What’s My Story: Fisheries Ecologist

F. Joel Fodrie

F. Joel Fodrie is a fisheries ecologist at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Science. He grew up fishing, shrimping, surfing, knee boarding, and goofing around a lot, but he didn’t think you could have a career in the ocean. A poster on a college bulletin board changed all that. Today, he is a fish detective, revealing the secret life of fish from beneath the water's surface.

Biological Oceanography: the study of marine organisms, their quantitative distributions in time and space, and their interactions with each other and their ocean environment. 

When did you discover you wanted to be a fisheries ecologist?

I grew up on the water in Beaufort, North Carolina. I had a boat when I was 13, spent a lot of time fishing, shrimping, surfing, knee boarding, and goofing around a lot, but I didn’t think you could have a career in the ocean. I also loved basketball, which in part led me to the University of North Carolina for college. 

I started out in college not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I loved history. I can bore people to tears with Revolutionary-era history stories. If I could write worth a darn, I’d be a historian. When I got released from JV basketball at the end of my junior year, I needed something to do in the summer. I was walking through Venable Hall one day and I saw these posters about marine sciences. I said to myself, “Oh my God, people do this for a living—marine chemistry, marine geology, marine biology?” I didn’t know which of those I wanted to do, but I went home, looked online, found two UNC Chapel Hill researchers working down at the coast and called them on a Sunday. They both picked up! I got to work with both Dr. Hans Paerl and Dr. Pete Peterson between junior and senior year. That’s when I discovered what I wanted to do.

What did you study?

During that first summer working at the coast, I collected water samples and looked for microbes, phytoplankton, and nutrient levels with Dr. Paerl. With Dr. Peterson, I designed a research study to find out why the bay scallop populations were crashing in some areas. That was fun. It was like being a detective. We had four hypotheses for why the scallops were dying off: cownose rays were eating them, blue crabs were eating them, they were dying prematurely, or they just swam away.   

I designed an experiment that would give us a look at what was happening in a place we couldn’t see—underwater. I planted a stockade of poles in the sea grass to see what would happen. The poles would not prevent the scallops from swimming away or the blue crabs from eating them but they would prevent rays from cruising along the bottom and picking up scallops. Turns out it was the rays, because every area where I planted the stockade of poles, the scallop population was fine. I love solving puzzles like this in a place that is opaque beneath the surface.

Fisheries EcologistWhere did your career take you? 

I finished my degree at UNC Chapel Hill and worked as a marine technician for a year before I decided to go to grad school at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. I spent five and a half years there studying the population ecology of fishes. I wanted to understand how the physical conditions of the habitat—the way the water flows in an estuary—is connected to the biological behaviors of the species—their movements, larval supply, and the social cues the fish respond to in order to breed successfully. I designed a study to understand how the population ecology of the California halibut impacts the use of the variety of coastal habitats. I found out the halibut population does best if the juvenile fish can grow up in a bay. Even though the adult halibut prefer the coastline of the open ocean, the juveniles need the protection of a bay in order for the fish to thrive.

After completing my PhD, I went to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. That was an interesting time. I got to see the impacts of climate change by collecting tropical species moving north. I got to experience the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by collecting fish before and after the event. After three years, I started looking for a job as a professor at a university. I was about to accept a job at Rutgers when I bumped into a North Carolina colleague at an airport. He told me about a position that was coming up at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Science in Morehead City. I jumped at that and ended up coming full circle back to North Carolina.

What do you like about your job today?

My favorites are the days when I have all the data gathered and ready to be graphed. In that moment, with that set of data, I know I’m going to be the first person to understand the way a small part of the world works. I have figured out a mystery and I can share that secret with people, because it shines light on the invisible world beneath the surface.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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