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From Alaska to the Bayou State: A career in fisheries management

A Q&A with Kristi Carter Butler, a former CIAA weir worker who made fish and wildlife her lifelong career

by | October 6, 2023

Kristi Carter Butler with daughters Janna (left) and Julie (right) visiting Alaska in 2022.
Kristi Carter Butler with daughters Janna (left) and Julie (right) visiting Alaska in 2022. Photo provided.

Kristi Butler is Director of Inland Fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. She works in Baton Rouge, the state capital, to help protect and manage fish and wildlife habitat throughout her state to provide benefit to two million hunters and fishermen.

Thirty years ago, Kristi was a seasonal worker for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) at its Chelatna and Packers Lake weirs. She recently returned to Alaska for a visit, and we asked her to reflect upon her experiences here.

1. Briefly, tell us a little about yourself.

I am 52 years old, and I’m from a small farming community in central Louisiana. I grew up enjoying camping, fishing, and water sports. My dad was a certified outboard motor mechanic and, together with my mom, he owned a boat dealership where my siblings and I helped after school and during summertime. 

I was always interested in fish, water, and fishing. I frequently got scolded when cleaning fish we caught recreationally because I took longer than my sister. That’s because I was busy looking at what they had eaten and exploring various other anatomical features.

My second year of college, I found out that my school had an aquatic and fisheries biology program so I changed my major. I had no idea where it would lead as I knew nothing about the field on a professional level. My need for gainful employment during school led me to coastal fisheries work as a student through the university and, eventually to learn about seasonal work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. 

I applied, and was scooped up quickly by the service due to my boating, camping, and coastal Louisiana fisheries sampling experience. In 1991, I worked for the Fairbanks FAO collecting coastal fisheries data in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for an Environmental Impact Study. 

In 1992, I worked for the Kenai FAO installing and operating a weir to identify and enumerate adult salmon escaping to the Tuluksak River, a tributary to the Kuskokwim. I switched to working for CIAA the next two summers.   

In 1995, I graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana with a Bachelor’s Degree in Aquatic and Fisheries Biology. I began working for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as a Fish Hatchery Specialist 1 in February 1997 at the state’s newly constructed “flagship” hatchery and spent the next 25 years working my way up through various positions there growing millions of fish and three children. 

In 2022, I became the Director of Inland Fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. I plan to retire in just a few more years and hope to spend more time in Alaska during my retirement, possibly volunteering to do seasonal field or hatchery work if I am still able and free to do so. 

Butler cleans a floating inclined-plane smolt trap at Chelatna Lake in 1993.
Butler cleans a floating inclined-plane smolt trap at Chelatna Lake in 1993. Photo provided.

2. Describe your early experience with CIAA. What did you do? Where did you work?

I found out about CIAA’s seasonal opportunities through a friend who had met CIAA biologist Gary Fandrei. I applied and started with CIAA in 1993. I worked the Chelatna Lake weir in 1993 and at Packers Lake in 1994. I returned to work for CIAA in 1996 with my Army husband in tow to do a two-week egg take at Tustumena Lake as a vacation.    

3. How did this experience in Alaska drive you to pursue a career in fisheries?

I was hooked on fish before I came to CIAA but the experience certainly solidified fisheries as a career for me and helped open my eyes to the importance of aquaculture and other enhancement activities.    

4. What do you view as the top three concerns in managing fishing as a public resource?  

  1. Climate change
  2. Protecting genetic and species diversity while maximizing sustainable harvest
  3. Habitat loss/degradation 

5. What does the rest of the country have to learn from Alaska? 

Butler (bottom right) helps work up fish at the Tuluksak Weir on the Yukon Delta in 1992.
Butler (bottom right) helps work up fish at the Tuluksak Weir on the Yukon Delta in 1992. Photo provided.

Worldwide, our once perceived endless, resilient fisheries are meeting their limits with climate change, habitat loss, impacts of invasive species, and demands of an ever-growing human population. 

While I think there is still much to learn and there will always be conflict between user groups, Alaska does a great job with protecting/restoring habitat, effectively and responsibly using aquaculture to supplement wild stocks, and balancing the needs of different user groups.  

Alaskans in general, are more knowledgeable on the importance of fish, fishing, and fisheries management than most other communities in the country.  They know that healthy fisheries benefit everyone, including those who don’t fish. This fact is not as well understood in some other parts of the country.

Moving forward, unheard stakeholders need to get organized and make sure their interests are represented and their voices are heard, because like it or not, policy is often influenced by the loudest voices. Government fisheries biologists need to continue to use good science to recommend fair and effective guard rails to maximize harvest while protecting fisheries and fisheries habitats.  

These public servants have a responsibility to be the loud voice for ecosystems, habitats, and species that don’t have a voice. Policymakers need to take their jobs very seriously, carefully listen to unbiased science facts coming from government biological staff, consider and listen to the needs of all user groups, consider the needs of unrepresented user groups, and ensure that they clearly understand what is at stake when they make important decisions that regulate fisheries.    

6. What brings you back to Alaska?

Butler, with co-worker Beth Scarbrock at Packer's Lake in 1994. Photo provided.
Butler (right), with co-worker Beth Scarbrock at Packers Lake in 1994. Photo provided.

Last year, I drove up with my adult daughters for a bucket list trip to show them Alaska while they could still go (they are both in college). Originally, my son and husband were going to fly up and meet us for a while but they ended up not being able to go. 

That trip rekindled that old field biologist spirit and I realized now that my kid-raising is done, I could resume doing some seasonal field work for a vacation. I saw your announcement for seasonal field techs and reached out to you, but my husband said he didn’t want to work for his vacation like he did in 1996 even though he enjoyed it quite a lot back then.  He said “who wants to work for vacation?”

So, this year, I compromised and went with him on a real vacation to Glacier National Park where we slept late, hiked, and kayaked at our leisure. 

Doing an egg take for a vacation still sounds great to me, though, and you guys may hear from me next year! 

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