Michelle Duncan grew up on her family’s beef farm in West Coweta, far from the sea.
But a love for manatees led her to study marine biology, and an opportunity from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration led her to earn a master’s degree in fisheries.
Duncan is now a fisheries biologist and education specialist at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center laboratory in Panama City, Florida.
At the Panama City lab, where Duncan has been since 2003, she studies spawning red snapper and groupers and other commercially important fish and serves as an education specialist, working with students and the community.
Marine biologists often focus on their research and publications in peer-reviewed journals, but that information isn’t acceptable to children, Duncan said.
Show children what’s in their own garden
“We weren’t walking into our schools saying – hey, we have an office here in Panama City and we’re working on fish and on sharks,” Duncan said. The lab has been there for 45 years and “people still don’t know they have a NOAA office in Panama City,” she said.
So for 10 years, Duncan has been bringing information to the community. This includes teaching school children how the things they do and don’t do can impact marine life – like litter.
“It bridges the gap between us and the schools,” Duncan said.
Before Covid-19, she would go to schools and do dissections, including shark dissections, and bring a “touch tank” for students.
“I’m going to go out, shoot a net in the grass and bring it to their classroom,” she said of the creatures for the touch tank. Often, children who live in Panama City rarely go to the beach. When she brings the sea creatures to class, for some students it is the first time they have seen them.
“They see a spider crab and they freak out – they’ve never seen it before,” she said.
Sometimes she may meet groups on the beach, go out with dip nets or a seine net and collect creatures for the children to get to know.
“I show them in real time what’s there and why it’s here,” she said. It gives them hands-on experience, which is so different from just reading something from a book.
With COVID-19, she can’t go to schools, but they have held virtual events. There was a big virtual event at the end of last school year and she talked about the lab and answered questions from students.
“I hope it got them thinking and put it in their head – that’s how I can make an impact. Just make small changes, reusable bags, reusable water bottles” , Duncan said. Something she makes sure to always tell the students is to pick up their trash, especially at the beach. Pick up all the trash you see on the beach, even if you didn’t put it there. Because litter can strangle birds and endanger fish, whales and dolphins.
Study the growth and reproduction of snappers and groupers
His research on snapper and grouper, along with research from other teams around the gulf, is used to assess the population of different fish and set limits and seasons.
Commercial fishermen as well as people who fish on charter boats can meet harbor officers at the wharf, and these harbor officers are there to gather information about the catch. They will usually use tools to quickly remove the otolith from the fish, and sometimes the reproductive organs.
An otolith or “ear stone” is made of calcium carbonate and sits below the gill plate. Like the ring on a tree, the otolith has a ring for each year of a fish’s life. Scientists can examine the otolith to determine the age of the fish and sometimes gather other information.
Each year, Duncan said his lab could receive 30,000 red snapper otoliths from the region. They will examine about 5,000 of them. Research can help determine at what age the snapper matures and whether it matures faster or slower than before.
Minimum size limits are enforced to ensure anglers only keep mature fish that are already of reproductive age, and this ensures species are not overfished. Research can also determine when fish spawn and what may have triggered spawning.
Fisheries biology tends to be a male-dominated field, and it’s something Duncan had to contend with during his graduate studies.
After graduating in marine biology from Savannah State University, Duncan found that there were very few jobs available for scientists who wanted to study manatees. So many people love manatees and other “charismatic macrofauna” like dolphins, that they are willing to work with the animals as volunteers.
“Everyone wants to kiss a manatee and they’re willing to do it for free,” Duncan said. “I couldn’t find a job working with the manatees, so I had to turn to fishing because job opportunities were more available in fishing.”
She received a scholarship through a NOAA partnership program with minority-serving institutions and studied for her master’s degree in fisheries biology at Clemson University in South Carolina.
A field dominated by men
Duncan was the first black woman in the Fisheries Department there and said it was a male-dominated space. His adviser was recruiting students specifically to try to diversify the field and the department, and there was a funded project, so Duncan took the plunge.
