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"Taking a Big Picture of a Big Industry": Observing Fisheries in Alaska

March 06, 2023

There are many paths that can bring a person to the deck of a fishing vessel in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. For fisheries observer Sarah Williamson, that path included a lifelong love of the ocean and a nudge from a social media post.

A woman in bright orange and yellow gear measures a large fish on the deck of a fishing vessel. Williamson served as a setline survey specialist for the International Pacific Halibut Commission in 2021. Photo courtesy of Sarah Williamson.

A highlight of Sarah Williamson’s childhood in Pennsylvania was the week or two every summer that her family spent at Atlantic coast beaches. “My parents will tell you I’m a salty soul,” says Williamson. After earning her bachelor’s degree in marine biology, she was bouncing between veterinary nursing jobs. That’s when an online post from a lab partner she’d met during a semester abroad caught her eye. The lab partner shared pictures of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where she was working as a fisheries observer in the North Pacific Observer Program. Williamson’s interest was piqued, and soon after applying for the position she was headed to Alaska to begin her new career.

"Your Little Piece of Data Grows"

Since the summer of 2016, Williamson has spent about 150 to 220 days annually at sea. She typically works in the catcher-processor fleet, which targets species including pollock, flatfish, and rockfish. She has also worked in the At-Sea Hake Observer Program run through the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, along with taking part in halibut surveys on longline vessels. 

Trips can range from 4 days to more than 30, usually on trawlers. “My longest time without touching land was about 50 days,” she says. The vessel offloads its catch, refuels, and even switches crews at sea with the aid of barges. 

While aboard a vessel, Williamson records data on what’s caught and what’s discarded in a haul. For the most part, captains appreciate the importance of the data for sustainable management. They “like seeing what they’re catching, they like knowing what’s going on,” she says. “I always tell new observers that we’re not just counting fish, we are helping to manage a multibillion dollar industry. Your little piece of data grows into a bigger piece of data that is extremely important, especially in protecting species.”  Observers like Williamson are also contributing to the implementation of electronic monitoring options in Alaska fisheries. They are helping to determine the best sampling protocols in shoreside processing plants as the program moves from exempted fishing permit status to regulation. 

"More Than a Fish Counter"

Although the weather and realities of living on a fishing vessel took some getting used to, Williamson has found plenty to like about the job. “There are days when the storms [mean] the boats may stop and hide behind islands, but then there are days where the Bering Sea is glass, with the sun out and not a cloud in the sky,” she says. “I love getting to see uncommon fish species and marine mammals. Sometimes I just get to watch them play while drinking my morning coffee in the wheelhouse. How many people get to see that?” 

Williamson points to the strong bonds between observers as another job perk. “You figure out who’s in town and then you can go for a hike or out to dinner,” she says. And the ability to travel—both on and off the job—is still another positive aspect. “You get to see how people live in other places” such as rural Alaska ports, she says. “And observing is a really good way to travel, and even try different jobs while you’re not on contract,” such as forestry, a common “off-contract” job for several of Williamson’s colleagues.

Williamson’s scientific knowledge and horizons have also expanded through her work as an observer. She has participated in several research trips and worked on special projects, such as sorting marine debris. She was recently selected as the observer representative for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Fisheries Monitoring Advisory Committee. She looks forward to continuing to grow her skills through observing.  Spending time “on a boat working with so many different people from so many backgrounds and different countries, I’m better now at time management, organization, and communication,” she says. 

Her advice to other potential observers? “Anyone with the right training can do this job, but it’s the mindset that’s important—you need to understand you will be isolated with limited communications and sometimes terrible weather, but if you can get through that, it’s a really rewarding job. I’ve made friends I will have for life, and if you stick with the job long enough it will open other doors,” she says. “Some people say I’m just a fish counter, but it’s more than that. We help take a big picture of a big industry."

A woman in hiking gear stands on top of a hill overlooking a valley.
Williamson was able to hike the Inca Trail during her time off in 2021. Photo courtesy of Sarah Williamson.

Last updated by Office of Science and Technology on December 11, 2023