So you want to be a fishery manager? Working in the complex world of Alaskan fisheries management

by Rhea Ehresmann and Natura Richardson

If a pot gear fleet averages 1 million pounds of Pacific cod harvest in a day but harvest rates have been increasing the last week, and a huge storm is projected for the next three days, and four boats are down for a mechanical, how long will it take to harvest the remaining 5.6 million pounds?

A. To answer this question, I need to know swimming speed and spawning stage of Pacific cod, direction of ocean currents, water temperature, and abundance of predators

B. Let me get my Magic-8 ball

C. Around 7 days

D. My model fails to converge when I include mechanical breakdowns

If you answered C, you might be cut out for fisheries management! As fisheries managers, we are faced with questions like this regularly and have to make our best guess at the answer with the data and information we have at hand.

What is fishery management?

Fishery management aims to maintain sustainable production of fish stocks over time while promoting the socioeconomic well-being of fishers and fishing communities 1. In Alaska state fisheries, management actions are wide-ranging but generally involve establishing a harvest target or limit for a species using time, area, and gear restrictions. Harvest limits may be established by the managers, often with input from many other research or dockside staff and in consultation with other agencies and treaties. Harvest limits can come in many forms, such as individual quotas, total allowable catch (TAC), and area, gear, or season allocations. Managers are responsible for hitting the harvest limits without going too far over or under. Best would be to hit a bullseye.

While methods for management may be similar among fisheries, each fishery is unique and managed differently. For fisheries with high participation and harvesting power, it is hands-on, requiring rigorous in-season management methods, such as daily calls to fishermen to get real time estimates of harvest. Sometimes fisheries are managed down to the last fish or hour. Other fisheries are slower paced, require minimal communication with the fleet, and can be entirely monitored through records of how much fish was caught (“landings”). Fisheries might close when landings indicate the harvest limit is reached or when the fishing season has ended. We use many tools to make decisions: biological samples collected from harvested fish, catch records, information from the fleet, logbooks, data from on-board observers, aerial surveys, electronic vessel monitoring systems, weather websites, and lots of Excel spreadsheets.

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Fisheries like this salmon purse seine fishery in Southeast Alaska depend on real-time decisions by managers about when and where to open and close the fishery. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

A day in the life of a fishery manager

The typical morning routine as a fishery manager looks something like this: pour coffee, look at current harvest for open fisheries, and examine daily harvest rates and areas. We pore over weather webpages to determine which areas are fishable and which vessels are capable of fishing under current and future conditions. This helps us anticipate increases or decreases in daily harvest and the number of remaining days for fishing. If the fishery warrants, we do a daily call out to fleet to get the most recent harvest reports and see if fishing is improving or dropping off. After this morning routine or during slower times, we work on written reports that describe plans for prosecuting the fishery or summarize the last fishing season, including number of boats, total harvest, areas of harvest, revenues, and so on. When we are not working on a report (and there is always a report), we might be running data requests or reviewing old reports and preparing materials for upcoming management meetings.

Yet, the pace of our day is largely determined by the incoming phone calls or visits from fishermen who have questions to ask or information to share. Inquiries may come from a captain wanting to know the harvest limits in an open fishery, a greenhorn interested in breaking into a fishery for the first time, or an entrepreneur filing the paperwork to sell catch off their boat. Alaskan fisheries are dynamic, and as a result, life in fishery management is ever changing. The health of the stocks dictates how (or if) we will have a fishery, so fisheries and seasons may change from year to year. Fish move in, fish move out. Some weeks are very exciting and busy, other weeks are quite slow.

Rhea At Work_courtesy of Rhea Ehresmann

The life of a fishery manager involves lots of reading, writing, and data wrangling as Rhea can attest. Photo courtesy of Rhea Ehresmann.

Pros and cons of a job in fishery management

Two major pros of working in fisheries management are human interactions and learning opportunities. It is not an ivory tower position. The job and daily decisions are tangible. Every day we talk with someone who has touched fish, run fishing gear, or purchased fish and through these interactions, we learn. We learn from fishermen about the capacity and capability of boats and their gear. Fishermen are the eyes on the water who see things first hand. They share their observations of the environment, from whales to birds to pyrosomes to water temperature. From processors we learn about markets, products, and economics. From dockside samplers we learn about the biology of harvested species, such as signs of spawn, abnormalities, disease, and parasites. We not only learn from human interaction but also from attending management meetings, participating on stock assessment surveys, or reading and preparing reports. Rather than being the expert and learning a lot about one thing, we get to learn about a wide range of all things fisheries.

The pros of the job can also be the cons. While it’s rewarding to have good relationships and communication with the fleet or processors, that reward can diminish when fish stocks are down and conservation efforts must be taken. We are the bearers of bad news and we hear when difficult decisions impact many people. Additionally, because there is so much to learn, it can be frustrating to be speaking with someone and not have the answers or forget something that you just looked up for the fifth time. Information Overload. And lastly, because there is so much distraction in speaking with people or researching, it can take weeks or months to finish a report. Projects can drag on.

