Tom Lang discovered his career path when he was in high school thanks to a serendipitous moment on the job at a barbeque restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
An alumnus of the aquaculture/fisheries master’s program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Lang is currently the outreach director of the Inland Fisheries Division for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and director of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC).
Trusting his instincts and planning his education accordingly would lead him to the post.
“Like many fisheries scientists, I fell in love with fishing early in life, but didn’t know that our field existed,” he said. “Then it clicked as I was stocking the freezer with boxes of U.S. farm-raised catfish. After several trips to the freezer, during which I read the labels on each box, the lightbulb went on – I realized there must be something in this world called a ‘catfish farm.’”
When his shift ended, Lang headed home with visions of catfish ponds as far as the eye could see. The next day, he asked his high school guidance counselor about how to become a catfish farmer. That discussion led him to Purdue University, where he earned a degree in fisheries and aquatic sciences.
INLAND FISHERIES DIVISION
In his current role, Lang is responsible for all operations and management of the TFFC and oversees the public outreach and education initiatives of the Inland Fisheries Division. The center’s work is focused on expanding the awareness, understanding and support of fisheries conservation, he said.
“We boost support for fish and fishing through numerous educational exhibits at the facility, including 300,000 gallons of aquaria where folks can see awesome Texas fish firsthand,” he said. “Other exhibits teach visitors about the fisheries management and aquaculture techniques our scientists utilize to make for better fishing in Texas. At TFFC, we also have an aquatic plant nursery for restoring habitat in public waters, as well as a wetland trail and recreational fishing ponds open to the public.”
Lang said a big part of the center’s mission is to take more people fishing.
“We provide the right atmosphere and opportunities for people to learn how to fish,” he said. “Since TFFC’s opening in 1996, on average, someone catches their first fish every business day. That’s just amazing to me.”
The center’s outreach efforts are furthered through a number of statewide programs. The Sharelunker Program, for instance, engages the state’s largemouth bass anglers in the process of making bigger, better bass by encouraging them to weigh, measure and submit photos of their 8-plus-pound bass and loan their 13-plus-pound bass to TPWD for spawning and restocking purposes.
Similarly, the annual Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest highlights Texas’ bass fisheries while encouraging angler recruitment and retention. And the Neighborhood Fishin’ Program provides anglers in major metropolitan areas with fishing opportunities close to home by stocking “keeper-size” channel catfish or rainbow trout regularly throughout the year.
“We are home to the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Texas Game Warden Museum, both of which demonstrate how many diverse areas of expertise can and have made an impact on fisheries conservation,” Lang said. “And the Hart-Morris Conservation Center offers a meeting space for community and conservation organizations and national, state and local fisheries scientists.”
Lang said he appreciates the chance to work with outstanding people that are dedicated to serving the mission and field of fisheries science, conservation and management.
“Such a level of passion and dedication means that we don’t shy away from a challenge here – if it’s the right thing to do, we address the problem and do all we can to figure it out,” he said. “That drives innovation and helps set new standards for others in our field.”
UAPB FISHERIES PROGRAM
Lang said the aquaculture/fisheries program at UAPB prepared him for his career through top-notch instruction, as well as networking opportunities in the industry.
“However, I think one of the ways UAPB prepared me the most personally was to make me a more conscientious person,” he said. “The university helped me better recognize and be more thoughtful of others in situations where they may feel like they do not fit in.”
Lang said his career field has traditionally been dominated primarily by white males.
“As a UAPB alumnus, I feel that I am in a much better position to help those who are not of the traditional sex or race of my field to feel more welcomed and thus perform more to their abilities professionally,” he said. “UAPB has enhanced my career by helping me become a better person who, in turn, tries to help others be their best.”
Lang credits Steve Lochmann, professor of aquaculture of fisheries, and Wes Neal, former professor, as being influential in his development as a fisheries professional.
“Without a doubt, I would not be having as successful or meaningful a career without their support and guidance,” he said. “They saw a potential in me that others didn’t realize and were willing to invest their time in me. Most of all, I always knew they genuinely cared for me on a personal level and had my best interests in mind.”
When Lang told Lochmann and Neal about his idea to organize a symposium and write a book on urban and community fisheries, they both were eager to help.
“Because of their support, we ended up raising $25,000, organizing an international symposium in San Francisco and publishing several manuscripts and the essential book reference on the subject. The process of developing the urban and community fisheries book provided a foundational experience that I have been able to draw from in many professional endeavors since.”
Lochmann said Lang was already displaying leadership skills as a student.
“Tom is the only person I know of who edited an American Fisheries Society book while he was still a graduate student,” he said.
After earning his graduate degree at UAPB, Lang started his career at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, where he coordinated statewide fisheries programs for five years.
“I really enjoyed this position and learned a lot, but I longed to serve in the field and do more hardcore fisheries science work to create better fishing opportunities in the state,” he said. “When TPWD gave me the opportunity to move to Texas, get in the field and manage the fisheries resources of the Wichita Falls District, I jumped at the chance.”
As a fisheries biologist in Wichita Falls, Lang conducted regular fisheries sampling and management projects, including electrofishing and creel surveys and gill and trap netting. He also led several habitat-enhancement projects at local reservoirs, which involved adding natural and artificial structures, planting aquatic vegetation and working with local angler groups.
LAKE WICHITA REVITALIZATION PROJECT
One of Lang’s greatest professional endeavors was the Lake Wichita Revitalization Project, an effort to restore the third oldest reservoir in Texas. The 1,200-acre lake had completely dried up. The undertaking involved repairing the watershed and solving numerous habitat issues to restore the lake as a viable fisheries resource.
Because the project was expected to cost around $50 million, Lang managed a team that developed partnerships with local government, non-profit organizations, foundations and the public at large. The ongoing project has garnered thousands of supporters through awareness and education efforts. So far, the project team has raised more than $5 million and acquired all the necessary federal permits to commence revitalization efforts.
“The project even garnered the attention and support of Theodore Roosevelt IV, whom I had the honor of befriending through a fundraising event we hosted together,” Lang said. “Although I have taken on a new challenge as the Inland Fisheries Division outreach director, I continue to root for this project from afar as the community and supporters keep pushing it forward.”
Lang said his grandfather, Dick Lang, and other family members were instrumental in instilling his passion for fishing and the outdoors. He also credits his late mother, Susette Lang, with encouraging him to pursue a career he was passionate about.
“My mother always said she didn’t care if my siblings and I were ditch diggers as long as we were happy,” he said. “Later she would elaborate on this, saying that it’s not just about the 40-hour work week – those 40 hours affect your attitude and happiness in everything else in your life. So really, doing something you love as a career, something meaningful to you, goes a long way to having an overall happier life.”
Lang’s hobbies include fishing, hunting and cooking. He most enjoys quality time spent with his wife, Vanessa Onyskow-Lang, and their children, Hunter, 16 years old, River, 10, Fisher, 9, and Meadow, 3.
— Will Hehemann, is a writer/editor at UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.