Freshwater Fisheries Research: Travis Tuten

Biologist Travis Tuten studies Florida's freshwater resources.

 travis tuten

Travis Tuten
Biological Scientist: Freshwater Fisheries Research
Gainesville, FL

B.S., Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida (December 1998)
Minors: Forestry and Zoology

M.S., Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program, University of Florida (May 2007)
Thesis: Diet composition and growth rates of Black Crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus relative to benthic food availability at three Florida lakes

After college graduation, I ended up getting a job in South Florida working in the Florida Everglades on the tail end of an alligator project with the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. In October 1999, I started working at Florida International University in an aquatic ecology lab, where I mostly used throw traps and airboat electrofishing to sample fish communities in the freshwater marsh of the Everglades. I worked in the Everglades for almost three years, learned quite a bit, grew up some and it continues to be the greatest place I ever worked. I moved back up to Gainesville in January 2002 and worked for U.S. Geological Survey for about a year, mostly on projects involving nonnative fish. I started working with the FWC on Nov. 8, 2002 and have been here ever since. During my time at the FWC, I’ve earned a Master of Science degree in the University of Florida Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program and have been involved on numerous projects, collaborating with different offices, FWRI Sections, FWC Divisions, agencies and universities.

What are you working on now?
Some projects I’m currently a part of include the freshwater fisheries long-term monitoring program at lakes within the Orange Creek basin and Ocklawaha River; a minimum flows and levels project in Gum Slough; and a gear evaluation project looking into the effectiveness of catching freshwater fish with a haul seine.

The main thing I’m working on now is a project involving the southern tessellated darter, which is an imperiled freshwater fish species in Florida. This is an interesting one, because while the tessellated darter is common to abundant throughout most of its range (Florida to Canada along the Atlantic Coast), there is an isolated population known to occur in the Ocklawaha River Basin in Florida. These tessellated darters are separated from the closest known population in Georgia’s Altamaha River by more than 200 kilometers (125 miles). They have only been collected at a handful of spots in Florida and never in very high numbers. Through this project, we are trying to collect more information on the distribution, occurrence, abundance and genetics of the southern tessellated darter in Florida.

How is this information beneficial?
Managers can use the data we are collecting on the Florida population of southern tessellated darters to make informed decisions about what actions are necessary to conserve the species within Florida.

What is your typical work day like?
Currently, I spend about 25 to 35 percent of my annual work time in the field, working in a variety of lakes and streams throughout the state. During that time, I’m usually on a boat or tromping through the woods in a pair of waders trying to capture fish in some manner. We collect fish by boat electrofishing, backpack and barge electrofishing, pulling trawls and seines, and setting traps. I probably spend another 5 percent of the time working up those fish at the lab and entering data. After that, the rest of my time is spent in the office working on data analysis and reports, answering lots of emails and phone calls, attending meetings and getting geared up for more field work and projects.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?
Somehow or another I ended up as a president of the Florida Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. I look at the list of names of the past presidents of the Florida Chapter and I am in awe to be a part of that. They include some great fisheries scientists and highly respected professionals in this field, a few of which are some of my favorite people.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
My biggest challenge is writing. I think I’m good at it based on the product, but it takes me a lot of time and commitment to put the words on the page. I usually end up going over what I write a number of times to reword it and try to make it sound better or more understandable. It’s definitely not my favorite thing about the job, but it’s one of the most important because we need to communicate what we are doing, why we are doing it, what we see and what it means.

What do you like most about your career?
The best thing about my job is the people I work with and the places that we work. I get to see some of the coolest places that Florida has to offer and do that with some really great people who share my interests. I absolutely love getting out on the water in the morning when the sun is coming up and seeing what the day will bring.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?
I’ve wanted to do something outdoor-related since I was in middle school. I didn’t really know what was out there and usually phrased it as, “I’m going to be a park ranger.” I took a lot of agriculture classes in high school and got involved with the FFA (Future Farmers of America). My agriculture teacher was always looking out for the best interests of his students and would take us on a lot of different field trips. During my senior year of high school, he took us to the University of Florida to visit the different departments that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences had to offer. He set up a visit to the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, and on that trip I learned more about the UF’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and some of the careers that could come from a degree in Wildlife Ecology. From then on, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.

I ended up taking a fisheries class in my undergraduates studies and getting hired to work at the fisheries department for Florida LAKEWATCH that summer. It was a blast. We surveyed plant communities and made maps of lake depths in approximately 35 different Florida lakes. I also had the opportunity to work on different projects involving fish, including gill-netting Gulf sturgeon in the Suwannee River and helping out with sampling blocknets in Orange Lake. I looked up to the FWC fisheries biologists who were stationed at University of Florida Fisheries Program and decided I wanted to do something like what they were doing. Down the road, I ended up with this job, which is in the same office those biologists worked in.                                                     

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?
I’d probably be a land surveyor. My dad, who’s the person I look up to the most, was a surveyor in the Orlando area for 41 years. He worked in the woods at a lot of places where there were plans to build or extend roadways. As a kid, I would go out on the job sites with him and see the real Florida – filled with pine flatwoods and cypress swamps. At many of these sites, we would often go deer shining, hunting and fishing, and he would put me in the driver’s seat as soon as we got off the restricted road. Most of those places are now built up, but I had the opportunity to enjoy them before that. I always enjoyed being outside and knew I wanted to work outdoors. A career in land surveying would have also given me that opportunity.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
I’d tell them they have to be passionate about what they do and should follow their heart, but I would also make sure they know that most FWC biologists don’t make very high salaries and if money is going make them happier, they should probably consider another field. If they are still interested in a career in this field, they should start getting involved in any way they can, including volunteering, through which they can build relationships and create bridges for future opportunities.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I spend a lot of time with my wife and two kids. They are the best and most important things in my life. I love to fish, but don’t go near as much as I used to. Nowadays, I am into growing vegetable gardens and trying to control the squirrels that eat my plants. I’m also a big Florida Gators fan and enjoy spending time cheering them on – usually in front of the television.

FWC Facts:
Manatees are found throughout rivers, springs and shallow coastal waters of Florida and nearby states. They have been seen as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia.

Learn More at AskFWC