1990s, I decided to help start a new Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is a historically black university. The cost to me was in giving up a rather comfy research setting for a potentially tenuous one at what had been mainly an undergraduate teach- ing institution, where I would be immersed in a mostly nonwhite environment. The major upside to this situation was access to a highly educated African-American community. As it turned out, research needs and funding were not a problem, and while we had some success recruiting, it was less than overwhelming. It was not because I was not of the appropriate demographic to serve as a good mentor; people of color that I worked with had limited success recruiting students of color to the program, too. My thought was that the reasons had something to do with a lack of understanding about the resource and perhaps a lack of appreciation for the natural world.

While I really liked the Eastern Shore, I had an opportunity to go to the co-op unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for someone like me who had never worked in a landscape that was not highly in uenced by hu- mans. Also, I thought that recruiting and educating Native Alas- kans would be relatively simple because I would not be ghting against a lack of understanding and appreciation of nature and the importance of sustaining healthy sh populations. Alaska was the only place I lived where the general public had some notion about the importance of fisheries management. After several unsuccess- ful attempts to recruit rural Native Alaskans, I was once again faced with far less than I expected in terms of success. Perhaps I was just getting too old to relate or be attractive as a potential mentor, but younger colleagues were not having much success either. This and other experiences (like the incident I related in an earlier column) got me thinking about the very nature of the fisheries science and management profession. It is a very difficult field, perhaps every bit as hard as rocket science; we ask a lot from our students educationally and expect even more from them to be successful as professionals.

Based on these two experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the issue is one of the perceived relevance of our profession. It takes a lot of academic training to become a fisheries scientist or manager. If a potential student is bright enough to enter the fisheries profession, why not go into a profession that will clearly be of bene t to and understood by their community? There could be little that is worse than going home and having your family or community leaders ask why you wasted your tal- ents and education. The truth is that fisheries science and manage- ment are, at their heart, providing sustainable sh populations for use as sustenance for Native Alaskans and other rural citizens. Yet this is not understood. To most people, if you are smart enough to succeed as a fisheries scientist or manager, then why not go into the medical or legal professions or, for that matter, become a rocket scientist? Notice that I have not mentioned money, but that may be an issue too. In general, the profession is accomplished by government or university employees that are typically paid less relative to private enterprise or at least that is the perception. In many communities, working for state or federal government is not looked upon favorably—pay is only part of the equation. So, how do we fix it? Clearly, if I had a simple concrete answer, I would forcefully act on it. The answers are not simple, and they are not hard and fast. Increasing the relevance of the profession will not be accomplished without a huge amount of work on our part. It is something that we must do, and do over and over again. I have appointed a committee to start working on this issue, but I expect they will find it very difficult. But as I said at the onset, it is the survival of our profession that is at stake.

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