Meet Kristopher Maxson, a large river fisheries ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). Maxson originally joined INHS in 2009 as a fisheries technician, and recalls his time as a tech as a priceless experience that is vital to the work being done.
Maxson recently answered a few questions about his work.
Tell us a little bit about your role!
I joined the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Illinois River Biological Station in July 2016 as a large river fisheries ecologist. My specific responsibilities are centered on the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program’s Long-Term Resource Monitoring element (UMRR-LTRM). It is federally funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and administered by the U.S. Geological Survey in partnership with 5 states (MN, WI, IA, IL, and MO). The program began in 1993 and uses a multi-year approach to survey the entire riverine fish community, tracking population trends over time in response to invasive species, environmental change, or management actions.
What drew you to your particular area of study?
I remember going on a class field trip in elementary school and getting to see an Illinois Department of Natural Resources fish biologist electrofish at a local state park, and thinking that would be a cool job to have. I loved fishing growing up but didn’t really think about fisheries as a career. I entered college preparing to go to medical school, but working in the biology department taking care of their live reptile/amphibian collection opened my eyes to other possibilities. My experience there led to my first job as a technician for the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Great Rivers Field Station in 2009. There I gained a breadth of experience in herpetology, fisheries, and limnology that led me to graduate school and my current position.
What do you love about being a large river fisheries ecologist?
I love spending time on the water. All great civilizations rose up along rivers, and rivers are the lifeblood for so many creatures. From the smallest plankton to the largest catfish and the turtles, snakes, and birds that depend on the river, there is always something new and exciting to discover.
What has been one of your most exciting moments at work?
There’s a certain mystery whenever I go out on the river, you never know what you might catch that day. It’s exciting to catch a species we rarely see, like an American paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon. This summer I caught my first northern pike since starting at the Illinois River Biological Station. I also enjoy doing outreach. My wife is a second grade teacher, and it is fun seeing the excitement in her students’ eyes when I show them a big fish or turtle, and hearing them talk about their own experiences fishing with their parents or grandparents.
What are some common misconceptions about your role?
I think many people think we spend all day catching fish for a living. While that may be mostly true for 5 months of the year, the rest of the time is spent analyzing data and writing reports and other administrative tasks. The world of fisheries, and science in general, is constantly changing, and there is a lot of research being published that we must stay current on that informs the work we do.
What’s it like doing this job in the middle of a pandemic?
It’s definitely different. Part of our job is to serve as mentors to the many summer technicians we hire every summer and who perform the tasks that make our jobs possible. The relationships usually built on long rides to and from field sites or after-hours trips to the local marina must be built differently in a socially distant world. Coupled with new additional projects and responsibilities make it a busier year without the added strain of a global pandemic.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
We all start out as hourly technicians at some point. Though the pay isn’t always great, the experience is priceless if you’re willing to put in the time. Though the tasks may seem pointless or menial at times, they are vital to the work being done, most of which would not be possible without you. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, ask questions, and get to know your supervisors. Learn from their experience so it isn’t lost when they retire and pass on the baton. We all start climbing the ladder from the bottom, and it’s good to remember the experiences that got us to where we are.