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Alumni spotlight: Carolyn Belcher (PHD ’08)

‘Warnell made the most sense’


Not long after she began her role as marine fisheries chief for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division, Carolyn Belcher faced a big problem.

Specifically, a 70,000-ton problem.

When the cargo ship MV Golden Ray capsized in St. Simons Sound near the Port of Brunswick in September 2019—within sight of Belcher’s office—it posed an issue far different from the typical questions of biology and fisheries management that make up Belcher’s days. As she worked with the myriad agencies responsible for pulling the scrapped ship apart, her division watched over the general marine health of the waters around it.

It was a giant puzzle that took a lot of coordination and collaboration, but that’s what you train for when you take the job, she said. “In the chief’s role, all the things you go into the field for are now the things you pray for—it’s the oversight of all the programs that we do within the marine fisheries side.”

As marine fisheries chief, Belcher oversees several units tasked with monitoring aspects of the coast that relate to commercial and recreational fishing. The research and surveys team handles fisheries management for species such as red drum and spotted sea trout (recreational fish), and shrimp and crab (for commercial fisheries); the fisheries statistics group works with recreational and commercial fishermen to understand which species are targeted and their removal rates; the habitat and access team focuses on the development of fisheries habitat, including oysters, and locating opportunities for new public boat ramps.

New to her team is the vessel support unit, which includes to research boats, the RV Glynn and the RV Reid Harris. The Glynn is primarily used to assess offshore populations of coastal sharks and adult red drum, and for assessment of artificial reefs. “We have divers who go out and look at how they are colonizing,” Belcher added.

Belcher’s path to Warnell was a bit nontraditional. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in statistics from the University of Rhode Island before moving to Georgia. After working with Coastal Resources Division for 4 years, She began working with UGA Marine Extension in Brunswick where she joined a project to assess shark nurseries along the East Coast. While working with UGA, she realized there was an opportunity to pursue her Ph.D.

“I had funding and a project and needed to find a graduate school professor who would work with me,” she said. “I met Cecil (Jennings), and he was one of the few professors who would take me on as a student.”

Belcher said at first she was directed toward UGA’s marine sciences program, but the research focus there was primarily wetlands, not fish. “So, for me, if you wanted to do fisheries, Warnell made the most sense.”

She said she’s thankful for Jennings’ guidance during her Ph.D. He retired in 2020 as an associate professor and unit leader for the Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, based at Warnell. While she was getting her master’s degree in Rhode Island, Belcher did statistics work for the lab there. But felt there was more to the work than numbers—if the assumptions or the model were wrong, the numbers don’t help. 

“Cecil was a good mentor for my time in grad school,” Belcher said. “Warnell crafted me from being a statistician into being a biologist, and that was thanks to Cecil.”

While Belcher isn’t doing field work as much as she used to, she still feels strongly about conservation and managing our natural resources. If there’s nobody monitoring our fisheries, it could have dire consequences not just among recreational fish populations but also economically, for commercial fishing.

“I believe in conservation and our natural resources—I’m so intrigued with all of it,” she said. “I’m just about balance; I want people to be able to do these things, but not lose species or their habitats because we didn’t manage them well.”


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