Outdoors & Recreation
Life in Alaska

Ben Adams Photography

Written by
Ben Adams

Main Image: Heading south through Sumner Straight during the summer troll fishery.

1.   Where did you grow up? Elaborate on your early life.

I was born in Sitka in 1990. My parents were commercial fishermen and also ran a charter guiding business. They did not own a home at the time, and we lived aboard a 100-year-old wooden tugboat converted into a troller and long-liner. My earliest memories include walking the dock with my dip net in hand, searching for the small fish that lived amongst the pilings of the harbor. I would spend entire days relentlessly hunting for perch, gunnels, and salmon fry. When we were not in port, I would constantly have a fishing line over the rail, jigging up rockfish, sculpin, flounder, and the occasional very large halibut. As we came into an anchorage, the boat would not even come to a complete stop before I would be fishing. By the time I was six we had moved into a house, but I did not attend public school until I was much older. This allowed me to accompany the various fishing and hunting trips on what was now my dad’s second boat. Over the course of my childhood I met hundreds of people who came from all over the world to accompany my dad on an Alaskan adventure, each of them with their own unique background and stories. Everyone always told me how lucky I was to have the life that I did, and while I knew that I was experiencing things that most people only dream of, it all seemed pretty ordinary as well. It was not until much later that I would realize how important the ocean is to me.

2.   When did you become interested in fisheries and research? 

Without a doubt, growing up on a fishing boat had everything to do with me wanting to become a marine scientist. Since I first learned to walk I would spend hours exploring tide pools, flipping over rocks on the beach to see what lived under them. While we did own a TV, we did not get any television channels. So instead I would rent videos from the local library and watched countless hours of David Attenborough films, BBC documentaries, National Geographic, and so on. I have always been fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. So it was basically the only career option that ever seemed appealing. Eventually I became a very dedicated competitive swimmer, which led me to attend college at the University of North Dakota, under an athletic scholarship. While at UND, I was fortunate enough to compete at a Division I level while exploring many different career opportunities. Unfortunately, nothing felt right at the time. Being so far from the ocean, even the wildlife and fisheries biology department seemed foreign to me at first. Regardless, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in fisheries and wildlife in hopes that I could return to the ocean as a marine biologist. As it turned out, just two months after graduating, in May of 2013, I found myself putting my degree to work in the rivers of Southeast Alaska studying chum salmon, the very species that I commercially caught to pay my way through college.

A gillnetter performs cost recovery for the DIPAC Sockeye Hatchery in Port Snettisham.

My fellow crewmembers and I having a laugh after the last day of work conducting chum salmon research in Southeast Alaska for the Sitka Sound Science Center.

3.   Did/do you also commercial fish? Can you elaborate on when, where, and what fishery?

Before I went to college I had a fair amount of fishing experience as a deckhand and from having grown up in a fishing community. It wasn’t until I started to pay for college, however, that I actually took to commercial fishing as a real source of income. In 2009, the first summer that I came home from school, I fished on a 19 foot aluminum skiff, hand trolling for king, coho, and mainly chum in the Sitka Sound. It was a pretty archaic set up at first, but eventually I got more efficient and was able to do all right. While I really enjoyed being on the water it was also quite difficult work at times, and I tried to move on in 2012. After selling the permit, however, I was unable to get a job as a research technician, and resorted to another fishing season as a deckhand on board a power troller. Looking back on it now, I wish I had started when I was much younger.

The waterfront in Sitka at dusk.

4.   How long have you been a part of the Hatchery/Wild Interaction Project?

After graduating from UND, I immediately got the chance to work for the Sitka Sound Science Center as a fisheries technician in the project’s inaugural season. The project included three teams that surveyed a total of 32 streams across Southeast Alaska. I was on the team based out of Juneau that not only took otolith samples for hatchery/wild identification, but also took tissue samples for fitness analysis, and mapped spawning habitats. After the completion of the first field season in August, I expressed interest in remaining a part of the project, and assisting with the alevin sampling the following March. As it turned out, before I had the chance to go into the field again, the project coordinator position opened up, and I was appointed the new coordinator in February of this year. It was an amazing turn of events which took me from being a recent college graduate to a full time research project coordinator in a short period of time, and I am very excited to lead the project into its second season.

One of our Sitka Sound Science Center field crew investigating the upper anadromous reach  of Sawmill Creek, near Juneau. 

5.   Did you have any amazing, scary, or crazy experiences during the project? Close calls, new knowledge learned, etc...

Anyone who has worked in the wilderness of Alaska is going to come away with wild stories. Certainly having grown up in Sitka and spending so much time on the water, I have seen a lot of very cool things, and have had some “close calls” as you might say. Something you always want to be prepared for while working in salmon streams is the chance of running into a bear. During the sampling season last year I was walking the trail from the cabin at Admiralty Cove to the beach to make a phone call. Right as we approached the beach, we came upon a bear that had been standing just off to the side of the trail. It apparently remained unaware of our presence even though I was talking to another member of our crew. The next thing I knew there was a frenzy of activity as the bear ran past us only 15 or so yards away, clearly very irritated to have been surprised at such close range. I was carrying a 45 Magnum revolver and instinctively drew it from the holster as the bear charged past. There was no need for any sort of deterrence as the bear was leaving, but it was good to know that my natural reaction could have saved me had the situation been different. I think that this encounter was a good reminder to me that you can’t get too comfortable and let your guard down while working in bear country. You always need to keep an eye out so that when you do have a bear encounter you can do your best to remain in control of the situation. Thankfully, in Southeast Alaska bears are generally very timid of humans, since there is so much food available, especially in the fall. If you run into a bear in this region it will almost always run away the moment it notices your presence.

