COVID Conferences: A student’s perspective of the World Fisheries Congress
Although I’m in the first year of my PhD and still getting to know the lay of the land in a research setting, I consider myself a relatively extraverted individual, given the right circumstances. Therefore, naturally you could understand my excitement when Bronwyn generously organised for her HDR students to attend the 2021 World Fisheries Congress, held in Adelaide, South Australia. This was an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the leading researchers in the industry and sell myself as an enthusiastic, “wet behind the ears” PhD student for an entire week. However, the initial feelings of excitement quickly divulged into concern as the Delta strain of COVID-19 began to take hold of Australia and threaten to end the celebration of marine science before it even started. As cases began to rise in the eastern states, speculation around the conference grew and whispers of an online experience eventuated into reality. For me, as a first-timer, this unearthed more questions than it did answers. After all, this was my first conference, and I wanted to make the best first impression I could. What would a week-long online conference even be like? Is this the new normal in a post-COVID world? How could I provide myself with the same opportunities as if it were in-person? Here, I reflect on the 2021 World Fisheries Congress and the positives and negatives associated with online conferences – A student’s perspective.
Thankfully, the feeling of apprehension eased with the launch of the conference platform, and consequent exploring of its various windows and links – It took some time getting used to. You could still connect with friends, colleagues and collaborators with a live chat, message or video call in the Meeting Hub. The Virtual Exhibition provided a myriad of informative videos and talks from industry, commercial and research exhibitors, who were able to discuss topics with other delegates through the live Q&A feature. You could make new friends and connections during the meet and greet sessions, or even check the live news feed for updates from various participants, and who could forget about the points leader board!! It seemed as though there was plenty of things to do, see and learn, so I couldn’t wait to get started!
The positive atmosphere surrounding the event was highlighted by an excellent Welcome to Country during the congress opener. It was great to experience a welcome from the traditional landowners of Australia, and as a South Australian, I felt proud that the Kaurna heritage and indigenous peoples were represented. Importantly, this followed a refreshing theme of acknowledging Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout the duration of the conference by speakers, chairs and delegates alike. It was interesting to see the various traditional lands Australian participants were joining from. Notably, this was paralleled by continual healthy discussions around the importance of women in fisheries, and the need for equality and diversity within the industry. In particular, I found Dr Meryl Williams’ plenary highlighted this issue brilliantly. In fact, Dr Williams was one of the many exceptional plenary speakers who engaged the audience with a variety of different topics throughout the conference.
My personal favourite was Prof Toyoji Kaneko’s presentation on behalf of Prof Katsumi Tsukamoto on the movement and spawning patterns of Japanese eels. As the week progressed, it was inspiring to see the suite of diverse projects addressing various ecological and industrial problems; from investigating the negative impacts of marine plastic pollution, to addressing management strategies in the face of a changing climate, or even uncovering the complex social networks in sharks and rays, and the challenges involved in reducing fisheries bycatch. I was so spoilt for choice that at times it became difficult to know which session I would commit to watching. Because of this, it is excellent to have the ability to access all of the posters and presentations for 6 months after the conference, which has quickly become a personal favourite feature of mine. As the topics evolved over the course of the conference, my screen time and surroundings (my home) stayed generally constant, posing a threat to my interest and concentration levels, especially after 2-3 long days of screen time. Since I was comfortable with the event platform now and confident to ask questions, I made the conscious decision to become more involved in the discussion forums and start to ask questions about the talks I enjoyed the most. To my surprise, not only did this help with my engagement and overall interest, but it also got my name out there and I started to generate extra connections through the conference portal and Twitter, all while earning competition credits… I was starting to reap the rewards and understand the benefits of participating in an international conference, I think it just required more personal application than what would have been necessary for an in-person, live conference.
Fortunately, South Australian delegates were able to meet at the Adelaide Convention Centre for a mixer to celebrate the completion of the conference on Friday. This was a great opportunity to ask how my colleagues found the online conference and also meet some of the influential people involved in the South Australian marine research field. I was particularly looking forward to meeting industry professionals from SARDI and PIRSA. We were able to experience the end of the conference with a view of the setting sun over Adelaide Oval amongst friends, colleagues and potential employers – a truly great experience we were lucky enough to have. It was incredible to see the hardware that was used to ensure everything ran smoothly behind the scenes, giving a brief insight into how much effort the World Fisheries Congress organisers put into making this event happen. However, I was provided with a snippet of what an in-person conference would have actually been like, and I couldn’t help but think “if only”. With that being said, the fact that the World Fisheries Congress organisers were able to run such a smooth, entertaining and inspiring event during the current COVID situation is amazing and a true testament to the commitment of celebrating marine research around the world.
Overall, I found the 2021 World Fisheries Congress a unique, yet enriching experience where I learnt so much, while acquiring inspiration and motivation for my own personal research. If anything, this event confirmed that I am in the right occupation and motivated me to stay on track and work hard throughout my PhD project, as many opportunities await.
I’d like to thank Bronwyn and the World Fisheries Congress organisers for such a great event. I’m looking forward to the next one in Seattle, Washington – Let’s hope it will be in person.
Image - Gillanders Aquatic Ecology Lab members at final function.
Credits: Graphics of presentations - Nina Wootton
Text by Joe Widdrington