For this installment of Organization of the Month, we sat down with Science on the Fly. This organization is a collaboration between Fishpond and Woodwell Climate Research Center, and seeks to better understand how climate change can affect our river systems. By tapping into the fly fishing community, Science on the Fly gains a motivated and far-ranging volunteer base to assist in world-wide water sampling. Follow along as we explore Science on the Fly, river chemistry, climate change, and how to get involved!
Flylords: Science on the Fly is relatively new, but is rapidly growing. What is Science on the Fly and how did it start?
SOTF: Science on the Fly is a partnership between the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Fishpond, and a large and growing number of fly shops, guides, outfitters, and individual anglers working together to study, protect, and restore rivers. Volunteers collect monthly water quality samples from their rivers, then send the samples to Woodwell’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory for analysis. Our goal is to sustain the project for many years, and to use trends in river water chemistry to discover changes occurring in the rivers and their watersheds. Armed with that knowledge, we’ll work with local communities to help them protect and restore their rivers.
Science on the Fly got started after we met in 2017 during the MountainFilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado. As we got to know each other over the coming months, and united by our passion for rivers, wild places, and fly fishing, we brainstormed about how we could bring our worlds together, one of us being a river/climate scientist (Max) and the other (Johnny) being the founder and owner of Fishpond. John Duncan and Troy Youngfleish (owners of Telluride Angler) joined the conversation, and together we hatched the idea for Science on the Fly.
Flylords: How many rivers has Science on the Fly sampled?
SOTF: We got started just over a year ago with Telluride Angler sampling several locations on the San Miguel River. Amazingly, Science on the Fly is now sampling 145 sites in 23 states and 3 countries, and we’ve doubled in just the past two months! We’re trying to put the brakes on so that we don’t outpace our funding, but amazing people keep volunteering and it’s almost impossible to say no. So our strategy is to grow our sampling network and fund-raise in tandem, driven by a sense of urgency to do everything we can to understand and protect rivers during this period of extraordinary global change.
We’ll focus our growth in the coming months on adding sampling in new states, with our goal being to be sampling rivers in all 50 states by the end of 2021.
Flylords: What is the process for collecting a sample?
SOTF: It’s actually fairly easy. Once we onboard a new volunteer, we send them all necessary sampling supplies including sampling protocols, sample bottles, filters, syringes for collecting and filtering the samples, a stream thermometer, waterproof field book, coolers and ice packs for shipping back frozen samples – and some Science on the Fly swag including stickers and a hat or t-shirt! It probably takes about 10 minutes to collect a sample, and most volunteers sample about 3-4 locations each month. In a nutshell, river water is drawn into a 60-mL syringe, and then filtered into the 60-mL sample bottle through a 0.22 micro filter. This filtration step removes bacteria and viruses, which along with freezing helps keep the sample stable until analyzed. Perhaps the best way to understand the sampling protocol is to watch our short video that shows a sample being collected.
Flylords: Generally speaking, what does river chemistry tell you? How can river chemistry differ across the country? And how does river chemistry affect fish?
SOTF: In many ways we study river water chemistry like a physician studies blood chemistry. Just like the chemistry of your blood can give a physician clues about your health, river water chemistry can provide insights into the health of a river and its watershed. The chemistry of rivers in different regions varies naturally based on characteristics of their watersheds, but the chemistry of rivers also varies as a direct result of human activities. For example, wastewater, fertilizer, herbicides, and industrial chemicals can all have huge impacts on river health, as can physical changes to river channels and watersheds that impact a river’s flow characteristics. All of these things impact the biology of a river, including its fish populations. Tracking the chemistry of a river and how it changes over time doesn’t provide all of the answers, but it does shine a bright light on issues that require further investigation and remediation.
Flylords: Strategically, what is the benefit of engaging fly fishermen and women for this work?
SOTF: For one thing, anglers span the globe. They’re pretty much everywhere! And they’re a passionate bunch of people who care deeply about their rivers, and most want to do their part to help ensure that future generations have similar opportunities to those they enjoy.
