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Researchers - Theo Willis

Adjunct Assistant Professor
University of Southern Maine

Featured researcher on MPBN’s “Desperate Alewives” documentary

What problem/s are you working to solve?
We’re studying the connection between food web dynamics in the Kennebec River and land-use choices, particularly in how those choices affect both the biology and economics of the human dominated ecosystem.

What progress are you making toward solutions?
Over the past two years, we have connected with a number of guides who make all or part of their living on the river or in the nearshore Gulf of Maine. We now have a pretty good picture of the state of the recreational fishery in the Kennebec River. We are working with these guides to collect biological data to interface with economic models that will inform us on what’s to be gained and lost by prioritizing restoration vs. industry.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?
There is a lot of controversy behind the idea of free-flowing rivers these days. It seems the public is pulled in a lot of different directions regarding jobs and their viewscape. The days of flaunting engineering and industrial might for the sake of itself are over; people want to see the rapids, catch fish in the water, know it’s clean enough to drink. They want a sustainable living for themselves as well as a sustainable environment.

This work will hopefully lay down an apples-to-apples comparison of what the taxpayer gets for a $1.5 million dam removal project compared to leaving that structure in place for another 25 years. Maybe it’s not important to remove every day, but we can help point out the ones that are critical impediments to a healthy ecosystem.

Why did you decide to join SSI?
I joined an interdisciplinary group of scientists that had the chance to address complicated question at many levels. I am a biologist, and though I like to talk about economics, social science, and geochemistry, it’s not within my skill set to effectively research all the questions that need to be asked for a topic as large as river restoration. And we’ve had fun working on this topic, getting to know each other, and getting to know each other’s science.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?
Watching us slowly, ever so slowly, come to understand what it means to be a different kind of scientist. It’s amazing how being forced to step out of one’s comfort zone has led to some really fun discussions regarding the science of restoration.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?
I would have to say Passamaquoddy Bay. It’s so far out there, and so economically depressed, but once you’re on the water you forget all that. The natural beauty and the action—there’s still so much to see—is stunning: birds diving on fish breaking the surface, mackerel swimming through the clear water sieving zooplankton, the occasional whale breach, seals and porpoises. Even the tides are fascinating to watch.

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?
Kayaking from Augusta to Damariscove Island.

Mud season survival strategy?
Good boots. Have a bug hood handy at all times. Get out in it. I believe there is a period in late March and early April when there’s often two weeks of gorgeous weather. If you’re hiding inside in a winter slump still, you’ll miss it.

What sustains you?
I love investigating the outdoors. I love that my job keeps me deskbound for six months and has me outside on the go for the other six. As soon as I’m tired of the farmer’s tan, bug bites, driving, and soggy feet, it’s time for me to head back to the desk. As soon as I’m tired of writing and crunching numbers, it’s time to go outside again.

Additional information on Theo and his team

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