Plain to Sea

Posted by Paula Paine on September 24, 2013 in "Academic Programs", Alumni, "School of Arts and Sciences", "The College", "Your OU" Wade Messier ’12 grew up in the landlocked plains state of Kansas, about as far from the ocean as you can get in either direction. How, then, did he wind up on a commercial fishing vessel as a fisheries observer following graduation? 2013_WadeMessier_844Drs. Hank Tillinghast, Steven Boese and Kristen Epp wondered the same thing. While they can’t take credit for making him seaworthy, they did equip the biology major with the tools and research rigor required to be an observer. “They molded me into a good student and prepared me for this job,” said Messier. “My course in Random Sampling was especially important. And when the professors made us complete our labs and be really nice and neat and accurate, that was good, because that’s exactly what I have to do on the boats when I record data.” Messier is part of the North Pacific Groundfish Observer and Halibut Program of Alaska. As a trained biological sampler, he reports what he sees on the fishing vessel and monitors compliance with federal fisheries regulations to ensure that the size of fish populations is not under or over estimated, which can lead to premature fishery closures or overfishing. He does this by collecting and providing complete, sound and unbiased fishery data, such as fishing effort, location and gear type; composition, size, sex and weight of catch and bycatch; biological samples of tissue, age structures, stomach contents, etc. Messier says that working as an observer is adventurous and rewarding, but he admits it’s not for everyone. The job description in the organization’s informational brochure is a tip-off. “The work is physical and mentally demanding,” it says. “Rough seas are common, bouts of seasickness can be uncomfortable, and the environment can be cold and wet. Limited onboard space makes living and working conditions relatively cramped. Most trips last from one day to a couple of weeks, although some vessels go to sea for several weeks. Many vessels fish 24 hours a day, resulting in erratic and unpredictable work periods and irregular sleeping schedules. Daily activities may include heavy lifting, climbing ladders, and working on rolling, slippery decks. There may be minimal access to phones, computers and mail. In the event of an emergency, advanced medical assistance may not be readily available.” “We in the department were much more excited about this opportunity for Wade than his mom was!” said Tillinghast. “It is a dangerous job, no question,” said Messier.  “If you’ve ever seen ‘The Deadliest Catch,’ those are the safe boats. The type of boats observers are on are quite a bit more likely, statistically speaking, to go down than those vessels. But it doesn’t happen that often,” he joked. Messier spoke to biology classes on campus during the second week of classes this fall and encouraged students to consider the observer job as an option after graduation. “There are a lot of great job opportunities available to you after you’ve done this, and it looks great on a resume,” he said. “Also, once you’re trained, you can work for three months, then you can go do something else for up to 18 months and come back. So I could do an internship for a year and then go back to the observer job. The flexibility is really nice.” Messier is currently taking a break from his observer job to guide fly fishing expeditions, teach rock climbing, and lead white water rafting tours and trail rides in Colorado. He plans to go back to data collection, however, so he can earn enough money to get his master’s degree.  After that, he wants to “do something in ungulate (hooved mammal) research.”