Field Samples: Snorkleing in Thailand

Welcome to our new “Field Samples” series. We conduct so much cool research at the CFL, that it’s hard to keep track. So, each week, we’ll do a Q&A with a faculty member, post doc, or grad student and ask what they’ve been up to, where it’s taken them, and what they’ve learned. Today, Aaron Koning tells us about his research in Thailand.

Overharvest has depleted fish stocks in many river stretches, but in community-based protected zones fish like the Neolissochilus and Bangana species pictured here are found in abundance. Photo: A. Koning
Overharvest has depleted fish stocks in many river stretches, but in community-based protected zones fish like the Neolissochilus and Bangana species pictured here are found in abundance. Photo: A. Koning

Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get here?
Aaron Koning
Aaron Koning

My name is Aaron Koning, I’m a 4th year PhD Student with Peter McIntyre. I am from Grand Rapids, MI, but came to CFL by route of northern Thailand. I was living and working for a study abroad program for 4 years prior to coming to Madison.
Pretend we just boarded an elevator and you only have one-minute to tell me about your work….3,2,1 go!
My work is exploring two different stories. The first story asks the question of how changing land use practices, especially agriculture, are affecting aquatic ecosystems in Thailand.The second asks if freshwater protected areas I encountered in the field can be effective at conserving freshwater fish biodiversity.
What question did you answer or do you hope to answer? What other questions might your work lead scientists to ask?
Aaron Koning collects water samples on Thailand's Yuam River
Aaron Koning collects water samples on Thailand’s Yuam River

For millennia, people in modern-day Thailand largely grew rice in paddy fields and a variety of crops in upland areas. Today, as markets have changed, there is an increasing push to expand agricultural land and to grow more nutrient-demainding crops like corn. I set out to see if recent land use change and changes in agricultural practices might be having an effect on the limitation state of algae, or alternatively, if the level of nutrients in Thai rivers were limiting algal accumulation. I used field experiments, measured water chemistry, and analyzed land cover data for my study regions to relate how different land use might have different effects on algal growth.
I also did fish surveys to see if the small, often community managed protected areas, or “no fishing” zones, I encountered were successful at protecting many of the regions fish species.
This research might lead other scientists to ask how land use change in developing countries could affect algal production in other rivers. It might also lead scientists to ask if creating freshwater protected areas is a viable conservation strategy outside of Thailand.
Not to sound harsh, but why should someone not in the field of freshwater sciences care about your work? What’s the “bigger picture”, in other words?
Local people have long been dependent on fishery resources in the mountains of northern Thailand. While less nutritionally dependent on local fisheries today, locals still prefer locally harvested fish, like the Mastacembelus eel captured by this boy. Photo: A. Koning
Local people have long depended on fisheries in the mountains of northern Thailand. While less nutritionally dependent on them today, people still prefer locally harvested fish, like the Mastacembelus eel captured by this boy. Photo: A. Koning

People outside of freshwater sciences should care because my goal is to conduct research that informs conservation of the freshwater fish of the region, but also works to maintain the fishery resources upon which hundreds of thousands of people depend for daily sustenance. I think that it’s possible to maintain a productive freshwater fishery and the region’s notable biodiversity if the right tools are in place.
What do you love about your work? What do you love, well, not-so-much?
There is a lot that I love about my work. I am fortunate to be able to conduct my research in the tropics. I love my fieldwork, as it includes snorkeling to count fish, canoeing and off-roading between research sites, interacting with stakeholders in the region, and trying my best to communicate the conservation principles of my work in another language. What do I love not so much… Well, in the field I spend months on end sleeping on a Therm-a-Rest mattress and eating rice and egg omelets. Those are probably the biggest things.
Tell me about one funny, memorable, exciting or awesome moment from your work either in the field or in the lab.
I think the most memorable thing from my fieldwork this past year was my first snorkel transect. I had observed fish from the surface of the water, and I knew that there were a lot of fish packed into rather small conservation areas where locals don’t fish at all. However, finally breaking the surface and being surrounded by schools of fish reaching over a meter in length was simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. I just had to remind myself that despite their size, the fish around me didn’t have any teeth.
Where do you hope to go from here?
I hope to wrap up my PhD in the next 2 years, and after that I plan on looking for opportunities that allow me to continue to conduct research in Thailand. Ultimately I hope to get a faculty job and assemble a group of researchers to continue to investigate ways to maintain these important ecosystems and the fishery resources that they provide to so many people.

                              For more about Aaron’s research (and for some                                    pretty cool pictures of Thailand) check out his new website!)

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