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Alumni Profile: Aimee Hoover

May 1, 2017

Aimee Hoover earned her master's degree, specializing in fisheries science, in spring 2017. Working under her adviser Helen Bailey, at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, she conducted her thesis on the movement and dispersal of leatherback turtles from nesting beaches in Costa Rica considering implications for management and conservation.

Before her graduation, Hoover discussed what her research meant to her and what role it plays in her Knauss Fellowship through Maryland Sea Grant, as well as some of her most memorable experiences from her time with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

What's your thesis topic and why/how did you get involved in that area?

My thesis is titled “Leatherback turtle movement and dispersal from nesting beaches in Costa Rica with implications for management and conservation.” My focus is understanding how leatherback turtles, the largest of marine turtle species, move during different life stages. Very little is known about where they grow, and adults are often accidentally caught in fisheries. The Eastern Pacific population is at risk of extirpation, as numbers have declined 98 percent in the past 30 years. By understanding where the young develop and where adults are most likely to be throughout the Pacific, we can better manage this population. (Learn more about the leatherback's "Lost Years.")

My involvement in sea turtles and incorporating science into better management practices began when I worked in Hawaii. I spent a few years as a contractor with NOAA NMFS, and one of my tasks was to help describe the movement of Western Pacific leatherbacks. We were then able to predict where they might be in the ocean to help develop a dynamic management tool for fishermen. My thesis work directly fell in line with this concept of utilizing science to provide information to fishermen.

Can you talk about some of your most memorable experiences with UMCES or research you're proud of related to your thesis?

I was lucky to have the ability to conduct international field research in three different places. Anytime you leave the country solo to try to complete research, adventures await.

As nearly all scientists will attest, research never goes as planned. This is complicated much further when you are in remote areas with a language barrier and lack access to additional materials and electricity. The reward at the end of successfully working through these difficulties is great.

The Pacific side of Costa Rica was significantly affected by the 2015 El Niño. Of course, Murphy’s Law proved true, and the early months of 2016 was when my fieldwork was scheduled to occur. The leatherback population for my thesis work does not do well under El Niño conditions, making it hard to complete the study. My most memorable experience came from this situation.

To try to find hatchlings, I ended up sleeping on the remote beach at night, hoping no jaguars were around. The patrol team, which walked the beach all night looking for adults laying eggs, woke me up when there was a nesting turtle. Under the moonlight with waves gently crashing, I was able to watch her find a place to dig a nest. When she was laying eggs, I carefully caught them and eventually reburied the nest in a better location. The eggs would have died if they had been left where she wanted them. It was incredible to be that close to a large nesting turtle and an experience I never anticipated.

Under the moonlight with waves gently crashing, I was able to watch her find a place to dig a nest. When she was laying eggs, I carefully caught them and eventually reburied the nest in a better location.

What does the opportunity to be a Knauss Fellow mean to you?

Being a Knauss Fellow is an opportunity I had hoped for since receiving a NOAA undergraduate Hollings Fellowship. It offers me the ability to experience science from the policy side, particularly in DC. Even though I had spent years working as a contractor on the research side of NOAA, there was always the question of what it actually took for the research to develop into policy. As a fellow, you become aware of the intricacies of government and policy across agencies, developing an understanding of what science is enveloped into management and what does not make the cut. On top of this, the fellowship enables engagement across agencies and organizations, such as non-profits, to increase understanding of all oceanic user groups. It is seeing first-hand how the government functions from many viewpoints, and it is invaluable knowledge and development as a scientist.

As a Fellow, you spend a year on a project. Talk about that and how it relates to your thesis.

My Fellowship is with NOAA NMFS Office of Science and Technology’s National Observer Program.

Many U.S. fisheries have observers and at-sea monitors sent by NOAA to collect data on various aspects of each fishery. These data are used in various ways, such as understanding species abundance changes, population dynamics, and informing management of commercially-important species. My main role in the office is help in reporting fisheries bycatch, the unused or unwanted portion of catch in a fishery, across all the regions monitored. Fisheries bycatch is important to understand in order to ensure fisheries are sustainable and efficient, especially when the bycatch involves protected or endangered resources. This is directly related to my thesis work because I tried to understand how to prevent fisheries bycatch of leatherback turtles. Without knowing where turtles are caught in fisheries, it is very difficult to understand how to predict and prevent future interactions. Data the National Observer Program oversees can help explain relationships between animals and humans to better management practices for endangered species, for example. 

Would you recommend a Knauss Fellowship to future students?

UMCES has a strong history with the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship, and I am proud to be part of that. I encourage others to continue working hard and consider pursuing this fellowship. There are a lot of opportunities for students who do not study marine science, even though it is a marine policy fellowship. Fellows work for a range of agencies in support of marine science, and everyone is able to find a position that fits their background.

Photo by Allan Doyle