By Charlie Booher

In response to Alan Campbell’s Legends of Conservation column, the Michigan Out-of-Doors editorial staff sought to highlight individuals who might someday make their way into those pages. The Rising Stars in Conservation column seeks to introduce readers to the next generation of natural resource conservation professionals, sharing their experiences, their voices, their ambitions and their outlook on the future of the field. Leaders today look different, hold different positions and have been trained differently than traditional conservationists and they are worthy of an introduction.

In what might be described as a typical Michigan childhood, Nicole Watson’s early years were hallmarked by trips “up north.” Growing up in Southeast Michigan, like more than half of all Michiganders, Watson and her parents frequently sought to escape the region’s urban sprawl in favor of a small cottage on the Au Sable River, just east of Grayling.

As a young child, Watson spent time fly fishing the banks of this storied river, exploring the unique ecosystems of the Northern Lower Peninsula and soaking in the beautiful, complex places that make Michigan such a special place. In this way, Grayling – both the town and the fish that it is named for – became critically intertwined with a fisheries biologist’s life.

“Grayling was just such a special place for me and my family growing up,” Watson said. “Now, my husband and I, along with our dogs, enjoy those same waters and woods today.”

Like so many conservationists, Watson’s career path did not start out in the direction of fisheries biology. While studying biology and chemistry at Eastern Michigan University with plans to pursue an education in equine medicine, she fell head over heels for an ichthyology course. The study of fish, their ecology, behavior and population dynamics led her to rethink her graduate degree program to focus on fish. The love that began on the banks of the Au Sable and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Huron was coming to fruition.

From spending weeks at a time on deepwater research vessels in the Great Lakes to circumnavigating Lake Michigan on four separate occasions and traveling to interior Alaska to gather breeding stock of arctic grayling, to partnering with a distillery to help fund her Ph.D., Nicole Watson has certainly enjoyed quite the adventure in the early years of her career.

After her undergraduate training in Ypsilanti, Watson took a two-year contract position with the U.S. Geological Survey doing work on deepwater communities. As she researched microorganisms deep in the Great Lakes, she sought to understand better the factors that underpin the entire lake ecosystem: forage. The lake’s base trophic level (eventually) feeds everything from minnows and baitfish to salmonids and other aquatic species.

Nicole Watson releases a grayling she caught in Alaska. Watson’s research with Michigan State University is centered around reintroducing Arctic Grayling to Michigan waterways. Photo: Tom Watson

“I fell in love with the work, and with the fish, but I always found myself more curious about streams, rivers and other flowing waters,” Watson said. “The movement of water across the landscape tells a strong story about the creatures that inhabit it for all or part of the year, as well as the land that the waters flow through.”

Watson got just that in her first round of graduate work at Central Michigan University. While working in Mt. Pleasant, Watson conducted research on native steelhead species in tributaries of Lake Michigan. Her work entailed four trips around the lake, electrofishing every day for weeks in a row. On 42 small streams in Michigan and Wisconsin, Watson used a backpack-mounted electrofishing array to stun spawning steelhead, often working with a small team of researchers.

After collecting the small age-0 and age-1 juvenile fish out of knee-deep water, Watson would carve out the otolith, or ear bone, of each individual. Using this small piece of bone, she could track the tributary where that fish had been born. Back in a chemistry lab on campus at CMU, Watson spent much of her time performing laser ablations on nearly 3,000 otoliths. The laser precisely removes material from the otolith. These dust particles are instantaneously moved from the ablation chamber in carrier gases (helium and argon) to the mass spectrometer, where they are transformed into an ionic plasma. The plasma is then sorted by element mass and quantified to obtain the otolith signature. The otolith elements act as a sort of journal and can be used to interpret the story of any given fish – where it was born, where it spent its early years and the conditions of those places. As a whole, these data told Watson and her colleagues a great deal about the importance of certain Lake Michigan watersheds to steelhead.

This is especially important in the context of stocked fish, which, at the time, were not being clipped or tagged. This meant that state fisheries agencies and other organizations could not track which bodies of water were most or least productive. Possibly more notable is what they could do with that information — efficiently and effectively target conservation and management efforts. Her research is still being used to help manage these habitats and fisheries today.

