Endless Opportunities

Author: Melissa Leszek, M.S. Candidate, Environmental Science & Policy

The summer before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, I made my way up to New Hampshire from northwest Pennsylvania on a conservation internship through the Student Conservation Association (www.thesca.org). This national non-profit organization had placed me in a world I had never visited. A world full of majesty seen in the surrounding pristine lakes and ancient mountains. A world full of endless adventure, endless beauty, endless inspiration, and endless opportunities. I owe my first experience in New Hampshire to the Squam Lakes Association as they accepted me into the area with open arms and trust in my environmental aspirations.

The Squam Lakes Association (SLA) is located about 10 miles east of Plymouth State University and was founded in 1904 to protect the Squam Lakes watershed through Conservation, Education and Outreach programs. In collaboration with local and state partners, the SLA promotes the protection, careful use and shared enjoyment of the lakes, mountains, forests, open spaces and wildlife of the Squam Lakes region. (Please click the link to read Andrew Vielleux’s research study with the SLA):


Photo taken in 2011 on SLA’s milfoil control boat, Millie, which houses a Diver Assisted Suction Harvester (DASH). This unit, designed by SLA Director of Recreation Brett Durham, is the most efficient method identified to remove variable milfoil from Squam. Variable milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) is an invasive species that can spread rapidly through a water-body, and has been in New Hampshire since the late 1960s.

During my time at the SLA, I was fortunate enough to spend a summer conserving and managing this beautiful area. Some of my responsibilities involved long days on the lake collecting water samples, hours spent in the woods maintaining the surrounding hiking trails, helping ecological interns manage invasive milfoil, or working with my fellow SCA interns to supervise the recreational camping sites located on Moon and Bowman Islands and Chamberlin Reynolds Memorial Forest.

Photo taken on Squam Lake with my fellow SLA conservation interns. Here we set out to different coves around the lake to take water samples for UNH.


I would not trade one moment of that summer as I learned many valuable skills, slept under the stars, and connected with many fascinating people in the area. I had finally found a place where I would enjoy pursuing other ambitions in the environmental field, and had the right channels to do it. My time at the Squam Lakes Association lead me to move to the area permanently after graduating, and eventually connected me to other opportunities in the region such as two years of field biology work for Loon Preservation Committee, and acceptance into the environmental science and policy master’s program at Plymouth State University.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in environmental science from PA, I moved back to New Hampshire as soon as I could. I took a few months off to work odd jobs, save money, enjoy more adventures in the White Mountains, and apply to graduate school at Plymouth. Then, an opportunity came along to work as a summer field biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee. A loon (Gavia immer) is a13-20 pound, highly protected and iconic diving bird limited to more northern latitudes, and a threatened species of New HampshireMy interest in applying for the LPC position was sparked by an experience I had at the Squam Lakes Association. It was calm and moonlit summer night, and the first time I had been loon banding. We set out onto Squam Lake as dusk was slowly fading to night. We had two boats. One large pontoon to hold the equipment and volunteers, and a Boston Whaler for the two biologists and Tuff’s University veterinary intern to catch the loons. The team set out in the Whaler for the first attempt, and after about 45 minutes, one adult loon and two chicks were brought back to our pontoon. With the help of volunteers, the LPC biologists quickly weighed the loon, took a blood sample, measured the bill, and banded the legs for future monitoring. Then the two chicks were weighed and examined, as they were too young to be banded. Only a few minutes had passed and the family was ready to be released back into their territory. I instantly developed a fascination and appreciation for the work of the biologists, and little did I know this experience would lead me to two years of the same field work with the Loon Preservation Committee, and an opportunity to partner with them on a master’s thesis project at Plymouth State University.

I was hired at the Loon Preservation Committee as a summer field biologist in 2013. One of eight biologists in the entire state I was assigned to monitor the loon population on Lake Winnipesaukee. Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest and most heavily populated lake in New Hampshire.  It is approximately 21 miles long, and from 1 to 9 miles wide (northeast-southwest), covering 72 square miles with a maximum depth of 212 feet. Lake Winnipesaukee is surrounded by three mountain ranges, the wooded shoreline and crystal clear water of this spring-fed lake make it a popular summer vacation spot and a place to recreate in a variety of water sports like skiing, sailing, or fishing. This lake also contains 258 islands and is home to many species of wildlife, like the threatened loon.

