Ambassador Holly Smith, Fisheries Biologist

Our community is full of women who are leaders in the seafood and maritime industry, scientific community and outdoor world. Their work and interests revolve around salmon, and their stewardship helps keep our oceans and streams healthy. We are proud to celebrate the words, photos and ideas of our Salmon Sisters Ambassadors and elevate their important work as salmon stewards within our community and beyond.

Salmon Sisters Ambassador Holly Smith is a sport fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the lower Kenai Peninsula. She spends her summers with king salmon, counting and sampling them as they swim upstream to spawn. Holly's work helps us understand and manage the wild salmon resources we share and care about in Alaska, telling a powerful story of each year's returning run. When she's not working, Holly is fishing – which means she is constantly thinking about salmon. Read below for a glimpse of Holly's work and information on how you too can become a salmon steward. 

"It’s a rare day in the summer when I’m not pulling on waders and lacing up my wading boots once, twice, three times. Summertime means king salmon are returning to spawn, and it’s my job to make sure they’re counted and sampled as they swim their way up the streams on the lower Kenai Peninsula.

My job as sport fish biologist with Fish and Game involves a little bit of everything. Lots of coordination to get fish counts from three rivers completed each day and incorporated into in-season projections and management decisions. Fixing things: generators and battery banks, computers, sampling nets, internet connections, water pumps, and database queries. I also spend lots of time catching and sampling kings, hauling gear with four wheelers, aging salmon scales, writing reports, analyzing data, and talking with the public.

And work responsibilities aside, I spend as much time as I can trying to convince these elusive creatures to take a swipe at the end of my line. This means I end up thinking about king salmon constantly.

I wonder how many fished passed through the weirs overnight, how many kings I might get the chance to hook when the rivers open, if the tech living at each of the weirs needs anything, if I have any bait thawed out or enough jigs tied, if the kings are stacking up out in the saltwater waiting to enter the rivers on the next tide... I drive past these streams every day to get to our field camps and notice the water level dropping or rising relative to sandbars and boulders I have bookmarked in my mind. The hydrographs are bookmarked on my phone, too – I wake up and refresh it… is the water low enough to fish, or can I go back to sleep? Did that rain make the Anchor or Ninilchik River rise, or both?

Everything about my summers revolve around understanding these king salmon and the waters they swim through. Knowing things like where they sit in the seams of current, and where they hug the cut banks, and how much water moving through the streams is enough to encourage their migration helps me catch more of them – either on the end of my line or in our beach seine while sampling. It helps me build better weirs too. If the weir is placed in the perfect seam of water, where it’s not too fast and not too slow, and kings don’t hesitate to push upstream, then the weirs will survive an entire summer of fluctuating stream levels and the salmon will move through without hesitation.

The earliest returning kings nose into the rivers in early May when the water is still freezing cold and running too high to build weirs from bank to bank. Instead, we build a weir out into the current as far as we can, and then submerge a sonar device in the turbid water, its beam ensonifying the remaining channel.

We count kings with sonar until the snow has finished melting at the headwaters and the stream levels are forgiving enough to install floating weirs. Then we put on drysuits and lay heavy rail across the bottom of the rivers, string cable through that, and hook twenty-foot long three-foot wide panels made of PVC pipes to the cable. The panels are anchored to the bottom at the upstream end and float above the water at the downstream end.

Salmon push upstream, underneath the panels, and find their way to the one that opens into a chute, strategically placed where seams in the current fold together. One side of the chute has a box with an underwater video camera behind a pane of glass that records the fish as they swim by. Technicians count those video files each day—steelhead and king salmon in May. And by July, all five species of Pacific salmon, and Dolly Varden.

When we beach seine for samples, I usually take one end of the seine-mesh net and help pull it through the haunts where king salmon rest in the depths. Someone else from the crew takes the other end of the net, another takes the raft, and the rest wait with sampling gear where we’ll pull the net into shallow waters.

 

I love those moments when a king rests in my hands, its gill plates pulsing underwater, while someone else from the crew pulls three scales, lays a tape measure against its length, and records its sex. The moment I release my grip on its tail, the king will slash away from me back to the depths of the nearest pool. They’re no worse for the wear, missing nothing but three scales that we’ll use to assign it an age, counting the rings like those in a tree trunk. Those moments with each fish give us a scrawled line of data, insignificant on its own, but when combined with hundreds of other sampled kings, powerful in the story it tells about each year class of salmon returning.

We’re often approached while we’re beach seining or working on our weirs with questions from locals, anglers, and tourists. Tourists tend to ask the basics about salmon and how weirs work. Fishermen ask the toughest questions, often ones that we don’t have the answers to. Why are the runs so late this year? Why aren’t the salmon surviving in the ocean? Most of us are fishermen ourselves in some sense, and regardless, we’re pondering the same questions. Talking with others who care about these resources as much I do is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

Don’t hesitate to ask if you have questions about where to go fishing, how to understand the regulations, or why a particular management decision was made. If you want to be more involved with the management of salmon fisheries in Alaska, learn the Alaska Board of Fisheries process or join a local Advisory Committee. Both are set up specifically for the public to be involved, which is a feature of fisheries management that’s really unique to the state of Alaska."

Fishing Lifestyle

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  • Great story and great lady. As a retired Police Sgt., struck by a Drunk Driver, I life long dream is to visit Alaska and meet such great people. I’m not sure It will ever happen and I can dream. I have volunteer in Michigan with the DNR and #50 years as a Hunter Safety Instructor, our fisheries are key, like in Alaska.
    Thanks
    Denny

    Denny McMahan on

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