Freshwater Fisheries Research: Wes Porak

Wes is currently working on a black bass genetics project, as well as studies to determine if stocking hatchery-produced bass can increase the number of fish in a population and improve the angler's catch.

Wes PorakDegrees
Biology, University of Illinois, 1975
M.S. Biology, Tennessee Tech University, 1981

As a senior at the University of Illinois, I worked in a fisheries genetics lab for college credit, which "got my foot in the door" for employment with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). The summer after graduation, I ran an angler creel station at an INHS fish management research lake, and over the next two years, I helped with a variety of fisheries research projects on a power plant cooling reservoir in Illinois.

After the research grant ended in Illinois, I went to Tennessee Tech University for graduate school. My master's thesis focused on studies assessing the effects of acid drainage and mitigation of acid leachates on benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrates and fish in Appalachian mountain streams. While in school, I also used ultrasonic transmitters and receivers to help track the movements of sauger in the Cumberland River.

After Tennessee, I took a two-year technical position at the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center, which turned out to be a wonderful experience. Working from the research vessel Cisco, we used gill nets and trawls to sample lake trout, yellow perch, smelt, and other species in Lake Michigan. I also identified, sorted, and cataloged aquatic invertebrates for an ecological study of the use of invertebrates that live on aquatic plants (phytomacrofauna) by select sport fish in the interconnecting waters of the Great Lakes. Toxicologists at our facility were studying the effects of pesticides on the development of lake trout eggs and fry. We helped culture the lake trout eggs and fry, and we built test chambers, or bioassay systems, for toxicology studies.

In 1982, I moved to Florida to become a largemouth bass research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I have worked on a variety of projects, which include:

  • Validated the use of otoliths (ear stones) for ageing Florida bass and developed ageing techniques.
  • Used otolith ageing techniques to determine the basic information on age composition, growth rates, and survival rates of bass populations in Florida.
  • Incorporated these population statistics into research that evaluated the affects of stocking, regulating angler harvest, and habitat management on bass populations.
  • Researched and developed techniques for tagging, sampling, and diet analysis of bass.
  • Conducted research on the Largemouth Bass Virus, the annual reproductive cycle of largemouth bass, and black bass genetics.


What are you working on now?
I am working on a black bass genetics project that certifies all brood fish as pure Florida bass at the Richloam Fish Hatchery, incorporates the use of genetics marks on hatchery produced bass to study the affects of stocking, and investigates hybridization issues for endemic (native) shoal bass in the Chipola River. We are also implementing rules and programs for private fish hatcheries to help protect the genetic integrity of Florida bass.

I am also working on studies to determine if stocking hatchery produced bass can increase the number of fish in a population and improve the angler's catch. This study incorporates the use of radio telemetry technology to study the behavior, habitat preference, and movements of hatchery stocked bass. We are also attempting to improve the survival of stocked hatchery bass by conditioning them to predators and prey prior to leaving the hatchery.

Was work in your current field your original career interest--why or why not?
Yes, it was. My childhood vacations revolved around fishing, which gave me an appreciation for fishing and for the outdoors. As I grew up, I thought it would be great to work for a fisheries management agency.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
Although my wife deserves most of the credit, my greatest achievement is raising three boys. So far, my most significant career achievement has been working with Bill Coleman and Steve Crawford to validate and develop otolith-ageing techniques for largemouth bass. Prior to our work, there was no basic information on largemouth bass growth rates, ages, longevity, and survival rates in Florida because other ageing techniques did not work in a subtropical environment. The types of information obtained by researchers who age fish are paramount to understanding the dynamics of populations and how those populations respond to management programs and environmental changes.

What do you like most about your career?
The three things that I like most about my career are co-workers, resource management, and job diversity. My co-workers have colorful, interesting personalities, and they are passionate and kind people that create a great work environment. There is a great deal of satisfaction when our research results improve management of Florida's unique resources. Diverse responsibilities that vary from collecting fish to report writing keep the job perpetually interesting.

What do you like least about your career?
The salaries are poor. Nobody ever went into a life sciences field to become wealthy, but the low pay can become very stressful when raising children and trying to keep up with medical and car-repair bills.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
Florida's natural resources are encountering tremendous pressures, primarily stemming from human population growth and development throughout the state. Researchers need to answer many more questions than we have time or monetary resources to address. While all of the questions are important, prioritizing needs and allocating inadequate time and resources to finding answers is always a difficult process.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Go into this field only if you are very passionate about natural resources. Do whatever it takes to get your first job; that might include volunteering, taking a low-paying job, or moving across the country. Get involved with scientific societies such as the American Fisheries Society for professional growth. To broaden your own understanding and to help answer questions that need a multidisciplinary approach, develop partnerships with professionals that have other areas of expertise. Set your standards and goals high.

FWC Facts:
The secretive little pygmy sunfish is not a true sunfish and may be more related to sticklebacks and pipefishes.

Learn More at AskFWC