Skip navigation

USM Students Experiencing Careers in Aquaculture and Fisheries through Federal Research Internships

Tue, 03/19/2024 - 08:38am | By: Ivonne Kawas

Graduate students James Klein and Molly Spencer, both pursuing a Master of Science in Coastal Sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) School of Ocean Science and Engineering, recently completed research internships funded by federal agencies — the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Both students are researchers at USM's Center for Fisheries Research and Development, housed in the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.


Klein, a native of Weston, Conn., participated in a U.S. NSF funded internship working at Cape May Salt Oyster Farms, associated with Atlantic Cape Fisheries, in Port Norris, N.J.

Klein’s thesis explores the Mississippi Sound and monitors and predicts oyster larvae performance. Concurrently, the internship was focused on enhancing the efficiency of oyster farming in deeper and subtidal environments using innovative and functional aquaculture gear and identifying oyster lines that exhibit favorable traits for the aquaculture industry and half shell market.

Throughout the internship, Klein says he monitored and sampled seed oyster growth over a nine-month period, tracking the cohort's development until it reached market size.

“I deployed and tracked seed oyster growth,” said Klein. “Following the winter period, characterized by marginal oyster growth due to cold temperatures, oysters were monitored and sampled every six weeks until the cohort reached market size.”

Klein had the opportunity to devise his own experimental design for collecting live samples and led in the implementation of a cohesive monitoring program to evaluate the performance of various triploid oyster genetic lines.

“I was able to evaluate the performance of different triploid oyster genetic lines at a range of cage stocking densities using a novel deep water oyster aquaculture farming system,” said Klein. “Active participation in pulling the aquaculture gear onto the vessel allowed me to collect live samples, subsequently perform laboratory analyses, and assist with gear maintenance.”

“Once in the laboratory, live samples were processed for statistical analyses, and traits such as shell appearance and shape, fast growth, adequate meat content, disease prevalence, and high survivorship were assessed,” Klein continued. “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Daphne Munroe and Dr. David Bushek at Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory for providing me lab space and accommodations during my monitoring trips.”

Klein notes that this invaluable experience has allowed him to step beyond the classroom and delve into the industry sector of oyster fisheries with the support from a sustainable oyster farm.

“My academic foundation in coastal sciences, with emphasis on oyster population dynamics and fishery management, seamlessly intersected with the objectives of my internship at Cape May Salt Oyster Farms,” said Klein. “This opportunity strengthened my proficiency in data management and analyses, equipping me with the ability to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences. It not only expanded my skill set but also produced tangible results, fortifying my commitment to advancing the field and contributing to sustainable aquaculture and fishery practices.”

“USM has played a pivotal role in preparing me for success in several ways,” said Klein. “The rigorous curriculum has provided me with a solid theoretical foundation, while hands-on research opportunities like this one have allowed me to apply gained knowledge in practical settings.”

He added, “Moreover, the supportive and engaging learning environment fostered by the faculty at USM has been instrumental in my development. In particular, through his expertise and guidance, my advisor, Dr. Eric Powell, has significantly influenced my academic and professional growth. His mentorship has not only deepened my understanding of marine science, oyster population dynamics, and fisheries, but also encouraged me to explore independent research and pursue real-world applications.”



Spencer, a native of Mid-Coast, Maine, participated in a NOAA Fisheries funded internship working at the Northeast Marine Fisheries Science Center (NMFSC) in Woods Hole, Mass.

Spencer’s thesis explores the impact of climate-induced warming on the eastern North American continental shelf, particularly affecting the Atlantic surfclam (Spisula Solidissima). Concurrently, the internship focused on investigating the robustness of the federal Atlantic surfclam survey design under increasing warming temperatures.

“My research focuses on the species' vulnerability to rising bottom temperatures and anticipates future habitat shifts based on forecasted temperatures,” explained Spencer. “These future shifts in surfclam distribution have serious implications for how well our current federal Atlantic surfclam stock survey design will be able to capture these changes in biomass.”

During the internship, Spencer spent six months investigating the reliability of the Atlantic surfclam survey design, based on model predictions from her thesis, working alongside NMFSC’s lead Atlantic surfclam stock assessor, Dr. Daniel Hennen.

“Our research involved simulating the federal stock assessment survey design within our surfclam habitat projection model, to test how well the survey could estimate Atlantic surfclam biomass over projected decadal shifts in species habitat,” said Spencer. “Overcoming the many challenges that come with stock assessment data, we were able to construct and interpret the statistical analyses.”

Reflecting on the significance of gaining hands-on experience, Spencer expressed, “You hear about these sampling techniques in class, but witnessing firsthand how a meticulous survey design can accurately portray your studied population really imprinted the importance of these techniques. The surveys ensure the well-being of the fishery and those dependent on its resources, therefore, our commitment to ethical and responsible practices should be of utmost importance.”

Spencer notes that USM has equipped her with the necessary skills that are critical to succeed in the career paths for coastal science researchers.

“The skill-based learning I have been exposed to at USM prepared me well for this internship, including the development of quantitative research skills and the exposure to several programming languages and software techniques,” said Spencer. “Guidance from my advisor, Dr. Eric Powell, and co-advisor at Old Dominion University, Dr. John Klinck, made these learning curves far less intimidating to overcome.”

The outcome of this research with NOAA Fisheries is going to inform a major U.S. shellfish fishery on what they can expect regarding stock sustainability in a time of global climate change, a key question for many associated with the industry.

“Teaming up with scientists from federal institutions has given me greater insight into the bigger picture of fisheries and coastal sciences,” said Spencer. “While I tend to focus on the scientific significance of climate-induced changes occurring in our oceans, this internship brings a human perspective to our work. Changes in species habitat have important consequences for these historic industries and the fishers who have spent their lives, and for some, going back for generations, pursing this resource. I think it’s important for me to be involved in research that has this type of cultural impact.”