Monday, November 21, 2011

CERF 2011

Where have I been?  I've been in Daytona Beach Florida, where the 2011 Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation's Biennial conference was held.  
But wait!  What am I doing at a coastal/marine conference?  Excellent question.  I've been working for the last year plus on Great Lakes rivermouth ecosystems, which are the freshwater analogs to estuaries on the coasts.  In fact, they really are estuaries, except for the nit-picky detail of not having salt gradients.  Now, salt gradients in estuaries cause all kinds of interesting density gradients and thus unique water mixing regimes in estuaries.  Those same gradients exist in Great Lakes rivermouths, but they are driven by thermal differences rather than salinity.  Estuaries are also characterized by tidal influences.  Tides are present in Great Lakes rivermouths, but they are very small (on the order of 2-ish cm).  However, Great Lakes are strongly influenced by seiches (wind-driven 'slosh') which are periodic, highly variable and capable of moving large quantities of water and material into rivermouths from the adjacent Great Lake.
See?  Freshwater analogs to estuaries.
Ok, so now that we've established that, let's talk about the CERF conference.  Three things stand out:
  • Estuary researchers don't really pay any attention to any nutrient except nitrogen.  There are a few talks I saw for which this wasn't true, but for the most part nitrogen is the whole focus.  I could go on and on about this, but let's just say I feel this focus on nitrogen alone is probably an oversimplification.
  • Estuary researchers don't really pay much attention to the landscape.  This seems to be changing, but the literature seems to pretty much ignore landscape processes and how they control the delivery of nutrients and water to the estuary.  There were many talks at this conference that also ignored those linkages, but it does seem like there is an increasing focus on how the watershed properties influence the estuarine (and maybe coastal) processes.
  • Estuary researchers don't really seem to apply results from one system to other systems.  This is the one that is hardest for me to get my head around.  So a focus on N might be somewhat justified by bioassays showing N limitation and the lack of N-fixing bloom species in the coastal ecosystems, and treating the watershed as pretty mundane might be ok for systems where oceanic inputs are really high (and far more stable).  But I talked to several researchers at this conference who genuinely believed that their conclusions could not reasonably be applied to other estuaries elsewhere.  This is very much the context dependency discussion we see everywhere in ecology taken to a whole different level.  I'm extraordinarily skeptical that there are not unifying processes that can be identified across the population of estuaries (beyond the salinity/mixing story, which is pretty universally applied).  This is so bad that if you ask someone why they saw a particular result in (for example) the Chesapeake Bay and another researcher saw the opposite result in a Rhode Island Bay, they really can't even begin to explain it.   
Keep in mind these are just my impressions.  Maybe the other thing that stood out is the ignorance so many of these people have of the research that has been done on freshwater ecosystems, and the general disdain they express for that research.  There was a whole session devoted to ecological stoichiometry, and the first 2 talks were combined into 1 so that the topic could be introduced!  Isn't eco-stoich pretty basic to our understanding of how life works at this point?  Am I missing something?  Why was an introduction to the topic at a world-class technical conference necessary?
If I come off as sounding a bit cynical here, it is probably only because I spent a week being looked down on for working in freshwater ecosystems.  The quality of the research I saw at this conference, as a whole, was phenomenal.  I'll try to compile my notes over the next week so that I can highlight the best talks I saw.  I've decided that after a few confrontations for posts I've made in the past about "bad" talks, I'm going to hold off on naming names when I criticize speakers (and just try to be less critical in general). 
However, I have a message for those of you who are accomplished scientists and are going to give a talk at a national conference:

PRACTICE YOUR TALK!!  Trust me, it shows when you don't.

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