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A day in the life of a fisheries biologist

November 20, 2019

Fishing in Alaska is much more than a hobby or pastime. It is an important part of Alaska Native culture and vital to the many families and communities practicing a subsistence lifestyle. Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program graduate Aaron Moses, Yup’ik from Toksook Bay, understands this as well as just about anyone.

“My cultural connection to fishing is strong. The whole community comes together, and everyone does their part to help. The elders share their stories with younger generations,” Aaron says. “We learn about how our people have survived on the land for thousands of years. In my village, fishing is vital to our existence. If the salmon ever disappeared, so would our way of life.”

Aaron began his freshman year of college at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2008. As a high school student, he always enjoyed science and math – he was especially interested in biology. Aaron quickly realized the best way for him to give back to his community while also earning a living would be to become a fisheries biologist back in his home region.

With a goal in his sights, Aaron became even more passionate about his STEM courses. When he moved to Alaska’s biggest city from a village with a population under 700, he faced an even bigger challenge than his coursework. Acclimating to a new environment far from home proved difficult. Then Aaron found ANSEP’s University Success component and began to develop a strong network of students and professors who guided his career plans.

“I would not have graduated from college without assistance from ANSEP. After hours of tutoring sessions and recitations, the ANSEP building became my home away from home. The ANSEP community felt like family,” said Aaron.

He later realized the best move for his future would require another physical move, this time to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There he continued to make new friends and grow his network through the campus’ smaller but just-as-tight-knit ANSEP community.

After completing his bachelor’s degree and multiple paid fisheries internships with ANSEP strategic partners, Aaron returned to Southwest Alaska prepared to join the workforce. He began his career as a fisheries biologist at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge as an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We need more people who know our land and cherish our resources. As an Alaskan, I can’t think of a more fulfilling career than one that brings you back home,” said Aaron.

America’s second-largest wildlife refuge, the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of 19 million acres and home to 54 villages. Aaron’s works to ensure this land is preserved for generations to come by working with the villages on many fish and wildlife issues like Chinook salmon management.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service uses wildlife population samples and science to determine when, where and how much fishing takes place during times of conservation. Their work is critical to protect lakes and rivers from over-fishing, and Aaron helps each unique community find personalized solutions to be compliant. One of the most surprising things he’s realized in his career is how interconnected Alaska’s biologists are.

“We work closely with other tribal, state and federal biologists throughout the region. Many of them were involved with ANSEP personally or have worked with ASNEP interns. ANSEP’s relationship with partners creates a professional network connecting us at a personal level. It makes Alaska biologists like a small family,” said Aaron.

He says his biggest challenge is access. On top of weather delays, the lack of road systems means he must travel exclusively by boat, plane or snow machine. It’s when he finally arrives in the village that the bulk of Aaron’s work begins. Though his degree is in biology, Aaron’s day-to-day work requires extraordinary communication skills more than scientific knowledge.

“My favorite part about my job is meeting with people. Fishing is so important to them, and I get to show them how much I care. We may have different ideas, but we share a mission to preserve community traditions and protect the land and its resources,” said Aaron.

Many people think fisheries jobs are seasonal, but there are many year-round careers in the industry. Just ask Aaron about his offseason. He will tell you there is no offseason, just different seasons.

Summer welcomes five months of salmon runs, but preseason and postseason planning periods mean eight months of salmon “season” for Aaron and his colleagues. Fishing in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t cease in winter, when ice fishing is popular.

Aaron had the opportunity to meet many future fisheries biologists when he mentored students at ANSEP’s STEM Career Exploration in Bethel in 2018. His favorite part was sharing his passion with a younger generation. He enjoyed seeing how many students from his area and across Alaska shared his excitement for STEM.

His advice to today’s students? Take advantage of opportunities to develop your own career path and never give up. From college readiness components starting in middle school to college admissions support for high school students and career development for college students, ANSEP gives students the tools they need every step of the way to achieving their education and career goals.