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Fisheries Biologist: Karen Hoffman
A science background, attention to detail, an interest in other cultures and a strong stomach made Karen Hoffman a great candidate for the U.S. Fisheries Observer Program.
She talked to JMA about spending three summers out on the open sea — and what a career as a fisheries biologist is all about.
JMA: What exactly is a fisheries biologist and how did you become one?
KH: As an undergrad, I majored in zoology and minored in art. I always kept the left and right sides of my brain busy. People have a stereotypical point of view that scientists are not creative people. But, really, the most creative thing you can do is formulate a hypothesis. That was the connection between art and science for me.
I was attending a summer marine program on the Oregon coast when I found out about the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Observer Program. Foreign fishing is permitted within 200 nautical miles off of the Alaskan coast. This 200-mile zone is referred to as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The vessels, stern trawlers, are about two-thirds the length of a football field. They have elliptical-shaped nets that drag along the backside of the ship to pull up the fish, and being an observer seemed like a cool way to make money and get experience — I didn’t think of it as more than a summer job that sounded extremely exciting. From an economic standpoint, it was pure income. I wouldn’t have to rent an apartment.
JMA: How do you train for this kind of work? Do you have to have a degree in a science-related field?
KH: The training is about 21 days in the classroom and there are 5-25 people in each training group. They prefer people with some science or marine background.
During the training, you learn about the work itself — what the target fish for a given vessel is, how to handle tagged and prohibited species that may get into the net, how to set up samples, and how to weigh and classify fish. Crew members on the host ship are aware of the regulations and, because they don’t want to jeopardize their ability to fish in our waters, they make sure to follow the rules as well.
JMA: What is the day-to-day like for a fisheries biologist?
KH: You’re basically boarding a little fishing factory. Once the fish are on board, they are put into chutes and sent below deck where a crew processes the fish into product, which goes into the freezer hold. Then, every two weeks, our vessel would meet a supply vessel to off-load the products and give us supplies.
My job was to randomly sample the hauls and estimate the size of the catches. I was everywhere on the boat, working with every division of labor. Once I did my estimate, they’d dump the haul into a bin and I’d take a random sample and count the number of fish. I would look for incidental (protected and prohibited) species and throw those back. The point is to manage the population of the target species so we can sustain the population and adjust future quotas accordingly. The job also involves a ton of paperwork.
JMA: How did they prepare you for life on a ship? And for what you might expect being immersed in another culture for months at a time?
KH: You are essentially on a floating microcosm of a country, and for the most part no one speaks your language. On one ship, there was one person who spoke sort of broken English and I spoke no Japanese. When I went to Alaska to catch a transport ship, the captain was joking with me that I would be able to speak fluent Japanese when he saw me again in two months, and I was like, “There’s no way.” But two months later we had a conversation in Japanese.
In training, we learned the protocol for how to interact on the ship. In this role, you are an officer, with your own cabin, and depending on the ship, it can be really nice or really not nice. The food was impeccable on the Japanese ship — it was the best food I have had in my life.
JMA: Were there other women on board? Was it a safe environment for a young woman?
KH: There’s a way we were taught to comport ourselves — with a sense of professionalism. It’s for our safety, but the way you act also sets a precedent for the person who will come on board after you. We had radio access to submit reports on the hauls and, during our training, they taught us how to get assistance if we werein a dangerous situation. I never had any problems, but I have friends who have been harassed. In general, foreign women on some ships are in very second-class roles — they work in the factory or as maids. One of the most interesting things I learned on the Russian ship is that there’s slang in Russia that women don’t know and never hear; but I heard some of it.
I have a knack for getting along with people and I felt comfortable dropping into a foreign environment because I knew I’d be able to figure it out. I thought it was really fun. People have an impression of your country, and you have one of theirs — but you don’t know the reality until you meet the people.
JMA: How did you deal with the language barrier?
KH: I have an ease and facility with languages. Even if I couldn’t really have a conversation, I knew what was going on. It was easier to pick up Japanese than it was to learn Russian because the Russian ship wasn’t allowed to fish alone. We were partnered with an American ship so there was a translator around.
JMA: What made you nervous about signing on for the U.S. Fisheries Observer Program?
KH: I was excited about being out to sea and being on the ocean. I thrive in those environments. The only thing I was really not sure about was what I was going to be eating and what to bring. On the first Russian ship I was on, the captain had scurvy. And the first day was actually weird. The day I boarded the ship, the coast guard was there — which means something happened. The person who was in my job had some kind of meltdown and had locked himself in his cabin. Everyone was totally freaked out. Even though I was nervous, I masked it and smiled.
I had packed peanut butter, juice boxes and vitamins and I went by my wits. When I saw a million cockroaches in my cabin, I put tape all over the walls around my bunk. In the morning, there were all of these dead bugs. You have to figure it out. The Japanese crew called me “The Iron Lady” because I always showed up to meals and never got seasick.
JMA: What didn’t you like about the job?
KH: The repetition of the paperwork could get tedious. You had to find ways to make your life interesting, and it wasn’t easy to interact socially. I ate with the captain and the officers and it was really fun when the supply ship came and we’d hang out and have this huge feast and party. Everyone would do Stoli shots; I never got snockered because I knew I had to climb back to the other ship, but it was fun.
JMA: What skills did you learn that helped you build your career in science?
KH: This type of experience shows you can work as a team player and independently, handle a lot of paperwork, do the physical sampling and problem solve. You have to learn about methodology, and random sampling is really important so you’re not contriving your results. You’re part of a process affecting real world things — and that’s impactful. I learned that I was really good at being in completely foreign situations others would find risky.
I learned more about fish than I would ever see in a lab. When I went to study for a graduate degree, fish were my vehicle. I ended up studying fish reproduction and associated with a fish endocrinology lab studying a species of fish that changes sex during its life cycle.
JMA: What’s the salary range for a U.S. Fisheries Observer?
KH: Keep in mind that you are kind of working 24/7. Depending on how long you're out at sea, you could probably make about $8,000 for a couple of months.
JMA: How do you feel about fish today?
KH: There’s only one species of fish I don’t eat — and that’s because of my lab work, not my time on the ships. They were like our lab rats and I feel like karmically I can’t.
JMA: What’s the bottom line about life as a fisheries biologist out at sea?
KH: I always felt good about the job. I care about sustainability and responsible fishing. So often you see people who just want to make money and I felt like I was contributing to something that was supporting sustainability.
Interested in following in Karen’s footsteps? Learn more about the U.S. Fisheries Observer Program.