Fisheries scientist studies freshwater fish and their habitats
By Nancy Weiss
“We are a family where fishing and hunting is part of our culture. It is something we talk about at the dinner table,” says Associate Professor Jason Vokoun when asked how a Nebraska native became an expert in the fisheries aspects of the natural resources conservation field.
As a child, Vokoun spent time on the dairy farm that has been in his extended family since his great-great grandfather immigrated to the Midwest in pursuit of a dream that seems to be coming true for his descendants.
From the two-acre garden Vokoun’s father still tends, providing produce for his family and giving fresh vegetables to a city mission, and the lazy summer afternoons Vokoun spent splashing around in local creeks and ponds came a sensibility that embraces the wonders of the natural world with the drive to share his insights with others.
Inspired by an uncle who was a wildlife biologist, Vokoun knew that with a college degree he could pursue a vocation that would fit his interests and be a practical course toward employment. He attended the University of Nebraska and did so well he moved on to graduate school at the University of Missouri. T his broad interest in animals became focused on fisheries conservation.
In 2004 Vokoun accepted a position at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut, beginning a career that combines teaching and research that most often involves working closely with the State of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, particularly the Bureau of Natural Resources.
In 2005 the state experienced a severe drought, and the “dewatering” of streams led to extensive fish kills. State regulations on stream flow needed to be rewritten, but research was needed to measure the effects.
Vokoun, his graduate students and undergraduate student summer employees measured changes in fish communities in waterways downstream from active diversions where water was withdrawn both for agricultural and municipal uses. The data and report were used in the recent update of Connecticut’s stream-flow regulations.
A study on mercury levels in fish in 50 lakes around the state found that while levels were lower than in previous studies, the contamination is still high enough to warrant continuation of health advisories for consumption of freshwater fish.
Vokoun believes the health advisory will be in effect for the next ten years, but notes that stricter air quality regulations have apparently contributed to less mercury contamination in bodies of water in the state.
A third study on the swimming performance of burbot, a state-endangered fish which could repopulate stream habitats if appropriate fish ladders could be designed and built, was conducted with senior honors student Daniel Watrous. The three studies are good examples of the applied research Vokoun does.
“The state has questions about fish and fisheries and they turn to us to get the information they need. If we do our job well, everyone is in a more informed position to manage and conserve the environment,” says Vokoun.
Jason Vokoun has found a niche for his interests and skills in the streams, lakes and ponds of the state. Momentum seems to be on his side as Vokoun’s research program recently received a gift of an electrofishing research boat from an anonymous donor. “The new electrofishing boat is state of the art, and it brings our field research capabilities in line with any academic program in the country. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Whether seeking grant support, working with students in the outdoors or the classroom, or solving technical research problems for state regulators related to the needs of fish populations as well as human ones, Jason Vokoun is combining the practical sense one acquires in a rural upbringing with academic training to understand difficult questions and introduce his students to the joys and challenges of environmental investigation.