When East Anchorage High School lets out for summer break, science teacher Germaine Thomas switches hats. She heads out to the water for her other profession: commercial salmon fishing in Prince William Sound. When she returns to school in the fall, Germaine uses seafood dishes—often prepared with fish she caught herself—to engage her students in ocean science and ocean issues. This year, she’s incorporating an additional perspective on the science of seafood after spending part of her summer as a Teacher at Sea aboard a NOAA fisheries survey.
For National Seafood Month, we caught up with her to learn how a teacher-fisherwoman celebrates seafood with her students, family, and friends.
A Family Tradition of Teaching and Fishing
For Germaine, teaching and fishing are a natural combination—her father was also a teacher-fisherman. Her family lived on a sailboat when she was young, moving to a house in Ketchikan after more siblings were born. When school was not in session, they sailed and fished around Southeast Alaska, from Prince Rupert (British Columbia) to Yakutat. “My father long-line fished from the sailboat!” Germaine recalls, laughing.
Germaine’s experience sailing led to jobs crewing other vessels, including fishing tenders. She also worked in fish processing plants. For college, she headed inland to Fairbanks for a Bachelor’s in chemistry, and eventually to Juneau for a Master’s in teaching. She finally settled in Anchorage after she met her husband Scott, “a guy who was as psyched about teaching and fishing as I am.”
Today, Germaine and Scott are the owners of a small family business named Sunny Cove Salmon. For several weeks each summer, they and their two kids head out to “set net” for sockeye salmon in the Eschamy District of Prince William Sound, outside Whittier. Set netting entails attaching one end of a gill net to shore, and then extending and anchoring the net 50–100 fathoms out into the water. The nearly-invisible net snags the salmon as they swim along the coast. After a few hours, Germaine and Scott roll the net back into their skiff and “pick” the fish out for safe storage.
Teacher Farther Asea
This summer, Germaine returned home from set-netting for salmon in mid-July. She immediately began preparations to leave for a very different kind of fishing: trawling for pollock as part of a NOAA Fisheries survey. This opportunity to sail as a NOAA Teacher at Sea was 3 years in the making—her planned participation in 2020 was delayed by pandemic disruptions. Finally, in early August this year, she flew to Kodiak Island to board NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.
For 2 weeks, Germaine worked side-by-side with scientists as they conducted an acoustic-trawl survey of pollock populations in the Gulf of Alaska. While at sea, she wrote a blog for her students and community. She compared the experience of fishing salmon from a 24-ft skiff to sampling pollock from a 208-ft research vessel. “Set netting and trawling are different gear types used to catch fish very differently,” she explains in a post. “Both of these methods of fishing can be used to collect samples or to catch fish to sell in global markets.”
Keenly aware of the need for sustainable fisheries management, Germaine was excited to dive into the data collection methods that inform population assessments. She observed first-hand how scientists use echosounders to locate schools of fish and then deploy trawl nets to inform the acoustic observations and collect biological samples. “It’s really impressive how scientists have developed ways to accurately know fish and marine organism populations in the ocean without having to sample all of it,” she remarks in her blog.
She also enjoyed the opportunity to shadow scientists testing out new sampling technology under development. That included the “MiniCam,” which helps verify acoustic data with underwater imagery. She immediately began adapting her oceanography unit on “technology in the ocean” to incorporate topics from her survey.
Ultimately, the experience will further Germaine’s efforts to help her students understand why ocean science matters for them. “Climate change is making our oceans a warmer place,” Germaine explains in a blog post featuring a biologist analyzing pollock tissue samples. “A few degrees in temperature could change when and where fish reproduce, and then cascade to the fishing industry, the food market, and the people who depend on them as food.” Germaine’s students are very likely to consider themselves people who depend on fish for food.
Connecting Seafood to Science Class
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a teacher-fisherwoman, seafood plays a key role in Germaine’s teaching. When the fishing season ends and school resumes, both Germaine and Scott return home to teach at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High. Germaine teaches chemistry and two semester-long science electives: oceanography in the fall and marine biology in the spring. In each of her classes, she makes use of fish from her summer season to incorporate seafood in her lessons.
Anchorage attracts residents from all over the world, and Germaine says students at her school speak perhaps 100 languages. Many of her students are Korean, Hmong, Polynesian, Dominican, or native Alaskan. One similarity across these diverse cultures is a traditional emphasis on eating fish. Subsistence fishing is common in Alaska, and owning a boat isn’t necessary. Residents may catch their permitted allotment by dip netting in rivers for salmon, flounder, eulachon, and other species. For lower-income immigrant and refugee families, like many of those at East Anchorage High, this is an important source of sustenance.
This makes seafood an especially effective way for Germaine to connect to her students, and for her students to connect to science. In chemistry class, for example, Germaine’s lesson on acids and bases examines the processes and effects of ocean acidification, but wraps up with (chemically) cooking halibut ceviche. In marine biology, her unit on the impacts of climate change on salmon ends with a day tasting salmon fish soup recipes submitted by her students. “We literally eat our way through chemistry, oceanography, and marine biology,” quips Germaine. “These kids love fish!”
Celebrating Seafood with Family and Friends
Germaine, of course, loves fish, too. Every fall, usually in late September, her family hosts a “harvest party.” Guests are invited to bring dishes prepared with food they caught, foraged, or grew themselves. Seafood plays a feature role: the tradition began about 20 years ago as a way to exchange salmon recipes. Some years include salmon taste tests. (“Alaskans get so much salmon!” she explains.) Currently, she recommends roasted salmon with jalapeno, honey, and lime.
In honor of National Seafood Month, make sure to try it with sustainably harvested U.S. salmon. Or check out our FishWatch recipes for even more meal-time inspiration.