Marine Biology Grads Expand Their Environmental Expertise on Alaskan Fishing Boats

Aug 6, 2020

by Greg Williams
Publications Editor

Two graduates of Florida Southern’s marine biology program recently were hired as contract workers on commercial fishing vessels in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

In June, Zoe Alexander ’19 completed the first of three 3-month contracts as a marine fishery observer, having worked at sea on the Ocean Peace catcher/processor boat based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Nick Goin ’20 has been preparing for his first deployment with the same company, following two weeks of online instruction and a week of in-person training with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle.

 
Fishing boat
Zoe Alexander, a marine biology major who graduated in December 2019, worked 12-hour shifts during her first 3-month stint as a marine fishery observer on the Ocean Peace fishing boat. Based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the 220-foot-long Ocean Peace operates 24 hours a day with a crew of 50.
Zoe Alexander

Zoe Alexander, who managed the invertebrate lab while at FSC, describes her work as a fishery observer as “taking samples of the catch, mostly mackerel and rockfish, and counting them to know how much of each species we have taken and how much they weigh.” By assessing the average weight of each individual fish in the catch, she is able to analyze the species composition and determine the quota of what could still be taken from the wild population.

Another part of Alexander’s job duties involves collecting otoliths (or “ear stones”) from a random selection of fish. Measurements of the otoliths give NOAA an overview of the relative age of the haul. 

“If we catch too many younger fish, we’re catching too many fish,” she explains.

Commercial vessels such as the Ocean Peace are required to carry observers at all times when they are fishing. While at sea with the boat’s 50-member crew, Alexander worked a 12-hour daily shift from midnight to noon; a second observer was responsible for overseeing the remainder of the boat’s 24-hour-a-day operation. Each rotation at sea lasts a week or two, Alexander says, depending on the catch. Between rotations, observers and crew members stay in a company-owned bunkhouse in the home port of Dutch Harbor.

Graduating with a BS in Marine Biology in December 2019, Alexander looked into employment options that would allow her to gain experience within her field of study. 

“The Alaskan fishery opportunity seemed like this epic adventure,” she says.

Alexander hopes to pursue graduate studies in invertebrate zoology or aquatic and fishery sciences.

 

Nick Goin says he decided to check into fishery observer opportunities as a result of Alexander’s encouragement.

“We had talked a little bit during her training, when she was deployed, and during her break,” Goin said.

He secured a contract with Alaskan Observers, Inc., and began two weeks of online training soon after his May 2020 graduation, while staying with family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As part of Goin’s initial period of distance learning, the company sent him a thick, neoprene immersion suit for training purposes.

“We have to be able to put it on in 60 seconds,” Goin says. “They train us to be survivors. My training suit was a little small around the shoulders, but my parents thought it was great; they called me ‘Scuba Steve.’”

After a subsequent week of in-person training with NOAA, Goin was eager to start his work on a fishing boat. Although a delay in deployments kept him in Seattle for a few extra weeks, he expects to head to Alaska in early August.

FSC’s marine biology program prepared Goin well for his upcoming work as a fishery observer, he says. For example, during a Field Ecology class with Dr. Gabriel Langford, the marine biology program director at FSC, Goin learned to use a dichotomous key — a tool that helps users identify species through a series of questions, each with two possible answers.

“I also took an icthyology course to identify fish, which will help me a lot in this job,” he says.

Goin’s goals include graduate school — but for now, his plan is to live in the moment and focus on his Alaskan adventure.

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