University of Vermont

Research with Professor Ellen Marsden

My purpose in this internship was to create a website for the Thunder Bay Reef Restoration Project. The hope was that the project team in Alpena, Michigan would be able to use this website to help explain what they were doing in the lake to locals, and especially to the local fishermen in the area.

Starting with (very) basic ideas of how to design a website (gleaned from a project creating a blog in another class), I began working on this project early in the spring semester. Every week, I would meet with my faculty advisor Ellen Marsden. She and I would discuss any changes that needed to be made to the templates I was producing on a weekly basis. For both Ellen and I, it was a bit of an experiment, since neither of us had any background with web design on any level. She introduced me to the program Kompozer, which is what made it possible for us to move away from the strictly structured blogging sites such as Blogger and Wordpress. While useful in their own way, blog sites tend to not offer the flexibility in design that we were looking for while creating the site. They looked very clean and pretty, but the only things I could change were the words and the images used.

With Kompozer, I could literally start on a blank page. I could select widths for the text boxes, set how much blank empty space was on the page (Wordpress had much more space than I wanted to have). Starting with what I had originally had in Wordpress, I was able to very quickly start building a basic webpage with all of the same components.

Once I had all of the basics, I could do what Ellen called “making it sexy.” This was a slightly longer process, as it entailed a lot of changing of little things, then going back and changing them again. But it was worth it, because in the end, I had a website with all the necessary components
that was still nice to look at.

I learned a few very interesting things over the course of this project. The largest component of my new knowledge was an understanding of HTML coding. Every website has an original HTML document that describes every aspect of the page. But it looks like this:

It really does not make any sense just looking at it. But this particular section of code describes the particular size, location, font, and color of the words “About the Project” in the image above. Even the simplest of pages can have hundreds of lines of code!

While Kompozer eliminated the need for me to design using HTML code, I did learn some of it because it made changing certain things easier. Certainly, if anyone else is thinking about doing any web design, I would say that prior knowledge of HTML code is a must. It is not entirely necessary for everything, but it does make certain things much easier to do. It’s nice to have something not be working in Kompozer, but understand enough to go into the code and fix a problem from there instead.

The entire point of this internship was to overcome some of the cultural problems between the researchers on the project and the local fishermen in Alpena. Initially, when the project was started, there were many problems with research buoys and equipment being removed from their moorings. For the research team, this represented a significant loss of both time and money. Hoping to reduce the loss, the team wanted to create a website that described every aspect of the project to the locals. Hopefully, if they knew what everything in the lake was for, they would leave it be.

This prerogative shaped my final product. I needed to create a website with a lot of information, sorted into easily understandable categories that were easily navigable. Moreover, it needed to be appealing, without taking away from the content. All in all, a difficult balance to maintain.

For me, the greatest challenge was guessing how to present all of this information in a way that would still appeal to a group of people I had never met – and that I never would meet. Whether I succeeded still remains to be seen. For now, all I can do is wait and see.

Hopefully, the information in the site will alleviate some of the cultural tension between fisherman and researcher. It is thought that the current feeling the fishermen have to the project team is one of apprehension. For example, what if the researchers find that there are even fewer fish than they thought? Will this cause new legislation and restrictions on fishing to come into effect? If this did happen, it could be completely detrimental to some of the fishers. So, to them, it may be worth the risk of deliberately damaging some of the equipment. If no data can be gathered, no conclusions can be made, and no changes can be enforced. This may seem ideal to some of the people out there.

However, I have the advantage of seeing how the researchers really do react to things happening in the lake. They are not looking to create red tape everywhere. The reefs were built to promote fish habitat, not to conduct surveys of fish populations. That want to see that all of their work is paying off, and that fish are using the entire new habitat that the project team made. They hope that the work that they do in Alpena will be useful for future, similar projects in other places in other locations. Honestly, it would be difficult to be as excited as Ellen got over seeing 2 fish on one of the reefs if the main goal was to see how large the entire population was.
As of now, the website doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect yet. Buoys are still disappearing, and equipment is still getting fouled up. But hopefully, as time passes, the two groups will connect and be able to work together to a future goal of preserving populations of fish into the future. The two cultures of entirely different mindsets will hopefully be able to blend and meld into just one.

If you have any questions about the project, feel free to go and check out the website - http://www.uvm.edu/rsenr/thunderbay/.