No items found.

Ben Adams Photography

Outdoors & Recreation
Life in Alaska

Author

Ben Adams

Main Image: Heading south through Sumner Straight during the summer troll fishery.

1.   Where did you grow up? Elaborate on your early life.

I was born in Sitka in 1990. My parents were commercial fishermen and also ran a charter guiding business. They did not own a home at the time, and we lived aboard a 100-year-old wooden tugboat converted into a troller and long-liner. My earliest memories include walking the dock with my dip net in hand, searching for the small fish that lived amongst the pilings of the harbor. I would spend entire days relentlessly hunting for perch, gunnels, and salmon fry. When we were not in port, I would constantly have a fishing line over the rail, jigging up rockfish, sculpin, flounder, and the occasional very large halibut. As we came into an anchorage, the boat would not even come to a complete stop before I would be fishing. By the time I was six we had moved into a house, but I did not attend public school until I was much older. This allowed me to accompany the various fishing and hunting trips on what was now my dad’s second boat. Over the course of my childhood I met hundreds of people who came from all over the world to accompany my dad on an Alaskan adventure, each of them with their own unique background and stories. Everyone always told me how lucky I was to have the life that I did, and while I knew that I was experiencing things that most people only dream of, it all seemed pretty ordinary as well. It was not until much later that I would realize how important the ocean is to me.

2.   When did you become interested in fisheries and research? 

Without a doubt, growing up on a fishing boat had everything to do with me wanting to become a marine scientist. Since I first learned to walk I would spend hours exploring tide pools, flipping over rocks on the beach to see what lived under them. While we did own a TV, we did not get any television channels. So instead I would rent videos from the local library and watched countless hours of David Attenborough films, BBC documentaries, National Geographic, and so on. I have always been fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. So it was basically the only career option that ever seemed appealing. Eventually I became a very dedicated competitive swimmer, which led me to attend college at the University of North Dakota, under an athletic scholarship. While at UND, I was fortunate enough to compete at a Division I level while exploring many different career opportunities. Unfortunately, nothing felt right at the time. Being so far from the ocean, even the wildlife and fisheries biology department seemed foreign to me at first. Regardless, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in fisheries and wildlife in hopes that I could return to the ocean as a marine biologist. As it turned out, just two months after graduating, in May of 2013, I found myself putting my degree to work in the rivers of Southeast Alaska studying chum salmon, the very species that I commercially caught to pay my way through college.

A gillnetter performs cost recovery for the DIPAC Sockeye Hatchery in Port Snettisham.

My fellow crewmembers and I having a laugh after the last day of work conducting chum salmon research in Southeast Alaska for the Sitka Sound Science Center.

3.   Did/do you also commercial fish? Can you elaborate on when, where, and what fishery?

Before I went to college I had a fair amount of fishing experience as a deckhand and from having grown up in a fishing community. It wasn’t until I started to pay for college, however, that I actually took to commercial fishing as a real source of income. In 2009, the first summer that I came home from school, I fished on a 19 foot aluminum skiff, hand trolling for king, coho, and mainly chum in the Sitka Sound. It was a pretty archaic set up at first, but eventually I got more efficient and was able to do all right. While I really enjoyed being on the water it was also quite difficult work at times, and I tried to move on in 2012. After selling the permit, however, I was unable to get a job as a research technician, and resorted to another fishing season as a deckhand on board a power troller. Looking back on it now, I wish I had started when I was much younger.

The waterfront in Sitka at dusk.

4.   How long have you been a part of the Hatchery/Wild Interaction Project?

After graduating from UND, I immediately got the chance to work for the Sitka Sound Science Center as a fisheries technician in the project’s inaugural season. The project included three teams that surveyed a total of 32 streams across Southeast Alaska. I was on the team based out of Juneau that not only took otolith samples for hatchery/wild identification, but also took tissue samples for fitness analysis, and mapped spawning habitats. After the completion of the first field season in August, I expressed interest in remaining a part of the project, and assisting with the alevin sampling the following March. As it turned out, before I had the chance to go into the field again, the project coordinator position opened up, and I was appointed the new coordinator in February of this year. It was an amazing turn of events which took me from being a recent college graduate to a full time research project coordinator in a short period of time, and I am very excited to lead the project into its second season.

One of our Sitka Sound Science Center field crew investigating the upper anadromous reach  of Sawmill Creek, near Juneau. 

5.   Did you have any amazing, scary, or crazy experiences during the project? Close calls, new knowledge learned, etc...

Anyone who has worked in the wilderness of Alaska is going to come away with wild stories. Certainly having grown up in Sitka and spending so much time on the water, I have seen a lot of very cool things, and have had some “close calls” as you might say. Something you always want to be prepared for while working in salmon streams is the chance of running into a bear. During the sampling season last year I was walking the trail from the cabin at Admiralty Cove to the beach to make a phone call. Right as we approached the beach, we came upon a bear that had been standing just off to the side of the trail. It apparently remained unaware of our presence even though I was talking to another member of our crew. The next thing I knew there was a frenzy of activity as the bear ran past us only 15 or so yards away, clearly very irritated to have been surprised at such close range. I was carrying a 45 Magnum revolver and instinctively drew it from the holster as the bear charged past. There was no need for any sort of deterrence as the bear was leaving, but it was good to know that my natural reaction could have saved me had the situation been different. I think that this encounter was a good reminder to me that you can’t get too comfortable and let your guard down while working in bear country. You always need to keep an eye out so that when you do have a bear encounter you can do your best to remain in control of the situation. Thankfully, in Southeast Alaska bears are generally very timid of humans, since there is so much food available, especially in the fall. If you run into a bear in this region it will almost always run away the moment it notices your presence.

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