After a few years at CMU, Watson worked to gather funding, mentorship and support to pursue a Ph.D. in Fisheries Ecology at Michigan State. As a proud Spartan, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Watson turned down a position at that other school in Ann Arbor and drives by that campus every time she comes to campus in East Lansing. The state, and my alma mater, are better off because of that choice.

Currently, Watson spends her time conducting research on interspecific predation and competition, water choice and imprinting that might impact the reintroduction of arctic grayling into Michigan waters. In short, what might restrict the success of grayling eggs when they are dropped into a Michigan river. Obviously, there are plenty of challenges. Young fish face predation and competition from other species, while also facing a behavioral inclination to travel towards water of a certain temperature and chemical composition. Someday, she hopes to play a leading role in bringing sustainable populations of grayling back to Michigan to further enhance the robust fisheries of her home state.

To get to this point, she has worked with members of the research community at Michigan State and managers with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to build artificial streams. In a building on the south side of campus in East Lansing, Watson and her team feed and study thousands of juvenile grayling, brook trout and brown trout every day. She studies how they interact with one another and respond to different water sources. To gain a better understanding of how this might look, Watson has spent time with native grayling populations in interior Alaska. These interactions, mostly done through an underwater camera, gave Watson a view into the world of grayling — helping to determine how they make their way in this world and, specifically, how they might make their way back into the waters of Michigan.

Her initial research suggests that grayling will readily coexist with native brook trout but have a complex relationship with nonnative brown trout. This is fairly unsurprising, as brook trout and grayling once cohabitated in Michigan’s Jordan River. Previous attempts at grayling reintroduction have resulted in the rapid outmigration of juveniles. Researchers and managers in Montana experienced similar issues but were able to overcome these challenges by introducing the fish at the eyed egg stage of development. Watson and other collaborators believe that this technique might be applied with similar success in Michigan’s fisheries. All of this information will help managers and other researchers to better understand what it might take to perform a successful reintroduction and, potentially, for anglers to catch grayling on the rivers near the town that bears their name.

Nicole Watson hikes up a mountain in the Western United States in pursuit of native salmonids. Photo: Tom Watson

All of her travels and time spent in and on the water gave Watson a deeper understanding of her research subjects and the habitats in which they reside. This experience, combined with a strong knowledge of statistics, population dynamics and spatial ecology, make Watson a particularly well-equipped fisheries scientist. A soon-to-be alumna of three of Michigan’s public universities, Watson looks forward to a future career here in the Great Lakes State. However, her journey has not been without trials, including a robust travel schedule and often living in a different town than her campus.

“I frequently find myself being one of only a few women in a room of fisheries biologists,” Watson said. “I strongly believe that we continue to need new, diverse faces in this field to bring in novel ideas and holistically improve the work that we do for Michigan’s fisheries.”

The future of fisheries biology is not without its challenges, too. Invasive species, warming stream and ambient temperatures, and increased human development all pose risks to Michigan’s native fisheries. However, despite many challenges, Michigan’s fisheries leaders continue to think towards the future to craft thoughtful, adaptive management regimes.

“When we think about salmonid diversity, places like the Western U.S., Oregon, Washington and Alaska often come to mind,” Watson said. “These places have many different species of salmonids and non-game fish, but research suggests that fisheries diversity is declining globally and can be attributed to invasive species and human impacts on ecosystems. Unfortunately, many species are still being lost today. We want Michigan to have a flourishing ecosystem and to make this happen sustainably, but it is complicated and will certainly take a great deal of time, energy and foresight.”

Michigan’s fisheries are in need of stewardship and care from thoughtful, creative individuals like Watson, but they also require collective action. These wild rivers and streams need public attention from anglers, paddlers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and academia. They also need knowledgeable young advocates to help along the way.

The future of fisheries conservation is bright with people like Nicole at the helm, but it is also a thankless, difficult pursuit. Our world, and the field of Michigan’s most fragile ecosystems, is changing, but future professionals are well-adapted to use rigorous research to solve future problems. Watson works every day to make the world a better place for native fish — and plans to continue to do so long into the future.

Nicole Watson and her husband, Tom, upland hunt with their English setters, Flint and Sally, from Firelight Bird Dogs. Photo: Lynn Dee Galey