Like many large gatherings, the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of numerous American Fisheries Society (AFS) meetings — nationwide from Alaska to Florida — leaving the fisheries community at a loss for how to continue to advance science and keep its members engaged, with more cancellations of state and regional AFS conferences seemingly inevitable.

Clemson students participate in video chat.

Clemson students (clockwise from top left) Rachel Moore, Aaron Bunch, Logan Bodiford and Hannah Mulligan found an innovative solution to the problem of numerous American Fisheries Society (AFS) meetings being canceled nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic — organizing a free online series of webinars to create a Virtual Spring Conference for the AFS and provide a venue for authors to present their papers and posters.
Image Credit: Clemson University

A group of Clemson University students, however, had other ideas. More importantly, they had the initiative to do something about it.

Led by doctoral student Aaron Bunch and including Logan Bodiford, Rachel Moore and Hannah Mulligan, the group found an innovative solution with an international impact — organizing a free online series of webinars to create a Virtual Spring Conference for the AFS and provide a venue for authors to present their papers and posters.

“The response from the group of motivated Clemson fisheries students was immediate, creative and had the serious leadership of Aaron to carry it through,” AFS Executive Director Doug Austen said. “It has been one of the gems coming out of this difficult situation to be able to work with this wonderful group of students to pull off an amazing set of events that responded to an important need to carry on with our science in this time of great challenges.”

Bunch, a doctoral student in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology in Clemson Assistant Professor of Fisheries Ecology Troy Farmer’s lab, said one reason the group was motivated to work on a solution was because so many scientists had spent so much time crafting presentations that they feared would never be shared with their colleagues. One of the goals of AFS is for fisheries professors and students to learn from each other and share research insights.

“There are certainly bigger fish to fry during these times, but we believed that maybe the effort would bring back some normalcy and help morale of some peers in the profession,” Bunch said. “There were some rumblings on social media and in conversations with folks about some type of virtual experience, but I didn’t see anything materializing.”

A recipient of the AFS Emerging Leaders Award last year, Bunch said the impetus for creating the Virtual Spring Conference was a call for ideas from Austen as the pandemic began to take hold, hoping to spark innovative ideas for bringing fisheries professionals and students together during unprecedented times in all of their lives.

AFS Virtual Meeting Logo“I suggested the concept of a virtual meeting and offered to lead the event,” Bunch said. “I was very humbled by the trust AFS has put into me and the other students in the Clemson AFS Student Sub-unit. AFS has given Clemson students full reign and as much support as needed by AFS staff to make this virtual conference a success.”

A rapid and dynamic planning process put the plan together in less than a month from the time it was posed to the AFS management committee until the first session was held. Working with AFS staff members in the Washington D.C./Maryland area, the group built the website, advertised, coordinated with various AFS unit leaders, created the abstract submission portal, developed the technical sessions, worked within the confines of the webinar program and created a social media buzz around the event.

Thus, the first session of the virtual conference was held April 21, and more than 270 virtual attendees took to the cloud over three hours to view nine presentations from Alaska and another from Virginia Tech Professor Don Orth, who spoke as the plenary speaker on “Thoughts on Virtual Worlds.”

Across the virtual conference’s eight sessions which spanned through May 7, the total reach was 1,600 live attendees with additional 400 views of recorded presentations. The event raised $11,600 in funds that will be matched to the Hutton Fund — a junior fisheries program that aims to “engage, inspire and diversify the next generation of fisheries professionals” — and gave over 85 international presenters the opportunity to present their research.

Farmer, a faculty member in Clemson’s Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department, said the AFS offers excellent opportunities for scientific communication, professional development and networking at annual state, regional and national conferences.

“Our Clemson undergraduate and graduate students in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology have taken advantage of these opportunities by presenting their research at numerous AFS conferences over the past few years,” Farmer said. “I’m very glad that some of these same students are now taking a leading role to help to fill the void left by canceled AFS state and regional conferences due to COVID-19. By helping to organize and host this unique AFS virtual spring conference, our students are helping others to share their research and access the many benefits provided by AFS conferences during these challenging times.”

Brandon Peoples, another Clemson Assistant Professor of Fisheries Ecology, agreed.

“For students, getting involved in professional organizations beyond attending meetings and presenting research can be intimidating,” he said. “Helping organize this virtual conference provided an excellent opportunity for our students to take a leadership role alongside professional biologists, which will help jumpstart their careers.’

And the virtual conference began so smoothly that the AFS members even found time for some lighthearted college football banter between Clemson and Louisiana State University students — whose schools met in the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship.

“An undergrad LSU presenter said in her pre-recorded talk something like, ‘Even though Clemson students are helping to organize the meeting, we all know who the real Tigers are,’” Bunch recalled. “At the end, I jokingly responded and said during the livestream, ‘Well played. We’ll see if the Bayou Bengals can maintain the same consistency as Clemson.’”

More importantly, the Virtual Spring Conference came together as a free international event with presenters from the U.S., Canada and Africa that used existing AFS resources, staff time and Clemson volunteer time to accomplish its goals.

“It is a true partnership between AFS and Clemson University’s AFS Student Sub-unit,” Bunch said. “Everyone involved has made this a success, and it would have not been possible without many important contributions from AFS staff and Clemson students.”