Photo: Zeb Hogan holding a large fish

Photograph by Brant Allen

Name: Zeb Hogan
Place of Birth:
Arizona
Current City:
Reno, Nevada
Occupation:
Assistant Research Professor, University of Nevada—Reno

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I don’t remember what I wanted to BE (except for a short period when I wanted to be a long haul trucker), but I did have things that I wanted to DO: see a whale shark, visit Madagascar, learn to SCUBA dive. At some point all the things that I wanted to do when I was a child mixed with my interests in school (biology, languages, current events) and the summer jobs I had in college (as a research assistant working on native fish conservation projects in Arizona) and in the end I went to graduate school and studied to become a conservation biologist. I also remember loving wildlife TV programs when I was young, so my interest in biodiversity and curiosity about the natural world was always strong. I would wake up early, before anyone else in my family, and watch the Wild Wild World of Animals which for some reason came on at 6 a.m. They must have been re-runs. I loved the show and I still remember the theme music and I could still watch 6 hours of those shows back to back and love every minute of it.

How did you get started in your field of work?
In many ways, my career path was similar to that of many researchers: high school, undergraduate, graduate school, post-doc, university. But it didn’t feel that straightforward. In my case, I think one thing just led to another which led to another.
My interest in water began at a very early age, when my mom first taught me how to swim. I was looking at an old "baby book" the other day and there was an entry that said that I learned how to swim before I could walk. It said something like "he can swim as far as he can hold his breath" (which leads me to suspect I wasn’t really swimming, mom, but sinking). In Arizona, where I grew up, all kids love water because it’s so hot during the summer. I’d spend my summers at a neighbor’s house swimming in their backyard pool, or later, hiking and camping, always somewhere where there was water. Then, when I was in eighth grade I wrote letter to aquariums all over the U.S. asking if they had volunteer positions. As luck would have it, an aquarium in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, did have an intern program and I had some family friends who lived in Cape Cod.

Later, in college (at the University of Arizona), I got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit, as a research assistant helping graduate students with their research on Arizona’s native fish. One summer I helped look at the impacts of invasive species on humpback chub (an Arizona native) and the next summer we studied the impacts of controlled releases (a.k.a. artificial floods) from Glen Canyon Dam on flannelmouth sucker (another Arizona native fish) distribution and movements. Those summer jobs really solidified my interest in freshwater biodiversity, and I was especially curious about endangered species issues since so many of the native fish species of the desert Southwest are endangered.

After the University of Arizona, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to Thailand to investigate the impact of 12 proposed dams on the Mekong River’s migratory fish species, then after a year in Thailand, entered into a Ph.D. program at the University of California to continue that research. After seven years of graduate school (yikes!) and probably 20 trips to SE Asia, I completed my Ph.D. and started a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin. The post-doc focused on the conservation of the world’s largest trout, the taimen. After my post-doc, I found a job at the University of Nevada—Reno, and further formalized my ties with National Geographic. For the past four years, I have been employed as an assistant research professor at UNR, working mostly on a National Geographic-sponsored project on the ecology and conservation of large-bodied freshwater fish.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to freshwater?
That’s good question and it’s a difficult question to answer because my inspiration comes from many experiences I’ve had over the years, beginning a long time ago. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved water (especially clean, flowing water). And I’ve always thought fish were fascinating—they’re beautiful, grow in every shape and sizes, occupy nearly all aquatic habitats on Earth; some can fly, others breathe air, some can deliver a deadly sting or shock, while still others, like salmon and sturgeon, make epic migrations from feeding to spawning grounds. So for a biologist and someone who loves the outdoors, freshwater fish seemed like the perfect animals to study—diverse, widely distributed, economically important, and interesting from an ecological and evolutionary perspective.

Of course over the years it’s become much more than that—I feel like my work has become more personal, and also more urgent. Forty percent of freshwater fish in North America are in danger of extinction. A third of European species are endangered. And about 70 percent of megafish species are threatened. That’s 700 endangered freshwater fish species in North America and 200 in Europe. It’s to the point where, when I get together for an annual meeting with other fish biologists, every year someone reports the extinction of another species. It’s very hard to hear that and not want to do something to try to help the fish. In the past ten years, I’ve seen the Chinese paddlefish, possibly the world’s largest freshwater fish, disappear, and over the past 20 years I’ve seen the catch of critically endangered Mekong giant catfish drop 95 percent. It got to the point in 2003 and 2004 where every death would leave me sad and frustrated.

My passion for freshwater comes partially from my love, fascination, and curiosity about aquatic habitats and their inhabitants, and partially from a recognition that freshwater fish are one of nature’s true underdogs, at least in terms of the threats they face from growing human population that needs freshwater in increasing amounts every day. I get inspiration from a recognition that freshwater fish need help and the hope that we are headed in the right direction, i.e. that we can find balance between our needs as humans and the needs of others (in this case the others equal all the other animals that rely on healthy freshwater ecosystems to survive).

What’s a normal day like for you?
Every day is different. When I am at the university, I spend my time reading scientific papers, corresponding with other scientists or people at National Geographic, writing articles and reports, planning trips, and attending meetings. Aside from my office work at the university, I also travel as often as I can to either listen to presentations or give presentation myself, almost always about my interest and research on freshwater biodiversity, especially endangered fish.

When I am in the field, I spend almost all of my time on or near the water. In Southeast Asia, most of my field sites are near populated areas and I rely on fishers to help gather the information that I need.

