Becoming a Fisheries Technician

Fishery Technicians Monitor and Manage Marine Ecosystems

There are folks out there who genuinely enjoy spending their day jammed into the back of a rolling work skiff that smells of exhaust from the outboard and vomit from the new guy, assessing the contents of a salmon’s stomach. Wind, rain, or a harsh, beating sun overhead, it’s all the same to them—a fascination with fish and the vast underwater world they inhabit is powerful stuff.

Those fine men and women are well-suited to their jobs as fishery technicians, and they can find employment in all fifty states working with every variety of fresh and salt water fish found in American waters.

Cutting up fish isn’t the only thing fisheries technicians do, and it’s not even the largest part of the job. But it is representative of the hands-on, gritty, detail-oriented nature of their profession.

Technicians perform scientific monitoring and analysis of fish populations and ecosystems that affect fisheries. They are responsible for diagnosing problems, discovering imbalances in predator/prey species, and sometimes for solving those problems.

Fisheries technicians are key to the scientific understanding and management of not only the nation’s fisheries, but also its waterways in general. By monitoring the health and population of the fish and other residents of the oceans, rivers, and lakes, fisheries technicians get an excellent picture of the overall condition of those waters.

As pollution levels or invasive species, such as mussel larvae slowly taking over lake and river systems in Montana, become a problem, it is fishery technicians who monitor the spread and work on the front lines of combating the problems.

The Role of the Fishery Technician

Fishery technicians work in the field, in labs, and in hatcheries on all sorts of scientific and wildlife management tasks. These can include:

  • Fish breeding
  • Tagging and releasing fish for tracking
  • Dissecting and analyzing specimens and samples
  • Recording data from sport and commercial fishermen
  • Stocking lakes
  • Surveying populations with tracking systems or old-fashioned nets and traps
  • Monitoring water and other environmental conditions
  • Diagnosing parasitic infections and treating fish or bodies of water to ward them off

Fishery technicians bring some unusual tools to bear in their efforts to conduct scientific work without impacting the environment themselves. One of these is the fish wheel, a sort of mill-wheel with an ingenious system of baskets, paddles, and slides on it. Setting one of these up in a flowing river causes the water to spin it, catching fish gently at the end of the paddles on the down stroke, then letting gravity slide them into collection baskets near the hub on the up stroke.

Technicians often set up such wheels in remote areas where there is no other power but the river and use them for collection or counting.

In the field, a lot of the old-fashioned fish-gut handling has been replaced with high-tech alternatives like PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags. The tiny 12mm electronic tags are typically injected with a syringe into a body cavity. Using RFID technology, they can be read back again without ever cutting open the fish, or even catching it—antennas placed over narrow streams or in fish ladders can track the tag as it goes by, providing valuable data for years without ever troubling the fish again.

Hatcheries Bring New Fish Into The Ecosystem

Many fishery technicians spend the bulk of their career in fish hatcheries. Hatcheries are commonly located along rivers and streams that serve as natural breeding grounds for native fish species, but they create an artificial environment designed to take over and enhance four steps in the reproductive process:

  • Broodstock conditioning - By manipulating the water and light conditions in the hatchery, technicians can mimic the natural conditions that induce spawning in the fish stock—altering, for instance, flow rates, daylight hours, and food or salinity levels to fool the breeding fish stock into producing sperm and eggs.
  • Spawning - Eggs are harvested either by manually stripping the female, using chemical injections to induce spawning, or taking advantage of environmental cues like thermal shocks that cause the fish to spawn.
  • Fertilization - Sperm from the males, similarly harvested, is used to fertilize the eggs after they have been inspected, cleaned, and screened for disease or defects. Technicians have to be careful to introduce sufficient diversity into the batch of hatchlings to avoid setting up conditions that leave them genetically vulnerable to disease.
  • Raising larvae - The bulk of the time a fish spends in a hatchery is as a larva, being fed and protected in special nursery tanks monitored and run by fishery technicians. Depending on the fish type being raised, a whole adjacent hatchery operation might be necessary to produce feed stock for the supported species.

Once the hatchlings have been reared to a level consistent with their survival in the wild, they will be released. Sometimes this happens directly from the hatchery; other times, technicians load hatchlings up into big tankers and truck them to other rivers or lakes for release.

The National Fish Hatchery System is a coordinated effort by the federal FWS and state, tribal, local, and foreign governments to preserve and extend fisheries across geographic and political boundaries.

Hatchery technicians frequently serve as tour guides and environmental interpreters for visitors in addition to their fish-rearing duties.

Work Conditions

Unsurprisingly, fishery technicians tend to spend a lot of time on or near water. Much of the work in some roles happens outdoors. Often, the timing of the job is dictated by the natural rhythms of fish runs. These can occur in any season, which means fishery technicians find themselves working in every sort of weather.

There can also be plenty of office time for techs, too. Data they collect has to be recorded and analyzed. And, of course, hatchery jobs are often primarily indoors, monitoring instruments and tanks. These positions can be more 9 to 5 and involve spending evenings in your own bed regularly, a boon for older technicians.

Finding Work as a Fishery Technician

Fisheries technicians work for agencies at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a variety of private organizations focused on environment and resource preservation.

In general, states have the primary responsibility for the management of fisheries within their own borders. NOAA takes on responsibility for waters more than 3 nautical miles offshore (outside the territorial limit of the country but within various treaty-negotiated exclusive economic zones). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handles National Wildlife Refuges and shares responsibility for managing endangered species with NOAA, which also overlaps with some state fishery programs.

All this sounds more confusing than it actually is due to the eight regional fishery councils created by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Run by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, these councils allow fishery managers and technicians from all the involved agencies to coordinate their activities.

Education, Experience, and Training Requirements

Fisheries technicians positions may require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a scientific or related field, but many seasonal positions make exceptions for college students who have declared such a major already. Additionally, internships are sometimes available for students interested in the field.

Related degrees include:

  • Fish and wildlife management
  • Marine biology
  • Aquatic ecology
  • Natural resources or conservation management

Volunteering for a fishery management agency is a good way to build qualifications and experience. Many agencies seek out volunteers for various fishery-related tasks; aquariums and environmental non-profits may also look for volunteers in the field. Websites such as VolunteerMatch post such opportunities regularly.

Most training for fishery technicians occurs on the job and is task specific. It is, however, usually important to be in good physical shape. Shifting around survey equipment, wrangling 50-pound salmon, and hiking to remote mountain streams and lakes is frequently part of the job.

Candidates who have experience handling small boats are also likely to have a leg up on the competition. No one wants to be sharing a cockpit with the seasick new guy!