Joan Blankenship has been awarded the John L. Morris Citizen Conservationist Award by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (AFWA). Joan has actively engaged with the Virginia B.A.S.S. Nation, the state Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR), anglers, NGOs, corporate partners and educational facilities to enhance and support fisheries management throughout Virginia over the last 30 years. Through her tireless efforts she has made Virginia a better place for fish and anglers and has inspired and enabled other citizen conservationists across the country to enhance habitats in their own states.
Joan first came onto the scene in the mid-90s when she joined her first bass club. Shortly thereafter, she became a regional director for the Virginia Bass Federation, taking on a leadership and organizational role. When the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation was formed in 2006, Joan became President and later served as Conservation Director, her most visible role and one in which she served until retiring in 2023.
Joan is the most visible citizen working for freshwater sportfish habitat in Virginia. She was easily one of the most active B.A.S.S. Nation state Conservation Directors in the country, leveraging her role to make positive changes in Virginia and to influence management in other states through her peer network.
Joan has presented multiple times to her fellow Conservation Directors, providing templates for working within the appropriate frameworks for getting projects underway and completed with multiple partners and jurisdictions. Her work focused on habitat improvement, adhering strongly to the belief that habitat restoration was the key to rebuilding and maintaining black bass population. She vocally challenged anglers to get involved in conservation and she led by example.
Over the years, Joan received countless small grant awards, including those from AFTCO, Friends of Reservoirs, Virginia Electric Power Company, the Aquatic Plant Management Society, Appalachian Power and Shimano. She used these funds to underpin the partnerships she developed, which included working with Friends of Claytor Lake (FOCL), Pulaski County High School, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Patrick Henry Community College. She transformed these small grants into a habitat improvement program that impacted waters across Virginia while engaging community partners.
After grass carp were stocked in Claytor Lake to remove invasive hydrilla, Joan helped develop techniques to grow native eelgrass in nurseries at local schools, which provided a source of plants for re-establishing fish habitat. The work she pioneered was subsequently applied by colleagues to Back Bay, a large coastal freshwater embayment bordered by a National Wildlife Refuge. Without Joan’s pioneering efforts, the Back Bay actions would not have been possible. The techniques she helped develop have been used by many other organizations looking to restore eelgrass in lakes and reservoirs.
Her support has also been invaluable to VDWR in conducting fishery research. As an example, Virginia’s tidal waters such as the Chickahominy and James Rivers, support productive and heavily used bass fisheries. Joan assisted with a bass tagging project, providing advice on design, implementation, and she advocated among anglers to get engaged in the project by reporting tagged bass.
Joan’s commitment to working with the next generation of aquatic stewards is beyond remarkable. She regularly involved students at the high school and community college levels. She repeatedly went the extra mile, such as working with a youth fishing club to enhance habitats on Smith Mountain Lake. When the club encountered a regulatory barrier after putting in significant efforts to build habitat structures, Joan relied on her bureaucratic knowledge and connections to advance the project through the proper channels while teaching the students valuable lessons.
Joan has been previously recognized by her peers within the B.A.S.S. Nation and by Friends of Reservoirs for lifetime achievement. Her decades of actions to advance the interests of Virginia’s anglers made her a perfect choice for the AFWA John. L. Morris Citizen Conservation Award.
And on a personal note … Joan is one of my conservation heroes and is a role model for anyone who wants to make a difference. Her determination and “never say quit” attitude have served her and the fishery resources of Virginia well for many, many years. The legacy she leaves will provide positive and long-lasting benefits to Virginia fisheries and to other waters across the country where her teachings have been put to good use.