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Meet Dave Packer, Research Ecologist

July 23, 2020

Interning, volunteering, and working for several federal agencies have been important parts of Dave’s education and career. This includes being a park ranger, wilderness firefighter, and clinical research test subject.

Dave Paker and Meredity in control room during expedition.

We continue our series to introduce the people who work at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Each month we feature a new "face" from the Center's five laboratories and share with you a bit about who they are, what they do at the Center, and what they enjoy doing in their spare time. Dave Packer is a Research Ecologist in the Habitat Ecology Branch and is located at our Sandy Hook Lab in New Jersey.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, deep in the heart of suburbia, in Euclid, outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Despite Cleveland’s less-than-sterling reputation, it has thriving cultural institutions. I have always been interested in science and nature, and I just adored the Cleveland Museum of Natural History—I couldn’t get enough of it. Cleveland also had a first-rate Metroparks system, a zoo, and later, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. So nature, albeit suburban nature, was never far away. Even my public high school had its own planetarium! I was heavily influenced by nature shows and the writings of major conservationists, like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Henry David Thoreau. So it wasn't just science, but conservation and the environment, that I set my sights on.

Where did you go to school and what subject did you get your degree(s) in?

I got my Bachelor of Science at Ohio State University, majoring in zoology. My focus was on organismal biology and I had dreams of becoming a wildlife biologist or a herpetologist. I’ve always had a particular fondness for reptiles and amphibians. I had them as pets growing up, sometimes offering to take care of them for other people. Attending Ohio State obviously meant marine science wasn’t an option for me, but that soon changed.

An important part of my education and career development was what I did during the summers as an undergraduate and after. Freshman year, I got an internship with the Student Conservation Association as a backcountry ranger in Olympic National Park. That internship launched me into a series of other seasonal positions with federal land agencies. I was a park ranger at Assateague Island National Seashore and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Then, I was a wilderness firefighter at Payette National Forest, Idaho, and with the Bureau of Land Management in Buffalo, Wyoming. 

These were all great and grand adventures. I learned to be resilient, or at least try to be, in the rugged wilderness. As part of the “helitack” crew, I was dropped off in remote locations via helicopter to fight fires. I also had to learn how to dig fire lines and wield chainsaws and pulaskis with aplomb. More importantly, I learned how government land agencies worked, what they do, and how (as we used to say in the National Park Service) “to protect the people from the park and the park from the people.” And even more importantly, I learned a critical skill: how to look for and apply for jobs with government agencies! If you’ve ever filled out a Standard Form 171, you know what I’m talking about.

How I eventually wound up at the Smithsonian Institution and then in graduate school for marine science, I’ll explain in a moment. I eventually got my Master of Science degree in oceanography from the University of Maine. My graduate research focused on soft-bottom benthic ecology and community structure. I was  Dr. Les Watling’s student. The program in which I earned my degree was multidisciplinary in nature, which I liked a lot because it brought diverse perspectives and viewpoints to the field.

How did you come to work at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center?

Rock sculpture with large mouth in dense forest.

Dave Packer enjoys traveling. Here he poses in the Orcus sculpture’s mouth at the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) in Bomarzo, Italy. Photo courtesy of Dave Packer.

When I graduated from Ohio State, I wasn’t looking to start graduate school right away. So I talked to a job counselor who suggested I look into being a normal volunteer—now called a healthy volunteer—at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The program recruits healthy individuals to participate in clinical research to test new drugs, devices, or procedures as part of the control group in a study. I was skeptical, as I had visions of being injected with LSD or some other questionable drug, but my counselor assured me that would not be the case and the program had rigorous oversight and safety protocols. 

I was excited by the opportunity to make a contribution to medical research and better yet, to earn a stipend of $14 a day while living in a hospital room and getting free food. I ended up volunteering for a few months at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with Dr. Anthony Fauci as director. Volunteers were encouraged to work alongside any one of the possible Nobel Prize-winning researchers at NIH—to make the most of our time there when not being a test subject. I was not interested in a medical career, so in between injections of endotoxin and being drained of blood, I volunteered at the Marine Systems Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington D.C. That’s how I fell into marine science.

While at the Smithsonian, I worked under Dr. Walter Adey and Dr. Bob Steneck. I wound up staying and volunteering there for two years. I stayed for two more years, getting paid as a federal employee and cutting my teeth living and working on their ship the R/V Marsys Resolute. I was doing fieldwork in the Gulf of Maine on marine bottom ecology and mollusk taxonomy. Dr. Steneck was the one who introduced me to Dr. Watling at the University of Maine.

After graduate school, I spent a couple of months working for the Sea Education Association, teaching oceanography to undergraduates aboard their sailing vessel the R/V Westward in the Caribbean. Then, I interned for 2 years with EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis, Maryland, where I learned a lot about environmental policy and how to quickly craft a decent sentence. All of these seasonal positions, internships, and volunteering with federal agencies helped me to get my permanent position with NOAA Fisheries.

What do you do at the Science Center?

I’ve worn quite a number of habitat hats here at the science center, ranging from riverine systems and salt marshes to the deep ocean. I’ve conducted bottom sampling for invertebrates and fish on Georges Bank in areas closed to sea scallop harvesting. This was part of a study investigating fishing gear effects on bottom habitats. I was the lead on a project that assessed the ecology of salt marshes in the Arthur Kill—the strait between Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey—that had been restored after an oil spill. While on a rotational assignment at NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation in Silver Spring, Maryland, I researched and produced a national policy on gravel mining in salmon habitat on the West Coast.

