AFS Second Vice President Candidate Statement: Cecil A. Jennings
I have been around fish and fisheries from an early age, but recognizing that it was to become my professional passion took a bit more time! A childhood friend’s grandfather was a commercial fisherman, and we sometimes tagged along as he tended his gear. Our interest wasn’t in the fish as much as it was enjoying the boat ride and experiencing the natural environmental wonders of our native Virgin Islands. Though I wasn’t aware at the time, I was developing a love and appreciation of nature. My formal introduction to the natural world occurred during my senior year in high school when I was enrolled in a marine biology class. The course and its many field trips to beaches, tide pools, and mangrove lagoons reawakened my love of the outdoors and also fueled a desire to learn about how such systems work and what I could do to protect them. Excelling in this class led to a summer internship with the local natural resource agency just before I started collegiate studies. That internship was the start of my aspirations to become a natural resource professional. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a biologist, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. College classes in a classical biology curriculum strengthened my interest in science, but classes in ecology and resource conservation coupled with part-time jobs as a field technician provided genuine clarity to my professional goals. A bachelor’s degree in biology/natural science/conservation from Carthage College was followed by a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries ecology from Mississippi State University and a PhD in fisheries science from the University of Florida.
I’ve have been happily employed as a fisheries biologist for the past 32+ years and counting, including positions with the Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Currently, I work as a fisheries research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (Cooperative Research Units) and serve as an adjunct professor (Fisheries) in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. In these positions, I have had the good fortune of working with amazing people on a diverse array of species/assemblages inhabiting a variety of systems. These efforts addressed an assortment of fish management or conservation issues and included investigations into fish population dynamics, life history, age and growth, food habits, habitat use and movement patterns, assemblage response to habitat perturbations, and human dimensions. Much of this work was done collaboratively and accomplished with a team of graduate students, post-doctoral research associates, and technical staff. I am optimistic that my research and mentoring efforts have contributed to maintaining healthy fish populations and the fisheries and communities they support as well as recruiting a new generation of scientists to ensure fisheries stewardship continuity.
My involvement with AFS dates back 35 years to my time as a graduate student at Mississippi State University, where I learned about the society from a faculty member who extolled the Society’s contribution to the profession and encouraged me to join. Initially, I was happy to be associated with like-minded faculty and students who shared a love of fisheries. As an inexperienced fisheries student with a basic biology background, the “fisheries” learning curve was steep, but I enjoyed the new and exciting experiences, inside and outside the classroom. Chief among the “new experiences” was learning the importance of good governance for helping the Society fulfill its mission. I began to understand that AFS’s many successes have come from members being involved at all levels of the Society and accepted that I too should contribute to the Society’s governance as needed.
Since those early days, I have supported AFS by maintaining membership (including life member since 2011) in the Society and participating in governance at the local, regional, and national levels. This support includes participating in conferences (author and session chair) at all organizational levels, serving as a referee for and publishing my research results in many of the Society’s journals, and editing an AFS-published book. Since joining AFS in 1984, I have served on 12 different committees, as President at the state (Georgia) and regional (Southern Division) level, as an Associate Editor for two of the Society’s journal (North American Journal of Fisheries Management and Transactions of the American Fisheries Society), and on the parent society Governing Board. These experiences, especially service on the Governing Board, have been very rewarding personally and professionally. My 35-year long association with AFS has provided the palette on which my contributions to our profession could be fully realized. These contributions in research, mentoring, and governance were recognized recently by my induction as an AFS Fellow (class of 2019).
The American Fisheries Society is the oldest and most preeminent professional fisheries society in the world. Its mission is clear… “Improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals.” Though simple to state, these objectives can be difficult to achieve, especially given the current zeitgeist in our country. AFS has a robust track record of facilitating strong science and professionalism among its members, disseminating research in well-respected peer-reviewed journals, and advocating strongly on behalf of the aquatic resources, especially fisheries. My main vision for AFS is to maintain this record of accomplishment as it adroitly reacts to emerging challenges and opportunities. For example, many Americans now seem to eschew science and rely on refuted ideas (e.g., the earth is flat, vaccines cause autism, climate change is not caused by human activities) to govern their daily activities and their positions on the country’s science policy, including protections for the environment and the resources we derive from it. Unfortunately, issues related to fisheries are not immune to this anti-science bias. In this environment, “business as usual” may not be the most effective approach to achieving AFS’s mission.
The American Fisheries Society has thrived as long as it has because it has been responsive to societal changes and challenges without compromising its core beliefs. Deciding when responses are necessary has been key to this success. In my view, our profession is at such a crossroad and is facing new challenges that require innovative responses. For example, our inability to communicate the importance of what we do to our constituents, who may be increasingly skeptical to our appeals to protect and conserve our fishery resources, is one such challenge. We fisheries professionals speak a common language, and though many of our constituents may know a couple of phrases, far too few speak this language fluently. Accordingly, we are responsible for communicating our science and its implications (good and otherwise) for their lives in a language they understand. I envision AFS being a leader in this effort. Additionally, recognizing that occupational “branding” when recruiting new professionals, who may not come from the ranks of the traditional “hook and bullet” enthusiasts of the past also is an emerging challenge to our profession. In my role as an academician, I’ve spent many hours debating the merits of branding (i.e., what we call our classes) for recruiting students to our program. Increasingly, the students enrolling in natural resource curricula come from urban backgrounds and seemingly are more interested in “fish conservation” than in “fisheries management.” These title differences may seem subtle, but enrollment in fish conservation frequently is much higher than the enrollment in fisheries management. The need to manage fisheries is more important now than ever, but finding professionals to fill those rolls may be difficult if we can’t attract them to the profession. Proactive assessment of how AFS’s “brands” (e.g., fisheries biologist) are perceived by potential new recruits may be beneficial as the profession markets itself to a new generation of fishery science practitioners. Finally, lack of adequate compensation for many beginning fisheries professional may lead to problems retaining new recruits to our profession and represents an opportunity for the Society to advocate for its members. I personally have trained scores of fisheries students at all educational levels. Most have been bright, highly motivated, and passionate young professionals eager to pursue their passion. However, I’ve seen too many struggle to find professional fisheries positions that pay an entry-level wage commensurate with the cost of the skill set required to do the job. Similarly, I’ve seen far too many leave the profession in search of better entry-level wages offered by other occupations. Our profession’s potential retention problem will become more acute if the number of retirees in the next decade increases as projected. Discerning why recruits are leaving our profession and what can be done to retain them should be high priority information needs if AFS is to maintain its strong reputation for long-term distinguished service advocating for fisheries and fisheries professionals.
My path as a fisheries professional has had many twists and turns. I have enjoyed the journey thus far and very much look forward to where it will lead. My long association with the American Fisheries Society has been a mainstay in that journey, and I have benefited from the service of others who assumed governance roles within the Society. I welcome the opportunity to serve in a similar role. If elected AFS President, I pledge to work diligently to maintain the Society’s relevancy, efficacy in promoting fishery science, and being responsive to emerging challenges to the profession and the opportunities they represent.