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Expanded fisheries-wildlife conference fosters professional connections

Angela Hsiung and a friend took part in a race associated with the TWS-AFS joint meeting in Reno, Nevada.
Angela Hsiung

Some call themselves “fish heads.” Some prefer “bird nerds."

But no matter the nickname, aquatic and wildlife specialists agreed: A large-scale conference that encompassed all of their interests was an opportunity for new professional development, new connections and a greater appreciation of their own field.

This was the consensus among faculty, students and alumni of the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources who attended the recent joint conference of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society. More than 5,000 professionals came together in Reno, Nevada, for the event, which aimed to bridge the two societies, promote interactions and collaborations between the two professions and highlight commonalities between the two fields.

The meeting featured more than 40 concurrent sessions, 140 exhibitors and 2,400 presentations.

“The size of (the conference) made me a little apprehensive,” said Brian Crawford, a postdoctoral researcher at the USGS Georgia Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit located within Warnell.

But the size of the event helped Crawford and others reconnect with former colleagues.

“One of the coolest moments of the conference was running into an old mentor of mine who was a master’s student (at Warnell) back in 2009. The size of the conference definitely facilitates running into old connections,” Crawford added. “I also got to see professors from Warnell who had moved on to other universities. These were some of my first professors … who made a really good impact on me. I haven’t seen them at other conferences.”

Clint Moore, Warnell faculty and assistant unit leader at the USGS Georgia Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Unit, agreed that the conference’s size led to more connections than a standard meeting.

I made one or two new connections through introductions to people who likely would not have attended the traditional TWS conference,” he said. “More commonly, I ran into current associates who I rarely see because we usually attend different conferences.

The format didn’t work for everyone, though.

Jeff Hepinstall-Cymerman, another Warnell associate professor who attended the meeting, said he felt the larger meeting size lacked the intimacy of smaller meetings.

“I generally prefer smaller meetings where you can get to know the folks who travel in similar circles but only get to interact in person once a year,” he said. “This joint meeting was so large it was hard to find people at times, unless we had prior knowledge of both attending.”


Different yet similar

Most people outside of these fields may not realize that fish and wildlife have more similarities than differences. And even to a professional, these connections are sometimes not immediately apparent. So, when you get several thousand of them together at one conference, it’s a chance to build upon those commonalities.

For example, discussions about habitat restoration, endangered species conservation, and analytical approaches offered insights from both worlds. This gave attendees a chance to gain more perspective into the other’s chosen field.  

“It’s a good learning opportunity because there’s so much commonality and also subtle differences that you can learn from or trying to adapt in your research,” said Crawford. “I definitely got more of that because it was a fish and wildlife conference.”

Moore said he appreciated the opportunity to hear fisheries-oriented talks—a topic he wouldn’t find at typical The Wildlife Society meetings.

“Some sessions featured speakers from both disciplines, in which the cross-applicability of a technique, a model, or a policy was the session focus,” he said. “I think the joining of the two conferences had a synergistic effect in offering sessions and workshops that would otherwise have been difficult, impractical or meaningless to offer in either of the traditional conferences.

Fish and wildlife fields are also similar in the complexity and challenges that come with species protection. Crawford said he appreciated seeing these challenges from a different management perspective.

“I saw a lot of good conservation planning with salmon and all the challenges that go into a migratory species that is endangered but also sought after for recreation,” he said. They “show how complex conservation can be. We have wildlife species that are equivalent.”

Another commonality between fisheries and wildlife? Humans.

Most fish/wildlife management is ‘people management’” added Moore. “I think the two fields face the same challenges in dealing with and communicating with its stakeholders.”


The ‘Netflix Problem’

But the size of the conference and diversity of sessions offered can be a double-edged sword. With over 2,400 presentations crammed into four days, attendees can miss out on some great content.

I was dissatisfied about continually having to choose among equally interesting talks,” said Moore. “Even in a single-discipline conference, I find it rare that the plenary sessions provide as much value to me as the concurrent technical sessions that they displace; with no more days added to the conference, this displacement and loss of value felt even more pronounced to me.

Also, because attendees had to choose between a large number of presentations that happened at the same time, they rarely chose the same presentations throughout the conference, and thus there was little overlap between their conference experiences, which could potentially dampen the overall experience.

“If you want to talk to someone else about a presentation you saw they probably didn’t see it,” Crawford said. “It’s like the ‘Netflix problem’, if you have all these new shows coming out, you’re not going to watch all of them. Maybe you watch one of them and your friends are going to watch the other one and you’re not going to be able to talk about (the same shows).”

The joint conference is not a regular occurrence, though, and overall, participants’ attitudes seemed to be mostly positive about the experience. It’s not often that 5,000 wildlife professionals can mix and mingle, and so the event was a unique experience.

“I liked the experiment, and I think there was value added by combining conferences,” Moore added. “I hope it is repeated in the near future, but the logistics that contributed to my frustrations need to be addressed.”

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