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Well-informed fishery management decisions are important for maintaining sustainable fisheries and strong working waterfronts. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Preparing for a job in fisheries management

If we’ve sold you on the job based on the daily routine, endless learning opportunity, and great relationships you’ll develop, then get ready. Hands-on experience is extremely important and what we valued most when starting in fisheries management. One needs to understand how fisheries work. Start gaining experience in fisheries however possible – as a deckhand, port sampler, fishery observer, field technician, or survey volunteer. Get an idea of what life is like for fishermen, how the gear works, how fish are caught and handled from the ocean to the dock.

However, what you can’t observe on the dock or deck is the regulatory process. Understanding how regulations are implemented, created, and how they can be changed is crucial for a position in management. The best way to learn about this is to go to fisheries meetings, such the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) or Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) meetings to learn about the federal and state processes. UAF offers a cram course on the NPFMC where students attend a week of meetings; this course was so insightful. Early on in our management positions, we entered into the BOF cycles, which also forced us to read, write, and prepare for intense regulatory meetings. These short, rigorous meetings taught us as much as can be learned from months on the job.

Natura's observer days_courtesy of Natura Richardson
Fishery managers need to have a working knowledge of fishery operations to make good decisions. Natura got her early training as a fisheries observer in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Natura Richardson.

Concluding thoughts

“Managing fisheries is hard: it’s like managing a forest, in which the trees are invisible and keep moving around.” 2 This quote rings true for fisheries managers. Not only is it incredibly difficult to predict the abundance of fish and where they are at any given time, we also must account for the movements and effort of the fleet in real time. While some parts of management may be exhausting and overwhelming, it is also rewarding when harvest targets are met, the fleet is happy, our resources remain sustainable, and we provide the best fish products for the world. These aspects of fisheries management get us out of bed in the morning and keep us on our toes.

References

1 Hilborn, R. and C. J. Walters. 1992. Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment: Choice, Dynamics and Uncertainty. New York: Chapman and Hall.

2 John Shepherd. ca. 1978. Unpublished lecture at Princeton University.

Rhea Ehresmann began her career in fisheries as a deckhand aboard a commercial troller out of Sitka, Alaska, before making a move into fisheries research and management with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in 2010. She is currently the assistant management biologist for the commercial troll fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Rhea is also a Master’s student in the CFE Lab.

Natura Richardson has been working for ADF&G since 2010 and currently is the assistant area management biologist for state managed commercial groundfish and shellfish fisheries in the Kodiak, Chignik, and South Alaska Peninsula Areas. Natura is a CFE Lab alum and earned her Master’s degree in 2016.

Unexpected Gains

by Natura Richardson

Editor’s Note: Grad school is hard, there’s no question about it. It is a time of immense personal and professional growth, which can be exciting but is also challenging and intense. The process of learning to master a craft – whether in the sciences or arts – requires confronting uncertainty, climbing steep learning curves, and a deep and sometimes uncomfortable examination of one’s own strengths and limitations. It takes perseverance. Natura Richardson, a Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab alum and author of today’s post, would call it grit. It also takes a support system of peers and mentors, friends and family. (We will discuss the importance of mentorship in an upcoming post.) Even with that support system, many graduate students – and post-graduate professionals – face feelings of inadequacy. The term impostor syndrome was coined in the late 1970s to describe people who feel as though they are a “fraud” despite evidence of high achievement. There have been some excellent articles written about this phenomenon as it applies to early career scientists (e.g., here) and the importance of scientists from all career stages sharing their own stories. In this post, Natura reflects on how she confronted her own feelings of being an imposter and other stresses of grad school, and the strength and resilience she gained from her experiences.

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I officially graduated from the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab in May 2016, although that already feels so long ago. How can something that was only a year and a half ago feel like it happened way back during the Jurassic period? I’ll tell you how: because graduate school is HARD and you try to forget it. While in school, I had amazing support from my husband who drew a bath and put me to sleep, an employer that provided field support and reasonable use of work time, an advisor who knew how to encourage, push, and laugh with me, and fellow students and lab mates that would lend a listening ear or help me with analysis or R script. The deck was stacked in my favor, and yet, for me, graduate school was this weird alternate universe, where I worked harder than I ever had, yet I often felt inadequate and irrelevant. After graduation, I was ready to move on and never look back. But the truth is, I do look back. A lot. There are certain experiences and lessons that I continue to positively draw from for my personal and professional growth.

Everyone has a different experience and not all students struggle so hard, but for those of you who are in the throes of grad school and need a little pick me up, here’s what I have to offer for motivation: my unexpected but oh-so-great gains from graduate school.

