East magazine Winter 2008 edition
From the Classroom

The Doctor
of Dogfish

By Leanne E. Smith

any professors are content to lecture at the front of a classroom, but Roger Rulifson thinks that Green Mill Run, the creek at the bottom of College Hill, provides an excellent learning environment. That’s where he takes his biology students at the beginning of each semester. Plunging into the creek with them, he teaches the students how to measure dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, visibility and other vital signs of the stream.

Then they move on to a larger learning environment, the Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Hyde County, where they spend three days collecting water and fish samples. Having filled their notebooks and Mason jars, the students spend the rest of the semester in the lab analyzing their samples, learning how to tell the age of fish and studying food habits. Rulifson helps his students with their analysis and compiling their tables, but the interpretation they present in the term papers is their own.

“There’s no other class like it here where they can learn techniques they have to know in the real world of fisheries,” he says.

Rulifson’s enthusiasm shows when he talks about his students and his teaching methods. His face lights up, and his hands gesture energetically. While most professors on campus are similarly enthusiastic about their work, few have been at it as long as he has. Fall 2008 will mark his silver anniversary on the ECU campus. But after nearly 25 busy years, Rulifson is as enthusiastic about teaching and research as ever.  

He is a senior scientist and professor in the Institute for Coastal and Marine Resources and the Department of Biology and director of the Field Station for Coastal Studies at Mattamuskeet. He’s won several awards and was named 2006-07 Advisor of the Year for his work with the student chapter of the American Fisheries Society. In the community, he is the lanky, dark-haired guitarist with the contra dance band Elderberry Jam and dances with the Green Grass Cloggers.

Rulifson majored in biology and French at the University of Dubuque in Iowa and completed his master’s and doctoral work in marine science and engineering at N.C. State University. In the 1980s, he designed a junior-level marine biology course that allowed students to work in groups, much like professional scientists. The camaraderie helped students develop an affinity for ECU, create individual research projects that they conducted at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island near Beaufort, and showed Rulifson “whether a student was a leader or follower and whether they followed through. The class format gave me something real to say about them to potential employers.” Because of increased undergraduate enrollment, Rulifson had to transfer the collegial atmosphere to his senior- and graduate-level fisheries techniques courses.

Rulifson’s lab averages seven to 10 students, and many later become professionals in local and national fisheries research and education. Charlton Godwin ’01 ’03 is the primary striped bass biologist for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. Heidi Alderman ’06 teaches high school biology in New Bern. Chad Smith ’04 ’06 coordinates the ECU-based Citizens’ Monitoring Network, which recruits local volunteers to measure water quality. Jen Cudney ’04, who was a head technician in an aquatic ecology lab for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, entered ECU’s coastal resources management PhD program this fall as Rulifson’s assistant.

Rulifson’s research for the past decade has focused on the spiny dogfish, which is the most common variety of shark. While not highly regarded in America, spiny dogfish are prized in many other cultures. “Spurdogs” are part of the British fish-n-chips basket. In France and Germany, pickled dogfish—“schillerlocken”—are served with beer. The fins are commonly used for soup in Asia.

Rulifson first became interested in dogfish in 1996 when two North Carolina commercial fishermen approached him. With support from North Carolina Sea Grant, Rulifson researched the fish population and learned the fishery had already started to crash.

He says that, compared to other fish, dogfish live longer and are slower to reach reproductive age. They usually have six to 10 pups over a two-year period, whereas some fish can produce 40 million offspring in a single season. Thus, over-fishing can devastate dogfish populations much more rapidly, and they take longer to rebuild—perhaps 15 to 30 years.

The research by Rulifson and others led to the first international symposium on spiny dogfish in Seattle, Wash., in 2005. That was followed by an August 2007 conference at ECU where Rulifson and 14 international colleagues developed five hypotheses about dogfish.  Now, collaboration among North Carolina and Canadian scientists could change policies enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Like birds that annually use the Atlantic Flyway, dogfish also move in established patterns, which scientists are starting to map. Rulifson says the U.S.-Canada partnership is vital because, “You’ve got to have people on both ends, just like working with migratory birds, but the difference with fish is you can’t see them.”

Every February, Rulifson and other scientists sail off the Outer Banks in a 180-foot research vessel where they catch, tag and release dogfish. The tags request that those who catch the fish relay the information to Rulifson, who has heard from fishermen in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Next, Rulifson plans to implant radio transmitters in the tags to more closely track the migratory patterns of dogfish.

Rulifson believes his research is important because dogfish are an important food source and a bellwether of the health of other species. “That’s why I’ve been so interested to keep working. I’ve come to actually like the little critters. They do kind of look like a dog.”