Ensuring Sustainable Fishing

Alumnus Lives the Life of a Fish Cop in Alaska

Sean Burns at the training vessel

Alumnus Sean Burns at the training site for his job as a fishing industry observer.

Sean Burns works aboard a fishing vessel in Alaska, taking count of various species  
Bringing the fish in for processing.  
While many people dream of living in big cities after graduating, 2012 biology and environmental studies major Sean Burns pursued his dream of a job in a much more remote place, Alaska. Burns has become an observer, monitoring fishing activities in order to ensure the use of sustainable fishing practices. He received training with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to observe fishing vessels through the National Marine Fishery Service. He also worked for the Alaska Fish and Game Department (AFGD). He’s been on boats that fish for pollock, salmon, halibut, and scallops. He’s traveled on factory trawlers, with pretty nice accommodations, and smaller ships where he only had a bunk and a few feet to call his own.

His UMD biology classes prepared him well. “The NOAA training was very intense because observers need to know all the dichotomous keys to identify animals,” Burns said. ”Candidates must also be familiar with conducting experiments and be able to work with diverse people in rough conditions.” The observers live along side the crew for stints between 78 and 90 days, so getting along with all kinds of people is extremely important.

NOAA and AFGD work to stop overfishing. Observers (or fish cops as Burns calls them) track the haul data of fishing ships so there is an actual count of the poundage taken. In height of the season, over 100 observers in Alaska work together on this strenuous task. “With scallops, I need to sample almost everything. It can be pretty rough,” he said, “but my work is a critical step. That’s why I am there,” he said. “It is important to know how much biomass is taken out of an eco-system. Based on size, maturity, and length, we can gauge the future situation of these resources.”

All Over Alaska

He’s spent time in the cities of Kodiak and Anchorage. Aboard fishing vessels, Burns has journeyed throughout the North Pacific. He’s traveled west in the Aleutian Island chain past Dutch Harbor and all the way to Adak, which is half way between Anchorage and Russia. One of his most adventurous excursions on land was a driving trip with other fishing observers. They drove from Anchorage to Denali Park to Fairbanks. After Fairbanks, the travel got snowy and dangerous but they drove on, crossed the Arctic Circle and made it all the way to Deadhorse, far north in Alaska.

Life-threatening Environment

Working in rough, remote conditions is not always safe. Burns injured his legs last winter while working on deck. He stepped onto the lid of a tank, which was not properly closed. The tank flipped and smashed his knees, bruising his bones. “If the opening were bigger,” Burns said, “I would have fallen inside and drowned.” Even in difficult conditions, there is comfort in the short timespan for each voyage. Due to regulations, the maximum time period observers can work is 90 days. “It can get really hard, but I just tell myself that I’ve only got to work 90 days until I get a break,” he said.

The Very Wild Natural World

Working in Alaska has provided Burns with unforgettable moments with animal life. “One time we were surrounded by breaching Humpback whales,” said Burns. “They were so close that I could actually hear them breathing. It was really cool.” Another time his ship traveled through a pod of orcas, the infamous “killer whales.” On land, traveling to the northern tip of Alaska, he came within 300 feet of two Caribou. “It’s like another world there, so wild, and so amazing,” he said.

Advice from Alaska

Burns thanks UMD faculty who inspired his life: Pat Farrell, Mike Mageau, Tom Beery, John Pastor, and Lyle Shannon. He advises fellow Bulldogs to “Go big and see the world.” Even with the leg injuries that the last boat gave him, Burns will return to the most dangerous fishing location in the world, most likely in spring 2015. “I like working there. Despite everything, it works for me,” he said.

Written by Dayae Kim and Zach Lunderberg. November, 2014.

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Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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