Next Generation: Samara Nehemiah on assessing striped bass populations

October 5, 2022

Advisor: Dr. Michael Wilberg, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses of the development of spatial stock assessment models for Chesapeake Bay fishes. Stock assessments are the process of collecting and analyzing fisheries data in order to assess the condition of a fishery or fish population. I am developing new statistical methods to estimate population abundance of striped bass. For many fish species, we don’t actually have estimates of their abundance in the Chesapeake Bay specifically, nor do we know how fish populations in the Bay have changed over time.

These statistical models require knowledge of the fishery catch and other life history characteristics to provide estimates of abundance, mortality, and other desired quantities to determine if fish populations are being overfished. These metrics are crucial for fisheries management agencies to be able to appropriately set regulations such as bag limits or minimum size limits for a species of concern.

How will it make a difference?
Striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish on the Atlantic Coast and support a large commercial fishery. They are federally managed from Maine to North Carolina; however, each state manages striped bass in state waters separately and sets different regulations, fishing seasons, and bag limits based on a total allowable quota. These are done in efforts to allow folks to enjoy that species recreationally and also consume the species in a way that will not deplete a population and allow that species to survive and thrive.

What is concerning about striped bass is the most recent stock assessment indicated that Atlantic striped bass are overfished. My research aims to find ways to assess the status and population sizes of the Atlantic striped bass population within smaller spatial regions in order to better manage and conserve this species over time. The Chesapeake Bay is critical habitat for many ecologically and economically significant fish species, such as striped bass. My research is one of the first to try to get population estimates for fish in the Chesapeake Bay, and the methodology I develop will be able to be used for other significant fish species to create population estimates in the Bay for better long-term management efforts.

What influenced your career path in science?
I always had a love for sharks and all marine megafauna as a kid. Through my curiosity about sharks, I learned about conservation threats surrounding our oceans and marine species, including overfishing, habitat degradation, and climate change. However, I never thought I would make science more than an interest and turn it into my career.

I started college with the intent to major in music. When I finally found myself learning about fisheries sciences after I graduated from undergrad, I felt like I finally found the perfect fit for me. Through this field I am able to be immersed in these amazing habitats, study incredible fish species, and work to conserve these resources. It’s truly a dream come true.

Samara surveyed the Chesapeake Bay with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources during the striped bass spawning season in 2022.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
Dr. Wilberg has such a great reputation and is considered a top-tier stock assessment scientist. When I was considering Ph.D. opportunities, his name was high on my list due to his experience in the field and the systems he works in the Chesapeake Bay. I am very fortunate to have him as a mentor because not only is he incredibly supportive of me as a scientist and person, the knowledge and skills he has taught me regarding stock assessment and fisheries management is endless.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
I just feel very lucky to have an incredible support system. I have an unbelievable advisory committee comprised of knowledgeable scientists. More importantly, the constant support and guidance they have for me is so important for my success.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
There are a lot of ways that folks can help the environment, both big and small. The most important thing is to stay informed and find reliable information sources. As folks become more engaged and interested in protecting our natural resources and the planet, information can become overwhelming and often fails to consider the nuances that exist surrounding any environmental issue.

I think it’s important to challenge all information that you are provided because it may contain some level of bias. For environmental issues, it’s important to understand the ecological dynamics surrounding that issue, the economic consequences humans may face in respect to that issue, as well as the political climate that affects that issue.

Most environmental dilemmas are incredibly complex and require thoughtful action and change. If you are someone that is overwhelmed by all of the information, start small. Pick one issue to focus on at first and then advocate for policy and societal changes. Small steps can make a huge difference.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
My advice to kids would be don’t be afraid to follow your interests and try new things. I feel like I was constantly told as a kid—and even throughout college—that I couldn’t work with sharks or be a biologist. That really deterred me from making efforts to learn about marine biology in college. I also didn’t feel like I saw a lot of representation in the field, so that furthered my hesitation.

Not only was I able to study sharks and rays for two years when I worked at the Florida Program for Shark Research, but I am now a successful fisheries biologist! I’m so glad that I eventually listened to my instincts and pursued my passions. Everyone belongs in STEM, regardless of your background or what you look like. There is no one way to be a scientist. I would encourage any kid to follow their interests without hesitation!

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
I am a current National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)- Sea Grant Population and Ecosystem Dynamics Fellow. This fellowship is the best part about my studies. It trains Ph.D. students to be stock assessment scientists at the federal level. Through this fellowship, I select a mentor the works with NMFS to help with my training and my studies. My mentor from NOAA Fisheries Science Center, Dr. Amy Schueller, is incredibly supportive and an amazing stock assessment scientist who has taught me a lot already about the field. I also get to spend a few weeks a year working alongside Dr. Schueller at one of the NOAA facilities and learn the ins-and-outs of working with NOAA. It is a such a great program.

This year I also received the Debbie Morrin-Nordlund Memorial Award through the Marine Estuarine Environmental Science (MEES) department. This travel award provided funding for me to travel to the American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting in Spokane, Washington. This provided me an opportunity to attend my first in-person conference where I was able to give two presentations on my research and network with many fisheries scientists.

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
I hope to finish my degree by 2025.

What are your future plans?
After I finish this program, I hope to work for NOAA as Stock Assessment Scientist. I’m really eager to continue with my research interests.