University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fish Expert Keeps us ‘Current’ on Great Lakes Issues

Titus Seilheimer

Titus Seilheimer, Fisheries Specialist at the Wisconsin Sea Grant, is collaborating with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar to bring the 2020 Bay Tour to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where participants will learn about commercial fishing operations. Seilheimer received his B.A. from Lawrence University and his Ph.D. from McMaster University. In this interview, Seilheimer discusses non-native species in the Great Lakes, his collaborative research as an outreach specialist, and the importance of locally sourced fish in Wisconsin.

How did your love of water begin? I grew up on a small chain of lakes in Wisconsin’s Northwoods (Clear Lake in southwestern Rusk County). Swimming, fishing, and boating were a part of life growing up. I’ve always been around water, but I knew that it was the career for me when I took Aquatic Ecology during my junior year at Lawrence University. After that, it was just a matter of deciding what to work on and fish seemed to fit the bill. You can hold a fish in your hands and when you talk to people about fish, they know what they are and many people care about fish. I’ve been studying the ecology of fish since 2001 in the Great Lakes and beyond.

As somebody with a hard biological sciences background, how have your experiences in the field helped you in your role as an outreach specialist? It has been a great fit. I don’t think “outreach specialist” was ever on my radar as a potential career, but this job was open at the right time and place for me. As a neutral broker of information, I often have to communicate complex science to stakeholders. Having a strong background in science helps me to effectively understand and communicate new science about the Great Lakes. I can also be actively involved in new research, which has been helpful for the commercial fishing industry where I have been working on several collaborative research projects.

Titus Seilheimer
Titus Seilheimer

Between all of the education, research, and other job duties, what is your favorite hat to wear at the Sea Grant? I think one of my favorite things is that I get to wear a ton of hats. The variety of work, whether on local issues or fisheries issues, makes for a diverse set of duties through the year! It’s been a great fit for me, because a lot of time I feel like a generalist. This position, with its many hats, has been a great fit for me.

What is one thing that you wish every angler, recreationist, and stakeholder knew about the Great Lakes and its extensive food webs? It’s hard to distill into a single point, but I think the complexity and degree of change in the Great Lakes food web is something that I wish more people understood. There are a lot of different interests in the Great Lakes, from specific species (Pacific salmon) to general interest in the lakes (their beauty). I try very hard to tell the story of how the Great Lakes have changed over time. A lot of those changes are because of decisions that people have made, like pollution and habitat modification, but today’s Great Lakes have really been drastically changed by non-native species. In Lake Michigan, the story of zebra and quagga mussels has led to the lake of today that is more like Lake Superior than it is of Lake Michigan of the past. The large changes in where the energy is in the lake because of quagga mussels has been felt by species and stakeholders in all parts of the lake. The lake might look pretty (clear water), but there are some serious issues that we are only beginning to understand. And what will the next non-native species, like Asian carp, mean for our understanding of these large and complex ecosystems.

Many Madison consumers are interested in eating locally sourced fish. What restaurants would you recommend that support commercial fishing in Wisconsin? If you don’t see Wisconsin fish on the menu, then you can ask for it. If Madison restaurants hear about the demand for Wisconsin fish, then it will be more likely to be on the menu. Grocery stores, especially with a good seafood counter, are also a good bet to find Wisconsin fish. They can likely order you fish too. More demand for local fish is a great thing for consumers and for Wisconsin!

You have worked extensively with water in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. What water stewardship issues are both states facing? I’ve had the opportunity to work on all 5 Great Lakes, so I’ve spent a lot of time around the basin. There are definitely some differences and similarities around the region. Generally, we have more development (urban and agriculture) to the south and more forest to the north. Human impacts to our waters and fisheries continue to be challenges to improving those resources. Invasive species are also an ongoing problem on land and in the water. Some have been well managed, like Sea Lamprey, but even with lamprey, the management needs to continue into the future to minimize impacts on native and other species. Reducing the rate new species arrive is a current and future needs, especially as climate change continues to change our ecosystems.

Titus SeilheimerHow do you see the Wisconsin Idea in action with the work that you do? I think my work is very much in line with the Wisconsin Idea. I am bringing the UW into coastal communities with fisheries stakeholders to use research to help guide decision making.

We are excited to collaborate with you in May for the 2020 Bay Tour! What are some key points that you hope participants will take away from their time in Two Rivers? I want them to see commercial fishing both as an important part of our state’s legacy, but also a vital, living industry in our coastal communities. Commercial fishing may have a smaller role today, than in the past, but it is still an important connection between the citizens of the state and the Great Lakes. That whitefish dinner you are enjoying on Friday was caught in our waters, so even if you live away from the coast, you are still participating in Wisconsin’s Great Lakes environment. We may be in the Midwest, but our 820 miles of coastline puts us right up there with the other major coastal states in the United States. You will get to see that coast during the seminar, so enjoy it!

Do you have a favorite aquatic animal? I’m going to have to go with a fish for this, but it’s hard to pick just one. I’d have to say that I am a big fan of the Burbot. Burbot (Lota lota) are the only freshwater member of the cod family. They’re a scrappy underdog of deep lakes (and are also delicious).

Want to learn more about Titus’s work with the Wisconsin Sea Grant? View a short video here. 

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Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.