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Q&A: What’s it like to be a salmon aquaculture biologist in Alaska?

CIAA resident biologist Emily Heale relates the most interesting and challenging aspects of her work as a scientist in Alaska.

by | October 31, 2023

Emily Heale removing the weir at the Paint River Fish ladder, 2016. Andy Wizik
Emily Heale removing the weir at the Paint River Fish ladder, 2016. Andy Wizik

Emily Heale is a resident biologist at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. We asked her how she came to work in the field and what brought her to Alaska. Here are her responses.

1. What does a biologist do in salmon aquaculture?

As a biologist in salmon aquaculture I run a number of different field camps, the same field camps where I started as an intern. We monitor various salmon runs within the Cook Inlet drainage to determine hatchery success or success of invasive species (northern pike) suppression work.

We also monitor runs that have no hatchery operations, like Paint River where we open a fish ladder to allow salmon to colonize a system that has historically not had a salmon run due to a 40-foot barrier waterfall.

I also get to do a lot of education and outreach work. We help out the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with some aspects of the Salmon in the Classroom Program at out Bear Creek Weir and we also participate in the Salmon Celebration, which is the culmination of Salmon in the Classroom.

I have helped the Kenai Watershed Forum with their Adopt-A-Stream program. We participate in a lot of outreach events as we are able but I really enjoy getting into classrooms and talking with kids who are interested in salmon and salmon aquaculture.

Earlier this month I went to a fourth grade class in Wasilla and they were so interested and engaged, I wish I had more than the two hours with them. They had a lot of unanswered questions!

I also do a large amount of report and grant writing. When conducting science in the field it’s important to communicate the findings to people who are interested so we write reports that are available on our website.

The grantwriting portion helps to offset costs and allows us to work on more projects than CIAA could fund alone. Most of the northern pike suppression we do is thanks to grant writing that has been done by CIAA staff (both current and former).

Rounding out some of the final field work for the year, fidelity sampling on Hidden Lake, October 2021. Andy Wizik
Rounding out some of the final field work for the year, fidelity sampling on Hidden Lake, October 2021. Andy Wizik

2. How did you become interested in Alaska?

Who is not interested in Alaska? But honestly I never thought I would end up here.

After college I thought a lot about the west coast, but never Alaska specifically, but I got a Student Conservation Association Internship with CIAA in 2013.

After getting over my irrational fear of bears (first day of field camp we saw two black bears! and I was coming from an area without any bears), I fell in love with Alaska in that first season working for CIAA. Not only was the work fun and important for the health of salmon populations but the place is beautiful! Alaska is home now. Ever since I left that first summer I knew I had to get back, and I did!

It’s amazing because the state is so huge! I feel as though I have hardly scratched the surface of things to do and see here. I am fortunate to get out to some really remote places that a lot of Alaskans, even the ones born and raised here, never see.

3. What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?

The job is really fun but can be extremely challenging at times, and most of those times when it feels so challenging, a lot of it is out of your control. For instance during the busy summer months getting flights scheduled when it works best for our own schedule can be difficult. And sometimes weather delays can really throw the whole schedule for a loop. Challenging but not impossible to deal with though.

Something I always try to convey to new hires and seasonal employees is that the weather is unpredictable in Alaska. For instance, some crews really struggle to have a good summer when it’s constantly wet and rainy (a good rule of thumb is to always plan for rain and be pleasantly surprised when it’s not raining).

Installing smolt weirs in May is physically taxing and cold, it requires wading in fast moving water with a rocky, slippery substrate, and it also requires your hands to be in water that is only recently ice free. These are challenges we face but they are predictable and consistent.

Equipment failures are the most frustrating field mishap. It happens that you test something in the office then bring it into the field and it is no longer working the same as before. This is particularly challenging because we only have so much of a flight budget and all of our trips are planned out carefully.

This is an issue I ran into this summer with video weir equipment at Paint River so it is still quite fresh in my mind. Pretty much anytime you are in the field you may need to improvise at some point in time.

Dealing with people is probably the most challenging aspect of my job. I supervise anywhere from two to six people each field season, just depends on the amount of projects that are operating. It’s the people we hire and put in the woods that present the biggest challenge—or contribute to my stress the most—not sure if “challenge” is the right word.

We hire them and train them but then we put them into the field for months at a time and I worry about them. I worry about their safety and that they are making good decisions for the project and for themselves. But we have a good system in place for them to check in every single day while out in the field, which relieves some of that stress.

We also work on lakes where there are local landowners and residents and we also work in some very public facing areas so I often need to deal with members of the public, not all are in support of the work CIAA does, although most appreciate what we are doing for salmon populations throughout Cook Inlet.

Emily leading a discussion with Machetanz Elementary 4th graders about CIAA and hatchery input to the salmon lifecycle, October 2023. Amanda Kula
Emily leading a discussion with Machetanz Elementary 4th graders about CIAA and the salmon lifecycle, October 2023. Amanda Kula, Machetanz Elementary School

4. What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you this year?

I was able to visit the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. This area has the largest concentration of brown bears in the world and it is a short distance from our Paint River fish ladder site. We visited so we could learn how they treat the bears there because we likely see the same bears at Paint River.

It was exciting to be in such close proximity to bears and to be able to see how they interact with one another when they are around a plentiful food source.

Emily leading fish printing and dissections of northern pike for a summer camp, 2021. Megan Pike
Emily leading fish printing and dissections of northern pike for a summer camp, 2021. Megan Pike

5. What advice do you have for recent biology graduates who are interested in working in Alaska?

Do it! It can be intimidating to take a job somewhere totally new but you never know the doors it may open. There are a lot of natural resource organizations looking for employees in Alaska. Not related to Alaska but the best piece of job search advice I ever got was to apply even if you don’t think you’re qualified.

It is not up to you to decide but up to those doing the hiring and you never know what kind of a person they are looking for; it is important to put yourself out there. Natural resource jobs can be competitive so make sure you double check your cover letter and resume and send it out into the world.

Just remember in Alaska the weather is unpredictable so be prepared for cold and wet no matter the time of year.

Interested in Working in Alaska?

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has job open for the summer season and also throughout the year. Check our jobs page for more informatio.

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