My most recent trip was to the Khone Falls in Laos, the only waterfalls on the main channel of the Mekong River. The Khone Falls area is one of the most important sites for migratory fish—and people who depend on migratory fish for their livelihoods—in the entire Mekong River Basin. Over 200 species of fish occur at the falls, and of those fish, the majority are believed to be migratory. Every year, millions of fish struggle to climb the falls, and fishermen in the area take advantage of these annual movements to harvest the fish in huge numbers. I was at the falls to learn more about Sahong Channel, one of over a dozen paths over the falls. Sahong Channel is believed to be the most important channel for both dry season and rainy season migrations of several dozen species of fish—including true giants like the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish. I was at the falls to talk with fishermen about the patterns of migrations they see over the course of one year (small carps first, then small catfish, then big catfish), the timing of the migrations, the methods used to catch the fish, and the sizes and amounts of the harvest. I was also lucky enough to catch the Mekong River at the exact time when it flows most clear, which meant I could dive and see fish underwater, watch the migration with my own eyes, and even observe some of the local fishing techniques like spear-fishing and net fishing over waterfalls. The Khone Falls is truly one of a kind in the world—a World Heritage site lies just upstream—and Sahong channel is the most important of the pathways over the falls. Unfortunately Sahong channel is the site of a dam that would sever the connection between the fertile floodplains downstream in Cambodia and spawning groups above the falls in Laos. While there isn’t enough information to gauge accurately, the cost to fisheries could actually outweigh the benefits of the dam.

Do you have a hero?
I know it sounds like a cliché but when I was very young I really liked Jacques Cousteau. It wasn’t the way he looked or talked or anything about him—it was that he was able to explore oceans and reefs and then share it with people like me. Without his shows, I wouldn’t have had any idea what lived in the ocean and so his programs opened up a whole new world to a young boy who was endlessly fascinated by marine life. I’m sure there were thousands of other children just like me. I also liked his books—I had one of his books about dolphins that I’d read over and over. And then of course when I got older I learned to SCUBA dive and that was probably also because of the influence of those shows.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed other people who’ve really worked hard and made, what I feel is a positive difference in the world. E.O. Wilson comes to mind immediately, also Daniel Pauly and Ransom Myers. Recently I watched The Cove, and while Ric O’Barry’s not one of my heroes, I really thought they did a good job with the story. And they had an important message.

If you could have people do one thing to help save freshwater, what would it be?
Take an interest! Don’t ignore it! Do something—it could be something small once a week or once a month. There are so many ways to make a difference these days—pick one that’s workable for you considering how much time you have (volunteer!), your financial situation (make a donation), your politics (get involved in the political process), and your home life (make improvements to your house or neighborhood).

Solutions can be as simple as switching from bottled water to tap water, or putting water-saving faucets in your house. Or you can get involved at a different level—if you live near a university make a donation to a research institute or the student water club, if you live on a creek or river, set aside a day for clean-up. Make a donation to American Rivers or to National Geographic for their new initiatives on freshwater!

Reaching out to your representatives in government can also have a big impact, since several states and the federal government are trying to find ways to increase environmental flows in some river basins. In Nevada, for example, there is an effort underway to bring more water in Walker Lake, a lake that’s been headed for a slow death due to lack of water inputs, and in Texas there are effort underway to reduce water withdrawals from Edwards Aquifer. As the movement toward environmental flows grows, it will become easier and easier to get involved as an advocate for healthy rivers and lakes.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field is when I am working with a good crew and collecting data that will eventually help protect an endangered fish. This usually isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, because after all it’s difficult to know whether or not research will translate into better management, but when it does happen it’s very rewarding. As case in point, I was part of a group of scientists working on the Eg-Uur River in Mongolia and our job was to collect basic biological and ecological data about the world’s largest trout, the taimen. As part of our work, we determined that taimen in the Eg-Uur do not migrate long distance and probably rely on relatively small areas of “critical habitat” for survival. Our research also suggested that taimen cannot sustain heavy fishing mortality. Partially as a result of our work, the Mongolian government is not considering making all taiman fishing in Mongolia catch and release. This will help ensure that healthy populations of taimen remain in Mongolia for future generations.

Recently I have been involved in several television documentaries and I think one of my favorite experiences I’ve had was when I feel like the show gets the story right. I know that might not sound like much, but the process of making a television documentary is a long process, there are so many people involved, from the television channel to the development people to the production staff to the field crew to the research staff, not to mention all of the biologists and fishermen we meet out in the field and last but not least, the FISH! There are other issues to deal with as well—seasonality issues (will the fish be there at that time?), logistical issues (how do we get our whole crew halfway around the world), money issues. What I am trying to say is that it’s a very complicated process, and so when I see the final product and everyone’s done a good job, and most of the people who were involved think we’ve created something of value, it’s very rewarding.

What are your other passions?
My family, friends, memories, hiking, camping, traveling, exploring new places, seeing animals I’ve never seen before, rope swings, Arizona creeks, fresh snow, coffee.

What do you do in your free time?
Mostly I do what everyone else does, hang out with my friends, watch movies, read, work in my garden, mountain bike, hike, and swim. I also spend a lot of my free time with activities semi-related to my work—helping other scientists with their projects, visiting aquariums, viewing fish at dams and fish ladders, fishing, watching other people fish, or just sitting by on the river bank and watching the world go by.

Learn more about Zeb.

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