“At that time, I would never have chosen sturgeon fishing. But the opportunity came and I was very grateful for it,” she said.
His research aimed to determine whether or not a particular dam had a negative impact on sturgeon spawning. She did most of the time on her own and remembers going out every day, launching the boat and leaving.
“Every day, without fail, I would come to this boat launch and there was an old man who would just sit and stare at me and he would scream ‘baby, do you need help?’ “”, Did she say.
She enjoyed the work. Part of it involved taking large pads used in the ground pads, attaching rebar and weights to them, and laying them in various places in front of the dam. Then she would pull up the pads and see where the surgeonfish had laid their eggs.
While research work was enjoyable, most graduate school was not. She finished in a year and a half, while most people take two. “I was ready to go,” she said. “There was a lot of racism and resentment…that’s why I was like walking in, walking out,” she said.
She was happy with the experience. “It’s one of those things where you get tested and stick with it,” she said. But Duncan said if she hadn’t been on a scholarship and had paid out of pocket, she would have pulled out of the program.
“I’m not paying thousands of dollars to come here and be harassed,” she said. Her counselor was very supportive and helped her through it, she says.
“The journey of being a woman in a male-dominated world has been quite interesting,” Duncan said. “I’ve had some interesting interactions with men who — it’s their world and they don’t appreciate women coming into their world, especially black women,” she said.
Break down barriers, have a passion
Because of her experiences, her mission now is to help break down the barriers of racism and sexism for others who want to enter the field.
“It’s my mission not to put black women through what I went through 20 years ago. What’s still happening, unfortunately. It’s breaking down those barriers,” she said, or encourage people to persevere in spite of themselves because the field is very rewarding.
A big part of Duncan’s outreach is letting people know the lab and the programs exist. Many people don’t even realize that working in fishing is a career. “If you don’t see it, you don’t know it’s something you can do,” she said. Duncan recommends all students do an internship to ensure they love the field. In high school, she wanted to be a veterinarian. A job at a veterinary practice soon changed her mind.
“I say to all students, to be in this field, to stick with it, you have to have a passion. To get through racism, sexism, low pay, free work – you have to do a lot of internships – to having to go through all of that, you have to have that initial passion.”
Because it’s worth it. “I love investigating and finding solutions to the problem,” she said.
“Being in marine science and fishing – I love that. And I want other black women, other female students of color to see that side as well and not be deterred by any kind of microaggressions, any racism that they endure and be put off, to move past that and stick with it,” she said.
NOAA has a diversity and inclusion component and takes it very seriously, Duncan said.
She wants to see the barriers that prevent women and people of color from entering the field disappear. “We want all kinds of barriers removed for you to pursue this degree,” Duncan said. This can include providing support and seeing other like-minded people on the pitch.
NOAA offers scholarship programs and internships to bring students of color into the field, as well as scholarships to help its employees further their education. In 2021, Duncan completed his doctorate in educational leadership at Florida A&M University, with the help of NOAA’s Advanced Studies Program Fellowship.
In the years following Duncan’s debut, more women joined the field. In fact, women outnumber men at the Panama City lab, and have for some time. The shark research team is all female.
Duncan said she loves seeing an all-female crew out in the boat to search for sharks. They catch them, measure them, mark them and release them. If they catch an already tagged shark, they can compare its growth rate and sometimes even see where the fish has migrated.
There has been a marked change in the makeup of the fishing industry over Duncan’s 20 years. She remembers attending conferences years ago. “You would see maybe 10 or 15 women out of hundreds of people. Now it’s like women are everywhere,” she said. “We still have things you would like to see more of, but this is a marked shift…and we are definitely making strides to be more inclusive of all communities, from all walks of life,” she said.
While she fell in love with the biology of fishing, Duncan still has a special place in her heart for manatees. “When I retire, that’s where I’ll be — in Crystal River, hanging out with manatees,” she said.