It was yet another summer full of new experiences, new faces, and new responsibilities. My office was located on a 16 ft. Boston Whaler, which I would take out every day from Moultonborough for up to 12 hours a day, rain or shine. Observation is the start of all good science, and my work at the LPC began and ended every day with monitoring. My work involved collecting data on the number of adult loons, number of territorial loon pairs (pairs that defend an area of water and have the potential to produce young), nesting success, and survival of chicks, over a course of the 10 week breeding season. Counts of loon adults and chicks provide the first indication of problems with the loon population and the health of the environment, as they are an indicator species. I also had the opportunity to work with some wonderful volunteers, who have helped keep track of virtually every territorial pair of loons in New Hampshire since 1976. In this process, the LPC has created a database of loon populations and productivity that is unequaled anywhere else in the world. I was lucky enough to contribute to this database, as it is an important tool to record trends in the loon populations over time, and to measure effectiveness in addressing the causes of declines in the threatened loon population.

Photo taken this summer at a loon nesting sanctuary on Lake Winnipesaukee. Here I am installing a game camera on one of our floating rafts. These game cameras allow us to catch things that we may overlook; like causes of nest failures.

A few months before I begin working at the Loon Preservation Committee, I was also accepted into the Environmental Science and Policy master’s program. The next step was to find an advisor and a research topic, and I soon connected with Dr. Brian Eisenhauer, an Environmental Sociologist and associate professor here at Plymouth State. Dr. Eisenhauer has worked with several Environmental Science and Policy graduate students on projects related to environmental communication, conservation, and sustainability. I knew his professional skills aligned with my own interests and aspirations, and I soon contacted him. However, I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to research.

Over the course of the summer working at the LPC and having conversations with Dr. Eisenhauer, I contemplated doing a project more in line with field biology research. Then I learned about the largest known cause of New Hampshire adult loon deaths, which is the ingestion of fishing tackle made of lead—specifically, lead fishing sinkers and jigs. Lead fishing tackle has had the greatest impact on bird species that ingest fishing tackle lost or abandoned along banks or in water bodies. Birds normally ingest small pebbles to break down food in their gizzards, but may mistakenly ingest lead fishing tackle, which typically weigh less than 57 grams (2 ounces). For this reason, most harm to water birds involves smaller lead weights used by recreational anglers, which will poison the bird and eventually kill them.

Between 1989 and 2011, lead sinkers and jigs caused nearly half (49%) of the NH adult loon deaths. The loss of these loons, which do not reproduce until their sixth year of life on average, has had a large negative impact on the state’s loon population. It has taken nearly two decades to secure the protection for loons and other waterfowl from lead fishing tackle, and going into effect on June 1, 2016, New Hampshire Senate Bill 89 (SB 0089) will remedy the current fishing law by banning the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers and lead jigs weighing one ounce or less. Signed in 2013, this three-year phase in period will give anglers and retailers time to transition to non-lead tackle.

Governor Maggie Hassan has signed Senate Bill 89 into law. This bill bans the sale and freshwater use of lead fishing sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce or less. This tackle is the largest known cause of New Hampshire adult loon mortality.

The topic of lead in the environment from fishing tackle is highly controversial among New Hampshire stakeholders. Consequently, strong and conflicting public opinions about the use of lead fishing tackle make decision-making and communication surrounding these issues particularly challenging for involved agencies. To help resolve this conflict, I chose to unite my own interest of fishing with my educational background and experiences. I felt there was a clear need for social science research to advance communication strategies on this issue, and due to Dr. Eisenhauer’s knowledge and enthusiasm, I knew he would help me accomplish this.

The framework to help me achieve this goal is called Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM). This was created to encourage more environmentally responsible behaviors by identifying the key factors affecting participation in a desired behavior. It has also been used by thousands of organizations, and even by a former CFE graduate student under my advisor. Supported by the LPC and several other organizations, my intention is to advance outreach and education strategies on this issue to encourage more sustainable fishing practices in the pristine lakes I fell in love with. Ultimately this will help reduce the impacts of lead fishing tackle on wildlife in New Hampshire.

I am fortunate to have collaborated with two environmental organizations in New Hampshire, which have prepared me for my current work in the Center for the Environment. The experiences I have gained since being here have provided me with a holistic understanding of human interactions with the natural, human and built environment; and an opportunity to help change a significant environmental, political, and cultural issue in New Hampshire. I have also enjoyed working closely with the students and faculty members of CFE. I have met some very bright and down to earth people. Although I only have a few months left in the program, the best is yet to come and there is still much to accomplish.

2 thoughts on “Endless Opportunities

  1. Thanks Melissa for sharing about some of your experiences with the LPC and Plymouth State. I’m looking at different graduate school programs in environmental science / conservation studies and environmental communication is something I’d love to focus on. Hope your work at the Center for the Environment is going well. I’m glad to hear someone like Dr. Eisenhauer is a professor at PSU.

    • Thanks Tyler! It has been wonderful partnering with local organizations and developing a project that will help them with a major issue. I couldn’t ask for a better advisor either! Let me know if you’d like to connect with Brian. Good luck in the grad school search!

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