We suspected the fly fishing community would be an ideal group to partner with to sample rivers, and we’ve been blown away with the response so far. As mentioned above, the response from prospective volunteers has been so strong that we’ve had to tap the brakes a bit, just to be sure that we don’t outpace our funding!
Another thing we’re hearing from our volunteers is that after they’ve been sampling their rivers for a few months, they start to look at the rivers differently and appreciate them in new ways. They also become more invested in protecting their rivers, which benefits everyone.
Looking at the world today, I think it’s clear that we’d all benefit from more people having an appreciation of Science! In fact almost all of the projects at the Woodwell Climate Research Center have the twin goals of doing cutting edge science and then using the science to inform and drive societal change.
Flylords: In a couple years, you all will have a pretty amazing collection of river data. What is the end goal?
SOTF: Science on the Fly is in this for the long haul. As we generate longer and longer data sets from individual rivers, we’ll get to know their characteristics and therefore will be able to recognize when they are changing. Those changes could be driven by climate change, agriculture, development, or other factors, but detecting the changes is a necessary step for solving the issues that are driving the changes. As we like to say “Every River Tells a Story – Science on the Fly is Listening”.
Flylords: Climate change is already impacting our fisheries throughout the country. Reduced snowpack’s impact on coldwater fisheries and shifting fish stocks are a couple of examples. Can you, in basic terms, provide some insight into the science of climate change, and how it can impact fly fishing?
SOTF: Perhaps the clearest example of how climate change can impact fly fishing is through rising water temperatures. As is it clear from the increased frequency of closures of some of our most revered trout streams to help protect heat-stressed trout, these impacts are already upon us. Even king salmon in the Yukon River are showing evidence of heat stress, which impacts spawning success and therefore future populations. Climate change is also impacting patterns and amounts of rainfall and snow, altering river flow, and other climate-related phenomena such as wildfires are also ravishing watersheds, rivers, and fish. Unfortunately, without rapid and dramatic action, the situation is likely to get worse over the coming years and decades, which should motivate anglers to get to work now.
Flylords: How can these water samples help scientists track and better understand climate change?
SOTF: River chemistry and discharge reflects processes occurring in the river’s watershed. For example, if a watershed burns, that will be reflected in the river’s chemistry. If Arctic permafrost thaws, that also will be reflected in a river’s chemistry. In fact most of the changes that are unfolding because of climate change propagate through a watershed and eventually show up as changes in the chemistry and discharge of a river. And it is these changes that impact the species living in rivers, including the fish that capture our attention!
Flylords: A growing majority of Americans acknowledge that humans are greatly contributing to climate change. However, there is much more debate, partisanship, and disagreement over the best course of action. What are some ways we can slow climate change that are founded in science? Also what is our current timeline?
SOTF: On a macro level, we can really only slow climate change by reducing the amount of carbon that we dump into the atmosphere or by increasing the amount that we pull out. To reduce the input, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and stop cutting down forests. To increase carbon removal from the atmosphere, we should protect our existing forests and restore degraded forests. Together these natural climate solutions remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. We can also more wisely manage agricultural lands to store more carbon while simultaneously becoming more productive. These are all high level approaches that require high level actions, but there are also a whole host of individual actions that contribute to combating climate change. Essentially we need all hands on deck and an all-of-the-above strategy. The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it gets to effectively tackle climate change, and the more we’ll all suffer – including our rivers and their fish.
Flylords: How can motivated readers get involved with Science on the Fly and possibly help collect recurring water samples in their homewaters?
SOTF: Science on the Fly is only possible because of the efforts and support of a passionate group of volunteers and donors. The best way to join the effort is to go to our website, scienceonthefly.info, and navigate to the “Get Involved” page. If you are interested in volunteering to collect samples, just complete the brief online form. We’re particularly eager to hear from people living in states (or countries!) where we’re not currently sampling.
People can also help by making a charitable contribution to the Woodwell Climate Research Center in support of Science on the Fly. Or you can purchase a Science on the Fly hat from Fishpond, with 100% of the profits going to support Science on the Fly.
Cover picture courtesy of Willie Cunningham.
Answers by Max Holmes, Deputy Director and Senior Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center, and Johnny Le Coq, Founder and Owner, Fishpond.