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Cassi Shires: Diving in to North Carolina Marine Fisheries

I held on to the rain-soaked handrails as tightly as I could, adrenaline pumping through my system as we motored back to the dock to escape the storm. In that moment, I was relieved that I brought my heavy rain coat and waterproof bag along with me; Otherwise, all of my belongings would have been drenched. What started out as a routine trip to Core Sound setting gill nets quickly turned into a downpour. North Carolina is notorious for its shifting weather conditions, but the weather at the coast is by far the most difficult to predict. During my internship with the Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City, I witnessed my fair share of surprise rainstorms. Field technicians working at the DMF constantly check weather forecasts in order to determine if the windspeed and water currents are safe enough to conduct research. All of the individuals that I accompanied were incredibly knowledgeable about how to navigate potential hazards.

The Division of Marine Fisheries is a part of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality that specializes in coastal fisheries management. As a fisheries research intern, I was able to gain a wide variety of field experience, while also building my professional skills in the office and laboratory. I shadowed field technicians and assisted them with the setting and retrieval of gillnets in the Core Sound. The netted fish, shrimp, and other crustaceans were measured by technicians while I recorded the length and weights. Most of the animals were returned to the water, but some were taken back to the lab for further study. On average, I was able to assist with field operations for three days of the week. I spent the majority of my remaining time in the office, where I sorted through DMF documents in order to expand the digital internal library. If a document published by the DMF was not in Microsoft SharePoint, I scanned and uploaded it onto the webpage. I developed an organized filing system for the newly uploaded documents so that they could be quickly located by searching for the subject, author, or year published. At the end of the summer, I presented this new filing system to a group of DMF employees. As of November 2022, the DMF Internal Library SharePoint page is in the process of being made available to all DMF employees.

This demonstrates how I collected water quality data such as temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen using a YSI meter.

My understanding of marine biology was quickly enhanced when I assisted members of the Fish Aging Lab with data collection. Fish length is not an accurate determination of fish age, so the only way to precisely know the age of a fish is to examine a small bone near the brain called the otolith. The fascinating thing about otoliths is that they continuously grow as fish become older. Similar to rings found on tree cores, the older the fish is, the more rings the otoliths will have. I observed the marine biologists remove those bones, while I documented the species and lengths of the fish. Through other connections at the DMF, I was able to assist members of the recreational water quality lab with sample collection and testing. I journeyed to Cape Lookout by boat to collect water samples near the beaches. Then I returned to the lab, processed the samples, and attached them to petri dishes to test for the presence of bacteria. If bacteria levels exceeded the set threshold, then that specific beach must be closed for swimming until the bacteria levels subside to a safe amount.

Due to the flexibility of my work, I was able to meet many people with different specialties. I went on one outing with a Marine Patrol officer and observed the law enforcement side of DMF. This mainly involved inspecting crab pots and interacting with people actively fishing to ensure that they have a license. As a student majoring in Environmental technology and Management, it was especially beneficial to sit in at the quarterly Marine Fisheries Commission meeting held in May of 2022. The Marine Fisheries Commission is the rule-making board that adopts policies and fisheries management plans for North Carolina. I was able to observe the public comment period for this meeting, as well as the debates associated with various species-specific management plans.

Marine biologists removed otoliths from fish using tweezers. I packaged the otoliths and recorded data on fish species, length, and weight.

This 10-week internship was a truly remarkable experience that taught me valuable lessons. I strongly recommend for North Carolina students that are interested in internships to visit the NC Department of Administration (DOA) internship website. The internship that I participated in was one of several dozen positions posted there. The State of NC Internship Program has the potential to link students to internships with the Department of Environmental Quality, as well as several other departments in the State Government. Students that participate have multiple opportunities to connect with other interns through enrichment trips to educational destinations around the state. I met several of the State of NC Internship Program participants during a behind-the-scenes tour of the NC Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores, which was located about 10 minutes away from the DMF office.

After my experience working with a division of the NC DEQ, I am interested in applying for full-time jobs with the DEQ related to environmental management. The Division of Marine Fisheries is a unique and engaging section of the NC DEQ, and I am extremely grateful for the connections that I formed while interning there. This experience instilled a sense of confidence in me that I did not previously have. It taught me that I am capable and comfortable with working in the field. I was also able to gain a better sense of my own ingenuity and planning skills. Most importantly, I discovered that being prepared and trusting your crew gives you the strength to weather any storm that life brings.