Sarah Molinaro is a stream ecologist at the Stream Ecology Lab with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). She's a former graduate student researcher with the Sport Fish Ecology Lab (SFEL) in 2019, focusing on tournament bowfishing harvest and the population dynamics of Shortnose Gar.
She recently answered some questions about herself, her return to INHS, and her advice for those just starting out in the field.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how your role at INHS will be different this time around?
As a grad student in SFEL, my research focused on tournament bowfishing harvest and the population dynamics of Shortnose Gar, a non-traditional sport fish that is commonly targeted by bow fishers, in the Illinois River. In comparison, my current work in the Stream Ecology Lab focuses on how the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) impacts fish and aquatic macroinvertebrate communities in small streams. One of the big differences is that the waterbodies I’ll be working in now are much smaller, a five-meter wide stream versus large rivers like the Illinois River, so the sampling techniques I’ll use and the fish communities I’ll sample are very different. While both projects are conservation-oriented, they use different lenses: sustainability of sport fish versus aquatic community focused.
Before rejoining INHS, I was an assistant fish biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in the Big Rivers unit. There I administered the commercial fishing program, assisted with the invasive carp program, and managed catfish, Shovelnose Sturgeon, and Paddlefish in the big rivers of southern Indiana. Outside of work I like to cook, read, adventure outdoors, and spend time with friends and family.
What drew you to your area of study?
I’ve always been very curious, enjoyed solving puzzles, and loved nature. In a lot of ways, ecological questions are like complex living puzzles that you examine to understand how organisms interact with each other and the environment. After taking ecology courses in college, I realized it combined a lot of my interests and could be a viable career path. My early research experiences centered around fisheries, and I never looked back.
What tools are indispensable to your fieldwork?
An electric seine and backpack electrofisher. Both send an electric field into the water to stun fish, which lets us collect them and identify which species are in the streams.
What do you wish more people understood your work?
The diversity of aquatic life in seemingly undesirable environments like the highly modified agricultural streams found throughout central Illinois. It’s hard to see most aquatic animals, so people aren’t aware of aquatic macroinvertebrates or fish species not commonly targeted by anglers. There are nearly 200 fish species in Illinois! Some species have unique adaptations and appearances and during the breeding season some species rival the bright coloration of coral reel fish. It’s always really cool to show people the critters they had no idea existed, let alone have in their backyards.
You are dealing with some very fragile aquatic ecosystems in the Illinois and Kaskaskia River basins, what can we do to help protect and nourish these environments?
Short of owning land in those watersheds and adopting conservation practices, reducing your environmental impact in general. Being mindful of fertilizer use in your lawns and gardens helps reduce nutrient inputs in streams. Planting rain gardens with native plants can enhance water retention and reduce runoff and erosion into streams after storms. Picking up trash so it doesn’t wash into streams. These are just a few examples that come to mind. While it’s easy to think of our human spaces as separate from nature, our actions ultimately influence the health of aquatic ecosystems and the organisms they support.
What is most gratifying about your work?
I love getting to travel across the state and explore the diversity of environments.