One of my older projects that is still bearing fruit is the science center’s essential fish habitat (EFH) initiative. It was a major, center-wide effort to create what we call EFH species “source documents.” The science center's role was to provide the information to our regional office to help the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils identify, describe, and ultimately conserve habitat for their fishery species. In other words, we were supplying the science behind what the resource managers were going to do, and this involved creating a compendium of information about every species’ life history, habitat requirements, and food habits. 

We did exhaustive literature reviews to find all pertinent information about a species, made abundance and distribution maps for each species using data from our trawl surveys going back to the 1960s, and identified research questions and needs that should be pursued. For those species that occurred inshore, we tried to obtain as much information, data, and maps as possible from every state where they occurred. All this had to be written up into a cohesive document.

None of this was easy because we were basically tasked with covering everything that is known about a species over all their life stages. But it was all worth it because these documents became the basis for designating EFH by the two councils. Even the older ones are still being used to help scientists and managers make informed decisions about the habitat each species needs throughout its life cycle and by educators and students who need all the information about a species gathered in one spot.

One of my long-term duties is to be on New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council habitat teams and projects. These include state and federal scientists, managers, academic scientists, and council staff working on EFH activities, deep-sea coral issues, and habitat assessments. I think of myself as being a liaison between science and/or the science center and the habitat managers and decision-makers.

Multi-branched coral surrounded by fish.

A Primnoa coral on boulder with redfish, Northeast Channel during the 2019 Deep-Sea Coral Survey’s second dive. Depth 415 meters. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

My biggest and most thrilling ongoing project is to map, survey, and characterize deep-sea coral habitats off the U.S. Northeast coast. This involves a lot of fieldwork with other NOAA and academic partners on NOAA’s big white ships and other vessels. We use all kinds of camera and video platforms, like drop cameras, remotely operated vehicles, and autonomous underwater vehicles. NOAA has a mandate to research and protect deep-sea corals and their habitats because they’re important hot-spots for biodiversity in the deep ocean. Deep-sea corals are known to provide habitat for certain commercially important fish and shellfish species, so it’s critical that we better understand their biology and ecological function.

What do you like most about your position?

First, I love doing field research, whether it’s in the contaminated muck of Staten Island salt marshes, or on a big ship in Canadian waters way off the coast of Maine. And I’d better love it too since I’m prone to severe seasickness, which I need strong medication to control! The offshore deep-sea coral surveys in particular are exciting adventures. We get to use the latest underwater technology to find new and amazing deep-water habitats and organisms. One of the other perks is when I can spare a free moment (and there are not many) and go out on deck to look for whales, other marine mammals, seabirds, and sharks. I’ve seen some cool stuff!

I’ve also enjoyed having the opportunity through several of my projects and duties to work across branches and divisions at the science center, as well as across and with other NOAA and NOAA Fisheries offices. For example, my assignments with the Office of Habitat Conservation allowed me to gain a national perspective on habitat issues and policies, and I am constantly collaborating with the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on their own priorities as well as New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council matters. These wide-ranging collaborative efforts are particularly critical for the deep-sea coral surveys because the surveys would not otherwise get done.

I also like being at the interface between science and resource management and having the ability to provide resource managers with the science information they need. What’s most satisfying is when this information is used for habitat conservation efforts. For example, deep-sea corals are fragile and are extremely long-lived and vulnerable to human impacts. Our surveys have been used by the two regional fishery management councils to designate deep-sea coral protection zones off the U.S. Northeast coast. These zones will protect corals from the impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear, and eventually total more than 63,000 square miles of protected ocean bottom.

What are some of your hobbies?

My wife and I are avid gardeners. We garden and landscape for both wildlife and ourselves—New Jersey really is the garden state after all. Keeping up the nature theme, we also enjoy hiking, backpacking (that’s how we met), and birding. New Jersey and Sandy Hook are birding hotspots! Our favorite backpacking destination is the desert Southwest and the Colorado Plateau. We’ve been to “red rock” country many times.

To counteract all the sciencey stuff I do, I dabble in the arts, including pottery and art quilting. We also collect folk art during our travels. We collected African art while in Mozambique and Madagascar and Native American pottery from the southwest. To balance all the time spent sitting in front of computers, I practice martial arts/Tai Chi and fencing. I’ve been practicing martial arts/Tai Chi since high school and I started fencing in college. 

Hiker posing with Japanese hiking path signage.

Dave Packer at Mikoshi-touge pass on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail in Japan. Photo courtesy of Dave Packer.

I did a lot of cross-country traveling when I was younger but only started international travel later on. Now it’s a priority for me. We’ve been all over and particularly enjoy self-guided hiking and nature tours, as you get to walk through some amazing places, enjoy amazing food, and get some amazing exercise. I’ve become a real Japanophile as I’m a Zen Buddhist and I love doing Japan’s self-guided historic and “pilgrimage” hikes and trails, like the famous Nakasendo and Kumano Kodo trails. I plan to go back when the world opens up again.

For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.


Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on August 20, 2021