Out-running the anxious stress monster

Over the years I practiced all the standard graduate student responses to stress and anxiety: crying, complaining, getting frustrated or angry, drinking, and avoiding my advisor and hoping she would somehow forget I existed. Shockingly, none of those worked.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in Juneau is located on Lena Point, with access to forested trails leading to ocean views, right out the front door. One day, rather than break down in the student offices, I put on my sneakers and went for a walk. After a few walks, I started to run (although it was more of a shuffle). Be it walk, shuffle, or run, whenever I did something, I felt better. I tried to be consistent in going outside and getting exercise but with a constant fear of deadlines, it was hard to justify 20-40 minutes away from the computer. So I did something else I feared. I signed up for a 50-mile race. I was not a runner, had never run a marathon in my life, yet somehow I thought running almost double the distance while working on my Master’s thesis was a good idea. Boy, grad school was making me really crazy. But that commitment forced me to take a break, get outside, and do something else every day. From that daily commitment, I improved my mental clarity, physical energy, and perspective, which in turn helped me to become a better student, researcher, and less of an anxious stress monster.

Without the relentless stress of grad school, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure out that doing something for myself everyday would have enormous impacts on my mental and physical health? I’m done with graduate school now, but I am not done with running. If I ever feel the anxious stress monster trying to come out, I pull out my sneakers and run away from her. If you’re familiar with the anxious stress monster, I recommend identifying your stress-relieving, non-school activity and figuring out a way to make it mandatory. Believe me, it will be there for you after you’re done with your thesis.

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Natura outruns the anxious stress monster on Kesugi Ridge Trail near Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by Michael Bach.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

While in grad school, I said to myself over and over, repeated like a broken record “I can’t,” just like a whiny adolescent child. As it turns out, I’m a liar, liar, pants on fire because I could do it. I am capable. Working on my Master’s thesis was the first time that I realized how often I play that broken “I can’t” record and how much wasted energy goes into that. It was also when I discovered how capable I am and that I need to quit lying to myself. So it is from my thesis days that I now frequently draw strength when I start to doubt my abilities.

Remember that 50 miler I signed up for? At mile 35 the “I can’t” record started playing, but then I thought, “If I can finish that thesis, I can do this!” I bucked up and finished that race…then puked.

I have accomplished other goals, big, small, professional, and personal. I applied for a competitive job that I didn’t think I could get, and then got it. I busted out written management plans and fishery summaries in very short time frames. I painted the exterior of my house by myself, when I was certain I couldn’t without my 6’6” tall husband or hired help. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that because I finished a Master’s thesis I am now Superwoman in disguise, but I do remind myself to quit wasting time lying to myself with the “I can’t” talk and get cracking on whatever it is I want to accomplish.

Go through the grits

Many individuals are capable, smart, and maybe they are Superwoman in disguise. But just because someone is Superwoman and she can do something difficult, doesn’t mean she will.

My thesis did not happen overnight, over a month, over a semester, or even over a couple years. It took several years of field work, lab work, data analysis, writing, re-processing lab samples, re-running data analysis, re-writing chapters, incorporating edits. Did I mention re-writing? There were feelings of failure, adversity, and frustration that came with what felt like only minor victories or successes. But for some reason, I just kept going. And going. And going. Relentless. Forward. Progress.

Post-graduate school, and thanks to psychologist Angela Duckworth, I have put a name to this determined behavior: Grit. Angela Duckworth says grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. Having grit means maintaining determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. How many folks actually hold to their new year’s resolutions? Or lose those 20 pounds? Or write the peer-reviewed journal article after the committee has signed off on the thesis? Not that many. It takes some serious will-power to turn down chocolate cake, or put on your running shoes, or close your web browser. Pick a goal that cannot be achieved in a few days (or even just a few hours), throw in a lack of willpower and some tough challenges, and I bet that goal is likely to sit by the wayside, especially when the new season of [insert popular TV show] is released.

Sandpaper grit is measured as the number of particles per square inch. Wood can start out rough, scratched, and blemished but sanding with increasing levels of grit removes the scratches from the previous grit until the scratches are so fine that the wood is smooth as a baby’s bottom. Like a woodworker, I had to “go through the grits,” starting with a stripping 80-grit, to a smoothing 150-grit, and finishing with a 360- to 600-grit. In hindsight, I recognize that all those perceived failures or setbacks actually gave me grit. Now when I get a report back from a colleague that is bleeding red with edits, instead of crawling into bed and hiding, I don’t think anything of it. That’s just the first stripping grit; I want to get to the polishing grit. When it gets hard and you want to quit, just remember to go through the grits.

Graduate school is arduous, but for all your sleepless nights and caffeinated days, you do gain some great skills. You might graduate with fluency in computer programs like ArcGIS or R, you might become a stock assessment modeling genius, or you might be the expert on Pacific staghorn sculpin reproductive strategies (a highly coveted title, by the way). But for me, it has been the unexpected gains of healthy life habits and recognizing my capabilities and grit, where I have found the greatest value.

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It takes a village to raise a child…and to get through grad school. Natura (3rd from left) gives her advisor a break from parenting duties and enjoys the camaraderie of labmates.

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Natura Richardson received her M.S. in Fisheries from UAF in 2016 and is a groundfish and shellfish management biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, Alaska.