Last time I wrote about jobs available in processing and selling wild-caught Alaskan salmon. This week we continue to explore the different types of careers around the commercial salmon fishing industry, because for every fisherman out there pulling salmon out of the ocean there are several people who help manage the resource, serve the fishing fleet, and get the catch to market.
This week we're exploring a job that's crucial to the health of the salmon stock, but doesn't involve being on a boat, or really even handling that many fish.
We speak to Iris Fletcher, an Alaska Fish and Wildlife Technician II who is soon returning for her fifth summer to the site on Copper River where her and her team will run sonar equipment and count Sockeye and King Salmon runs on the Copper River for the State of Alaska. Technicians like her provide important data to the biologists at Alaska Department of Fish and Game ("ADFG") that help them manage the fisheries in an economic and sustainable way.
There's a lot to love about the job, least of which is competitive pay - with overtime - and no housing or food expenses for three months that allows her to take winters off each year to rest and travel. Iris says the natural beauty draws her out each season and being part of a team that serves Alaska's crucially important sustainable salmon fisheries gives her purpose.
However it's not a job for the feint of heart. Iris lives in close quarters with her crew and works seven days a week for months at a time. The work can be repetitive and she's often exposed to the elements. Oh, and she says someone on the team encounters a brown bear about once a week.
Keep reading and see if you're up to the task.
The Copper River site Iris works at has been established since the late 70s or early 80s. It has the "luxury" of hardwall structures like a cook shack, bunkhouse, a sauna, a couple sheds to store equipment and an electric system to power the sonar and internet. Not every state sonar site has that many, or any, hardwall structures. Some techs spend the whole summer sleeping in tents.
The reason her site is so developed is that it was built when you could still drive to Cordova before the Copper River washed the road out in 2012. At that time building supplies could be hauled two hours on a gravel drive to the site and back from town - and the technicians could also go into town every couple weeks for laundry, groceries, and maybe even a little socializing.
Today, she says, the site is completely remote and she and her team have to get helicoptered in at the start of every season in May and left there for three months. Once a month that helicopter comes back with groceries and supplies.
The sonar site operates 24 hours a day between May and July. Between four people they split every day into three sonar shifts (Midnight-8am, 8am-4pm, 4pm-Midnight) and one flex shift. The flex shift person can work whenever they'd like as long as they put in eight hours.
Because each shift change requires such a dramatic adjustment to each person's sleep schedule, Iris says they only change shifts every couple of weeks.
The sonar system records the fish running in 10-minute files. It's as easy as getting those 10-minute files converted into an image and clicking on the fish in each image to count the ones going upstream and downstream. Everyday that data gets transferred to ADFG through the internet or, if the internet is down, relayed manually by satellite phone. That data is used by ADFG to determine when the commercial fleet at Copper River can and can't fish and to assess the health of the stock.
Iris and her team work under the "Million-Dollar Bridge" and have to cross everyday to get to their equipment on the other side of the river. Unfortunately they aren't the only ones who traverse it.
Often, Iris says, bears use it as well to cross the river, and that's where her team have the most encounters. They go through bear safety and shotgun safety training each year before they're helicoptered into the site.
Bears aside, the Chugach National Forest, the nation's second-largest national forest, is home to all sorts of wildlife: coyote, timber wolf, moose, caribou, marten, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goat, and black bears. The number of bald eagles in Prince William Sound are equivalent to the number of bald eagles in the entire Lower 48!
And it should go without saying that her team gets to enjoy a limitless amount of fresh sockeye and the occasional king salmon. These fish are expensive delicacies in the rest of the world and as stewards of the resource the fish technicians on the Copper River get to drop a line in the water and snag them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Iris says it's tricky fishing due to the silty glacial water that runs down the river and the rules around snagging fish, but they can catch more than enough to eat.
The pay is pretty straightforward. There's a base hourly rate that every ADFG worker makes that Iris estimates is probably around $16 an hour no matter what job you have. That pay increases if you work out of a "remote" office like Cordova like she does, and goes even higher for a "very remote" job like one working out of Dutch Harbor. It also increases as you move up to more senior positions from Tech I to Tech II to Biologist I, etc.
Because they work 7 days a week Iris gets two shifts, or 16 hours, of overtime each week. Add that onto not having to pay for food or housing or restaurants or coffee or bars for three months (remember, they live in the woods) and you can see how she leverages this job into part of a lifestyle that has her working six months on and six months off throughout the year.
Education and Competition
One of the great things about this position is it doesn't require a formal college education. In fact, most of these fish and wildlife technician positions are filled by college students. Some are studying to be biologists but many of them are not and just treat this as an interesting summer gig, so your professional aspirations don't necessarily determine your qualification for the job.
Some of the jobs are fairly competitive, especially those that fit conveniently in a typical college students' summer schedule. However, those that start early May or run into the fall when many students are in school are often more accessible to people with less experience and connections.
One important thing to note is ADFG only hires Alaska residents, but there are many different fisheries management organizations that are not run by state departments like salmon hatcheries, native corporations, or federal departments that an out-of-state resident could apply to work for. When here it is not a complicated process to establish residency if you're willing to stay.
All-in, Iris says, it's the people, place, and purpose that keeps her coming back year-after-year. She considers the Copper River a second home and one of the most beautiful places in the world. What other summer job can you take that will let you go hiking on a glacier? She's loved her crew over the years and is grateful to be able to contribute to the sustainability of the Copper River salmon fishery.
You can find Iris on Instagram @fletchflower