In the spring semester of his freshman year, William & Mary student Garrett Bellin ’25 thought it would be “pretty interesting” to take a Geographic Information Systems course to fill his schedule. Two years later, he is a co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant and gives regular presentations to fishing industry partners – all because of GIS.
“It’s not something I would have expected,” said Bellin, a computational & applied mathematics & statistics major and data science minor with little prior exposure to marine science. “Now I’m very passionate about this vein of marine biology, and I really want to create some significant changes in the way people are managing these fisheries.”
As a rising sophomore, Bellin started working on fisheries management challenges with Professor Roger Mann from the William & Mary School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Mann also serves as site director for the NSF-sponsored Science Center for Marine Fisheries, which brings together academia and the fishing industry; in this capacity, he was facing a fishery management conundrum. The New England Fisheries Management Council had set aside an area off Nantucket, Massachusetts, which also happened to be a good fishing ground for clams, as a spawning sanctuary for cod. However, ocean warming trends were causing cod to gradually move north. According to Mann, this was making that area less and less viable as a sanctuary, but how to convey that to management entities?
“The way in which traditional biologists do this is with lots of maps and tables, and they’re completely indigestible,” he said. “GIS puts that into a format you can look at and say, ‘Well, it’s obvious.’”
It was at this point that Mann joined forces with Shannon White, associate director of the W&M Center for Geospatial Analysis – an interdisciplinary program promoting the use of geographic information systems and associated tools.
“The CGA supports research for faculty, staff and students, as well as offering courses in geospatial technologies,” said White. “We often have instructors or researchers who say, ‘Do you have a student who could help me?’”
White reached out to Bellin, who at the time was part of the CGA team tracking West Nile virus in Virginian mosquitoes. He agreed and soon became involved in Mann’s project, with funding from the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. He is now a co-PI on a new sub-project worth over $32,000 that will examine conflicts between cod and clam fisheries up until 2095.
White noted that Bellin’s trajectory addresses all the pillars from the university’s Vision 2026 strategic plan: from water to data sets management to career-readiness coming from his work with industry groups. “And then democracy, of course,” she said, “as we’re talking about decisions that are being made and that Garrett is actually influencing.”
Water warming does not just impact fish
“Within a lifetime, there is a possibility that Cape Cod will have no cod,” said Mann. He argued that fisheries management often works in a “somewhat archaic” way, with no mechanism to revisit or retire spawning sanctuaries.
“Garrett was tasked with examining what was essentially a very sticky management problem,” said Mann. “This happened by bringing to the fore the use of GIS in management arenas in a way in which it’s never been done before. And so, he’s sort of a pioneer in this conversation.”
The area initially examined by Mann and Bellin may have been small, but their original project expanded to include all of the East Coast from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to the Gulf of Maine, demonstrating a general trend of cod leaving the south and migrating northward.
Bellin had the opportunity to learn more about fisheries management while on the job. “As long as you have a good understanding of the science behind the data, you can communicate the findings pretty well,” he said.
He has been working with data sets related to different ocean features – including seabed type, temperature and depth. Using GIS software (such as Esri’s ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online and StoryMaps), he is able to display hundreds of thousands of data points across time and space or time and geographies — in a visual way that immediately speaks to industry leaders and regulators as well as the wider public.
“One of the things that Garrett’s work will do is stimulate the debate about how the sanctuaries can be used, and what their viable lifetime is,” said Mann. “As climate change moves species around, the old arguments about distribution at time A don’t apply at time B and C.”
Global water warming is not simply a fisheries’ matter, but it feeds into our overall understanding of climate change.
“Water covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and transports a lot of the heat around the globe,” said Mann. “These sort of temperature studies are critical, and so Garrett is moving into this larger sphere of debate about climate change in using data sets that are actually integral part of ocean models that talk about global heat modeling and transport.”
Influencing industry decisions
Within the SCEMFIS framework, Bellin has been presenting to business partners twice a year, working on succinct proposals aiming to attract industry funding.
“It’s funny that it’s become normal now, but every time I go to any of these conferences, I’m the only undergraduate student,” he said. “It’s always a bit scary to hear all these professors ask for funding and then hope that my presentation will work out. But it always seems to make people interested. So, I guess I’m doing something right.”
When it comes to GIS, it’s Bellin that industry partners want to talk to – and as Mann pointed out, the student is fully capable of standing up for himself.
“It’s not just the skill set of presenting for 12 minutes,” said Mann. “It’s also the skill set of being able to sit over a cup of coffee with somebody who is running a multimillion-dollar company and is saying, ‘How is this information going to affect my investments?’”
Mann defined Bellin as “a catalyst” and now intends to expand on the idea to use GIS at the state level to support fisheries management. He has started cooperating with another GIS student, whom he wants to put in the position of “speaking to user groups whose livelihood depends on these data sets.”
White stressed the importance of getting to know CGA students and their capabilities, so to be able to match their skills with faculty needs. Student-faculty collaborations, she said, can start with something very simple and grow into much larger projects, as Bellin’s case demonstrates. These kinds of connections are reflective of William & Mary’s efforts to offer the most personal education of any public university in the nation.
“One of the real treasures of doing this work is watching undergraduates become enthused by ideas,” said Mann. “In terms of personal growth, you give them an experience that I think is extraordinarily novel. And at the same point, they become ambassadors for our programs. They become ambassadors for William & Mary.”
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer