Research in Action - James Johnson

June 25, 2021

For our second installment of our AIS Professional Q+A, we spoke with James Johnson, a UW-Madison and University of Minnesota alum and founder and lead scientist for Freshwater Scientific Services, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in aquatic plant surveys, lake management planning, and water quality studies. 

Meg: Hi James! Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into this line of work.

I grew up fishing and snorkeling with my dad on small lakes in Wisconsin and spent a lot of time on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, so I have many fond memories of being around big and small lakes. At the time I had no idea that a person could have a job working on lakes. When I started college at UW-Madison, I wanted to be an engineer, but I soon realized that although I loved the problem-solving and technical aspects of engineering, my real love was biology and working outdoors. So I switched my major to Zoology and Conservation. Being at a great lake school like Madison, I got a lot of exposure to fisheries, limnology, and marine biology courses and I just fell in love with this line of work.

My first job out of school was with the Wisconsin DNR’s Bureau of Research. I had great mentors there and we did some really interesting research on shallow lakes and motorboat impacts. After working in research for a few years, I wanted to find a way to apply lake research to real-world lake management. After moving to the Twin Cities, I worked for the City of Minneapolis and then Three Rivers Park District where I focused on lake and stormwater monitoring, along with quite a bit of aquatic plant work. These were great experiences but after a few years, I decided that I needed to seek out more opportunities to conduct research and problem-solving more than baseline monitoring. After helping several lake associations in my community with their plant surveys, water quality monitoring, and lake management planning on a volunteer basis, I got the idea to start my own company. That was back in 2003. Early on, I was balancing my graduate research at the U of M, raising two little kids at home, and building my business. It was a bit too much at the time, but it has really worked out well and I haven’t looked back!

I find the problem-solving elements of lake management to be incredibly rewarding. Having found a niche where I can engage in monitoring and research, be my own boss, and work with lake managers and lake residents in restoring their lakes to improve ecosystem function has been great.

Meg: Can you talk about a time where a research outcome led to a concrete change in a management approach or solved a problem for one of your clients?

James: About 10 years ago, I worked with natural resources managers from the St. Croix Tribe in Wisconsin on a lake that had experienced major declines in wild rice beds. This lake had historically been an important site for rice harvesting and waterfowl habitat. But in the early 2000’s, hundreds of acres of wild rice had practically disappeared over about two years.

We considered several possible causes of the rice decline, including herbicide use upstream, rice diseases, water level fluctuation, water chemistry, and invasive common carp. Given the number of carp I had seen splashing around in the shallow areas of the lake, that seemed like the most likely cause, but there wasn’t much research on the impact of carp on wild rice. So I worked with the tribal natural resources team to set up a simple study to determine if carp were the issue. We started by collecting sediment samples from the lake to look for rice seeds, but we barely found any seed. Not only had the rice plants disappeared, but all the seed that was in the seedbank that would normally source the next generation of rice was gone. The following spring, we set up a carp exclosure study with fenced plots and open plots at multiple locations and added wild rice seed to some of the plots. By mid summer, the seeded plots where carp had been excluded turned into these amazing little oases of rice, while outside the fence and in the open plots, nothing grew—the carp had uprooted or gobbled up all of the small rice shoots. It was just very, very obvious that carp were having a huge impact on the rice in the lake. It was not a super expensive research project or one that required complex statistics, but it gave us a definitive answer. It was one of those really nice situations where you didn't have to be a scientist to know what was going on. A picture of the plots was all you had to see to make sense of the fact that these carp were preventing regeneration of the rice beds. These results were used to justify a carp removal project and in the eight years since they did this, the wild rice has returned, other aquatic plants bounced back, and water clarity increased dramatically. These kinds of clear and transparent research projects which lead to a definitive management direction and such a positive outcome are incredibly rewarding personally and so good for helping improve public understanding of AIS issues generally.

Meg: That’s such an awesome story. I had no idea that common carp could harm established wild rice populations like that! Building on the topic of tidy research conclusions and public understanding, what about when the results are less clear? Can you talk about some of the challenges you face when communicating your results or justifying your lake management recommendations?

James: Yes, there are many challenges with this, especially when working with aquatic invasive plants. I do a lot of plant surveys for lake associations to help guide AIS management and get DNR permits for herbicide applications. Many groups hire me to deal with dense plants and I totally understand their reasons for this. If you can’t get your boat off the dock because of all the milfoil or curlyleaf pondweed, we need to deal with that. But it can be hard getting people to understand that not all aquatic plants are bad and that when we are successful at managing invasive aquatic plants, rebounding of native plants species is a good thing, and necessary for a functional lake ecosystem. A lot of lakeshore homeowners want a “clean” sandy bottom or something resembling a pristine northern lake or a beach on Lake Superior. I spend a lot of time educating people that many of our inland Minnesota lakes have soft, fertile sediments that tend to support dense plant growth. These plants are not necessarily the sign of an unhealthy lake. The hard part is finding a balance between managing plants to allow homeowners to boat and swim in their lakes while also maintaining a functional lake ecosystem that supports fish and wildlife. We don’t want to remove all the plants but we can try to carefully manage the lake to offer a balance of open areas for recreation, and a diverse assemblage of native plant species to provide a healthy and resilient lake ecosystem that provides ample fish habitat.

Meg: Any closing thoughts?

James: I just want to express how much I value the work being conducted at MAISRC. Without their evidence-based solutions for AIS prevention and management, I would be flying blind. Most of my clients hire me to give them the best advice to manage AIS or prevent new infestations, but I rely on the work at MAISRC and other research groups to give me those answers. Consequently, I try to stay in close contact with key researchers and attend the MAISRC showcase conference and webinars regularly. As we discussed earlier, my career has really focused on trying to bridge the gap between research and real-world lake management. I think MAISRC is a great example of this bridging—they do such an incredible job of not only conducting great research, but also communicating their results to the public. In my opinion, this has led to dramatic improvements in AIS management and prevention in MN lakes.