Angler turns love of fishing into profession, tackling research on walleye, Asian carp

Get up close and personal with fisheries and wildlife associate professor Brian Roth in our new "Researcher Profile" series.

Brian Roth, fisheries and wildlife professor, turned his passion for fishing into a scientific career.

When Brian Roth was a young boy, he would walk to Lake Washington – on the eastern side of Seattle – to fish nearly every day.  Although he goes much longer between fishing excursions now, Roth has managed to transform his favorite childhood pastime into his livelihood.

A Michigan State University (MSU) fisheries and wildlife professor and an MSU AgBioResearch scientist, Roth teaches courses on the study of fish (ichthyology) and limnological and fisheries techniques, and conducts research on associated topics. On his research radar at the moment: walleye and Asian carp – two strikingly different fish populations.

Roth is part of a team examining ways to minimize the number of Asian carp – an invasive species that typically grow to 50 pounds – on the Illinois River and decrease the potential of it moving into the Great Lakes. One viable solution, he said, is to develop markets for the fish in the United States. Roth said the Asian carp lends itself well to processed products such as fish sticks.

“In China, they’re considered a delicacy,” he said. “We need to raise public awareness here. It’s a delicious-tasting fish with high nutritional quality and very mild flavor. The fish meat is white, firm and flakey, but the fish are bony and ugly, and that’s very difficult for a lot people to get past.”  

Conversely, Roth is looking at ways to maximize the population of walleye – a noninvasive species – in a series of lakes and streams connected to Burt, Mullett, Crooked and Pickerel lakes, near Cheboygan. It’s a fish population some believe is declining, he said.

“You have to be careful the fish do not become overharvested, and at the same time we’re looking to maximize their natural reproduction,” he said. 

Roth received his bachelor’s degree in ecological biology from the University of Washington and his master’s degree and doctorate – both in limnology and marine science – from the University of Wisconsin. While in school in Wisconsin, he studied the roles of invasive crayfish and smelt in northern lakes. Roth later conducted post-doctoral research on shrimp populations and wetland rehabilitation at Louisiana State University.

When he finds time to fish – which he still thoroughly enjoys – he takes a no nonsense approach.  “I fish for whatever’s biting, and if it’s not working for me I move onto something different,” he said.

One of his favorite fish to catch: crappie, a small pan fish. “They’re not only fun to catch, they’re good to eat.”


Changing the Face of Science - Industry Profile

Name: Brian Roth

Title: MSU associate professor of fisheries and wildlife

Joined MSU in: July 2008

Hometown: Born and raised in Seattle, Washington

Muse: There are a lot of people who have influenced me in different ways. One of my uncles really inspired me to fish because he liked it so much. My mom and dad also encouraged me. They told me to do what I wanted, even if it wouldn’t make me rich. They also said to give it 100 percent or do it to the best of my ability. There’s also a colleague from grad school, Tom Hrabik, who is now a professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He’s a Native American who grew up on a reservation in northern Wisconsin. A fellow fish biologist, he has been a professional mentor to me. He is very successful at what he does despite growing up surrounded by poverty. He is also very good at figuring out ecosystems and what they do, while at the same time mixing in harvest ethics.

Favorite food: When I lived in Louisiana, I became really spoiled with lots of good food. The one thing I still make to this day – because it’s so good – is jambalaya. Not the kind that you buy in a box, but homemade with lots of meat – sausage, pork and chicken – and simmered for hours in a big pot over an open burner.  My recipe includes just the right mix of spices, and five pounds of onions!

Best song/group: I’m a big hip-hop fan. I grew up listening to hip-hop, so a lot of my favorite musicians come from the mid ‘90s. Classically speaking, that’s the music of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. I know it sounds weird that a professor would be into that type of music, but that’s how I grew up.

Book I’d recommend: One of my favorites is the Harry Potter series. They’re extremely addictive!

Coolest gadget: There are GPS units that you can input lake maps into that tell you how deep you are by your position. It’s not all that novel but pretty cool nonetheless. It’s a handheld device that I use to find a spot to fish. I really don’t use a fish finder because the fish come and go.

Best invention:  The outboard engine because it revolutionized fishing!

Worst invention: It has to be the cell phone. People can get hold of you whether you want them to or not. It’s either the cell phone or the 40-hour work week.

On my bucket list: I’d like to go fishing for arapaima. It’s a really big fish in the Amazon River. They used to get to be 10 feet long but not anymore. They still grow to be over 6 feet long. You’d definitely have to go on an adventure to catch one!

Person I’d most like to meet (living or dead):  I’d like to meet a Neanderthal. If I could get in a time machine and go back in time, I think that would be really fascinating. I could say Gandhi or Martin Luther King and either of them would be very uplifting and inspiring. But I’m so curious about what things were like in the Stone Age and prior that it would be really fascinating to meet a Neanderthal.

Best trip/vacation:  Northern Wisconsin. If I had my druthers, I’d spend a week and a half in northern Wisconsin right in the early springtime when all fish become really active. I’ve done that a couple of times and it’s so relaxing to me. I come back feeling a million times better and that’s what a vacation should be.

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find me: Playing with my son (who turned 18 months old in March). It’s getting to be so much fun. I already have him playing basketball. He’s exceptionally tall for his age. My wife’s family are tall people – I’m the shortest of her family, other than her. So our son is probably going to be pretty tall. I’m a baseball player, so he’s going to play baseball, too.

Major research breakthrough of the next decade: One of the things that consumes a lot of my time is trying to figure out exactly how to do the type of work that I like to do. One of the types of work I like to do is looking at trophic structure – what they call food webs – and to see how all fish are connected. I’d really like to focus on the Great Lakes shore areas, as well as inland lakes. If I had my druthers, all my grants would be related to those two subjects. I’m trying to get there so in the next 10 years, I hope I’ll work my way into doing that constantly. I think that sort of research is part of an overall ethic where you don’t just manage one part of a system or one species of the system, you look at how they’re all connected in order to understand what’s happening to one species. 

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