Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration: Paul Carlson

Paul Carlson has a passion for environmental science which has shown through his work at FWRI for 30 years.

  Paul Carlson
Paul Carlson tests out the GoPro on a PVC frame on Florida Bay.

Paul Carlson

Habitat Assessment and Restoration
FWRI, St. Petersburg 

B.S. Biology, New College of Florida

Ph.D. Ecology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

So my wife and I started working here in St. Pete. She started out at USF and I started here at FWRI in 1984, so we’ve been here in St. Pete for 30 years. It’s really kind of surprising that it’s been that long because on a daily basis you don’t realize that the years are piling up. Before that I received my bachelor's in biology at New College in Sarasota, and then a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and that’s where my wife and I met.

What are you working on now?
We have a number of seagrass projects throughout the state, but our two biggest projects are what we call SIMM, which stands for Seagrass Integrated Mapping and Monitoring and also a project with NASA to evaluate the effectiveness of different technologies in assessing seagrass health. SIMM is a statewide program, and we have over 100 collaborators around the state working in over 30 water bodies to monitor and map seagrasses. And we collate the info and put that out in reports every couple of years. Our first report was in 2011 and our second report will be in 2014. Those were published in print and on the web. The NASA project has focused on the utility of drones. We have used a couple of different fixed-wing platforms and also a rotorcraft to map and essentially sample seagrass in small areas in the Keys and Cedar Key. And we are just wrapping up that project now.

How is this information beneficial?
We are constantly adding stakeholders and users for our data and for our reports. One of the best uses for the SIMM information was for the BP oil spill. At the time the oil spill happened, there was an immediate call from NOAA to identify existing data sets that would be used as baseline data to determine possible impacts of the spill. Because SIMM was already in place at that time, we were able to identify the imagery data sets, the seagrass maps, both for response to tell the responders where to avoid impact, and also for the damage assessment after the spill itself. We also provide the data to anyone who asks. We have a number of consulting firms who come in and say, 'What kind of seagrass might we encounter in this area? How do we avoid the densest seagrass beds?'

One of the most interesting data projects is a website hosted by the University of South Florida called the VBS (Virtual Buoy System). What that means is we have a click-though map of a large area of Florida’s Big Bend. If you click on one of the pseudo-stations on that map, you can pull up the entire history of satellite remote sensing data for that site. It basically tells us how water clarity has changed over a 12-year period at that site and we can relate that not only to seagrass impacts in the past, but as restoration projects are carried out in say, Suwannee river basin, to improve water quality. We can see how those projects have positive impacts on seagrasses in the future.

What is your typical work day like?
There is no typical work day. Work days in the field begin around six and run until samples are processed in the evening and begin the next day at six. Most of the time, days in the field are a lot of fun but some are really challenging as I’m sure is true for anybody at the institute. Here in the lab we run a lot of samples. We can generate enough samples in a month of field work every summer to keep us busy for six to eight months back in the lab doing chemical analyses and measuring seagrass growth and productivity. When you add in meetings and committees, I guess there is no single typical day.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?
I think the greatest career accomplishment has been shining a light on, this seems obscure, but the role of sediment conditions in causing or being the proximal cause of the huge seagrass die off that we had in Florida Bay in the late 1980s. We had literally thousands of acres of seagrass die in Florida Bay and we were able to identify something called sulfide toxicity as the proximate cause. That theme has been picked up by other scientists and applied in other places, so I think that is the single most important scientific accomplishment.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
Well, certainly weather in the field is a big challenge, and we always have to work around that, but technology has made that a lot easier. Also, the logistics of working at some distance from FWRI because our projects are located all around the state. Some of the logistics can be really daunting, but all in all it works out well.

What do you like most about your career?
My wife and I have been married for 34 years. We work together. We’ve worked together for 35 years and I really enjoy that. The second thing that I think we both enjoy is feeling like the work that we do has benefits in environmental management and managing critical resources in this state. And the third thing I like the best is I get to work with a lot of really neat people here and everybody who’s here is here because they enjoy their work not because they are here for the money.

Why seagrass?
Because it’s essential fisheries habitat but honestly over 30 year at FWRI we’ve worked on Harmful Algal Blooms and other projects. When I first started here there were only 80 or 90 employees in the entire institute statewide so we’ve worked on a variety of topics over the years but mostly focused on seagrasses, mangroves and salt marsh. So we’ve worked on the big three vegetative fisheries habitats.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?
Well I really thought I was going to be a paleontologist and it turns out that’s just too narrow of a niche. There aren’t enough job opportunities out there. Marine ecology was second, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?
I think I would be trying to be a farmer. I don’t think I’d be very good at it, but I think that’s what I’d try.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Well I think it really depends on the age of the person asking the advice. Certainly the basics of math, chemistry and physics are really, really important if you’re going to prepare for a career in this field. Then after that, you have to be pragmatic about where the opportunities lie. There are a lot of people who are trained in science as undergrads who probably are not going to find a niche or a job in their chosen field. So I think you have to be pretty pragmatic about the type of science you want to train for.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
My wife and I really enjoy travelling and with two grown up sons they’re on the move and go places that draw us. We just got back from a trip from Italy visiting the eldest son.

FWC Facts:
The coastal waters off Florida and Georgia are the only known calving area for North Atlantic right whales.

Learn More at AskFWC