Scientist Spotlight: Michelle Staudinger & Co-producing Science on Coastal Fish Phenology

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Learn about the aquatic and coastal research of Michelle Staudinger, Science Coordinator for the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Staudinger holding a Atlantic puffin chick on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Staudinger holding an Atlantic puffin chick on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Adrian Jordaan

“Many people associate the phrase ‘aquatic resources’ with freshwater systems, but the term ‘aquatic’ really is a catch-all,” said Michelle Staudinger, the Science Coordinator for the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC). Her love of aquatic ecosystems began early on when she was a child living inland in upstate New York, surrounded by streams and ponds where she caught and studied every amphibian and reptile she could find. Out of all the water-dwelling critters that called these habitats home, Staudinger found that fish were the hardest to catch, making them the most mysterious.

“I wanted to learn more about fish and by the time I was in college, I was hooked on the subject,” said Staudinger, who pursued marine biology and environmental science as an undergraduate in the Boston University Marine Program (BUMP). During her studies, she traveled abroad to Belize and designed a science project attempting to answer questions surrounding predator-prey relationships in eelgrass and coral reef ecosystems. From that point forward, Staudinger had a strong interest in marine biology as a career.

“I would say that my work now is primarily based in coastal and marine systems, rather than freshwater ones,” said Staudinger. “Some of the species that I study, like river herring, do venture into freshwater habitats for a portion of their life cycle. However, everything I study inevitably goes back to the sea at some point.”

For much of her educational career, Staudinger focused on the patterns of occurrence and interactions among aquatic species, including phenology, or the seasonal timing of biological events, like migration. She received her Ph.D. in Marine Science and Natural Resources Conservation from the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) Amherst in 2010 and then moved south to accept a position as a visiting research assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Not long after, Staudinger moved to Washington, D.C. to work on the Third National Climate Assessment with Doug Beard and Shawn Carter of the National CASC while the regional CASCs were still being established. It was during this experience that Staudinger began to fully understand climate change as a variable that can influence shifts in ecological interactions.

“When I worked on the Third National Climate Assessment, my goal was to learn as much as I could about climate change,” said Staudinger. “I was already studying species relationships, but I realized that if I study these interactions in a vacuum without thinking about how climate change influences these relationships, I would be missing half of the story.”

When Staudinger first became interested in this type of research, climate change was mostly predicted to impact ecological relationships and was not considered the primary stressor on most systems. Today, the influence of climate change on ecosystem dynamics is measurable. When the Northeast CASC was established and awarded to UMASS Amherst as the host university, Staudinger moved back to Massachusetts to accept the position of Northeast CASC Science Coordinator.

“My goal working at the Northeast CASC is to fully integrate the influence of climate change on the ecological systems that our stakeholders and I are interested in,” she says. “I also strongly believe in the CASC network’s stakeholder-driven model of research, which involves co-production of science with interested resource managers.”

A long-time research focus for Staudinger is coastal fisheries management. Fisheries science has a long history of working cooperatively with stakeholders like commercial or recreational fishermen, and this type of co-production is something that Staudinger has been implementing in her research since she began. As a graduate student, she quickly found that working directly with fishermen was an excellent way to gain access to certain fish species, such as open ocean fish predators like tuna, billfish and sharks, which would otherwise be incredibly difficult or expensive to monitor. Staudinger frequented fishing tournaments up and down the East Coast for years in order to develop and maintain these important stakeholder relationships with state biologists and fishermen.

Staudinger measuring a dolphinfish at the Annual Ducks Fishing tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina.

Staudinger measuring a dolphinfish at the Annual Ducks Fishing tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina. Credit: Joshua Snyder

“It took a while to break the ice and it was always good to have somebody make an introduction, but I had to show up to get to know these fishermen and explain my research with total transparency to earn their trust,” says Staudinger. “I think I’ve been very successful working with fishermen and others because a lot of what I’m interested in helps both scientists and stakeholders better understand the dynamics of which fish are eating what. The fishermen are interested in that because they want to know which prey make the best bait!”

Staudinger also says many stakeholders are concerned with conservation planning and how they can play their part in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems with thriving fish populations. In order to adequately explain her research in a way that helps these stakeholders develop informed adaptation plans, Staudinger tries to avoid jargon and always makes an effort to attend informational meetings and workshops for aquatic and coastal managers, especially in the Northeast. She also presents her work at these meetings and discusses the preliminary results of her research with collaborators from state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations.

