How I Survived the Bering Seas: A Journey to RSMAS

I am standing on the deck of the Mothership. It is Alaska’s largest fishing vessel capable of processing 55 tons of Pollock every 90 minutes and is 800 feet of pure processing power. I am waiting for the next delivery to arrive from a smaller boat transferring full nets to the mothership for processing. My role is a fisheries observer, the person responsible for collecting fisheries management data for the U.S Government’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

My journey began when I saw an ad for “observers” to collect fisheries data for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Within ten days, I found myself on a plane heading to Anchorage for a three week training class. As a female, I had no idea what to expect from working on an all-male fishing boat for up to three months at a time. The safety training was nothing short of terrifying and the prospect of dying in the freezing waters of Alaska loomed over my head and invaded my dreams. Then, three days after I had completed the training, I got the call to duty and was heading to Dutch Harbor, the largest fishing port located in the middle of the Aleutian Islands, to board my first vessel. My first assignment was in 20-foot seas and was terrified as I mustered on deck to sample my first Pollock trawl, and, my career began as a North Pacific Groundfish Observer.

I worked on fishing vessels in Alaska for more than five years and accumulated over a thousand sea days working on trawlers, longliners, pot boats, pelagic trawlers, longline pot boats, set nets, and gill nets. I endured days with 30-plus foot waves and days of glassy seas. I experienced being truly scared for my life to being overjoyed from living and working on the water. I witnessed the tragedies of losing men to the Bering Sea and the triumphs of fishermen making incredible paychecks to feed their families back home on land. I have created friendships that will last a lifetime. These have been the most powerful and impactful years of my life.

Through the years, I had gained so much knowledge about how the fishing industry works, collecting good data, and fishery regulations. I saw firsthand how dynamic and emotional the fishing industry can be, meaning, heated debates and fighting about this year’s quota prices, long periods spent away from family, losing crew members to the sea, and the constant fighting of the elements. Being apart of this lifestyle not only took courage but a sense of humor and the will to keep going strong until the end of the season, and I loved being apart of it.

There are so many different people involved in the fishing industry, from the fishermen to industry stakeholders, scientists, processors, marketers, and the public. They all rely on healthy fish populations not just for their livelihoods, but for food. When fish stocks are improperly managed or are overfished, everyone involved is affected. During my time as an observer, so many questions about fisheries were left unanswered. Where does all this data go? How is the data utilized in the regulatory process? How do new policies and regulations get implemented? What other kinds management strategies are available to improve sustainability of the stocks? Why are other fisheries doing so poorly? How are catch quotas set? Why are we still overfishing?

I was hooked on fish and realized that a higher degree was needed in order to answer my questions and further my career in fisheries management. My wild journey led me from the Arctic north to Miami and RSMAS. I can now say proudly that I have learned the answer to my questions about how stock assessments work, uses of observer data, strategies NMFS employs to manage stocks and prevent overfishing while understanding the socioeconomic impacts of regulating fisheries both commercially and recreationally. I come to school with a smile on my face knowing that I will learn something today that may impact fisheries tomorrow. Looking back on where I have been able to go with a biological degree has been great but knowing where I am about to go in the future is even more amazing. If you can survive the Bering Sea in winter then I feel that you can survive anything.

This blog post is part of a series of stories written by RSMAS graduate students enrolled in the Spring 2012 Scientific Communications (RSM 545) course.

Sarah Stelter
Master of Professional Science: Fisheries Science
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