In this way, Staudinger has maintained beneficial relationships with stakeholders, scientists, and resource managers alike. Such an inclusive strategy has led to great scientific success for Staudinger and her colleagues at the Northeast CASC. For example, in 2014, Staudinger was contacted by one of her co-authors on the Third National Climate Assessment, John O’Leary, who worked as a natural resource manager with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife (now retired). At the time, O’Leary and his department were interested in teaming up with Staudinger, the Northeast CASC, and UMass Amherst to create what is now known as the Massachusetts Wildlife Climate Action Tool.

“This was maybe the moment where I thought ‘this is what it feels like to achieve success,’ right then and there,” says Staudinger. “We wanted to present the information in non-technical terms so that it was very accessible and understandable by managers, the public, and anyone who wanted to get an idea of how climate change was impacting the natural resources in the Northeast region.”

The overarching project, co-funded by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northeast CASC required numerous meetings with a wide variety of stakeholders, including the secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, to synthesize the necessary information. If managers, scientists, or stakeholders were trying to plan any adaptation actions, this tool could provide them with adaptation options to inform their decision-making. Additionally, this tool has been used by educators at UMASS Amherst, other universities, and even high schools as a source of information for teaching and learning about climate change. 

“Our Climate Action Tool was designed to be a very place-based state resource, but the information synthesized—such as species overviews, adaptation strategies, and vulnerability information—is all region-wide,” says Staudinger. “It was important to convey that what makes species vulnerable to climate change in Massachusetts might not be the same as what makes the same species vulnerable in Maine.” 

Staudinger’s more recent research on forage fish has also been well-received. Her 2020 publication, “The role of sand lances (Ammodytes sp.) in the Northwest Atlantic Ecosystem: A synthesis of current knowledge with implications for conservation and management", highlights the ecosystem role of the forage fish called sand lance, which historically have undergone boom-and-bust population cycles along the Northeast coast. These important forage fish support predatory fishes, marine mammals and seabirds, particularly colonial nesting seabirds which migrate to and reproduce seasonally in the Gulf of Maine. These bird species, which include the federally endangered roseate tern, rely on sand lance and other prey fish while they nest and raise their chicks.

Arctic tern parent feeding chick a sand lance on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Arctic tern feeding chick a sand lance on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Keenan Yakola

Unfortunately, sand lance populations fluctuate widely in time and space and may be less available during these seabirds’ breeding seasons due to shifting phenology. Sand lance complete their early life history in the winter, but regional winter duration is decreasing due to climate change. Shifting availability of sand lance populations during subsequent developmental seasons (spring, summer) of colonial nesting seabirds is concerning, as it likely impacts the growth of these birds as juveniles.

Another publication by Staudinger, “It’s about time: A synthesis of changing phenology in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem”, and its related Northeast CASC-funded project, “Implications of Future Shifts in Migration, Spawning, and Other Life Events of Coastal Fish and Wildlife Species,” highlighted the wide knowledge gaps surrounding the scientific understanding of climate change impacts on phenological processes. Staudinger believes this played a role in the success of the publication, which is currently in the top 10% of most downloaded articles from the Journal of Fisheries and Oceanography’s website between January 2018 and December 2019.

“I think phenology is a topic that people are inherently interested in, especially in the temperate Northeast because we live in such a seasonal system,” says Staudinger. “It might have been a shock to people to hear that we didn’t really have a firm grasp of what exactly was shifting and how. The paper was a foundation, or call to arms, for people to go out and do this type of phenological research.”

Finally, Staudinger was part of a team of researchers that developed a synthesis report for the revisions of Northeast State Wildlife Action Plans in the year 2015. She is in the process of planning for a similar effort to aid state action plan revisions for the year 2025. Staudinger attributes her success with a variety of different scientists, managers, and stakeholders to the opportunities provided to her as the Science Coordinator for the Northeast CASC.

“I think we as a CASC are really connected to and respected within manager networks that use us as a source of information on climate science, so we really have their attention and trust,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of responsibility in this field and we are very well linked in.”

In the future, Staudinger hopes to continue her work in delivering scientific products which aid the development of flexible climate change adaptation strategies in the Northeast. She says she would “really like to see more adaptive management systems that better take into account how shifts in phenology, range, and species relationships are altering the effectiveness of management tools.”

“Many of our management tools are fixed in time and space, and do not account for shifting species,” says Staudinger. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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After graduating college, Dr. Staudinger received a Certificate in Conservation Biology from Columbia University, and during this time was exposed to applied research methods for fisheries management. This prompted her to go back and get her master’s degree from Stony Brook University, and later received her Ph.D. in Marine Science and Natural Resources Conservation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2010. She was a joint post-doctoral fellow with the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center (formerly the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center) and University of Missouri Columbia and is currently the Science Coordinator of the Northeast CASC located at UMASS Amherst. Her focus includes aquatic species vulnerability and adaptive capacity, phenology, and conservation management.

Check out some of her adventures below!