Centennial Story 31: Susanne McDermott (MS, 1994; PhD, 2003)

The story about how I arrived at SAFS takes some twists and turns, but all of them were interesting and eventually led me to the University of Washington and SAFS before I started working at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC).

I grew up in landlocked southern Germany in a very small town. I spent much of my childhood at a local farmers’ stable and in the neighboring woods, and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a biologist. I planned on studying zoology at the Eberhardt Karls Univeristy in Tuebingen after taking a gap year. I took a backpacking trip from Mexico to Canada and fell in love with the Pacific Ocean, and the West Coast of the USA. After earning my Vordiplom (at this time equivalent to an undergraduate degree) at the University in Tuebingen, I got accepted into an exchange program to study abroad for a year at Oregon State University in Corvallis. This is where I got my introduction to marine ecology.

Susanne at work somewhere in the Aletuian Islands

After completing a year as an exchange student in Corvallis, I became one of the first National Marine Fisheries observers on the new “American” fishing fleet. I really enjoyed my time at sea, and worked for several months on various vessels, as well as at the large UNISEA fish plant in Dutch Harbor. During this time, I was assigned a special project on rockfish maturity and I greatly enjoyed collecting the maturity samples as a relief from some of the more tedious work as an observer. When I returned to Seattle, I applied to the SAFS graduate program. Don Gunderson was working with the NMFS Alaska Fisheries Science Center and had funding for a MS student to work on rockfish reproductive biology, and the samples that I had collected as an observer were part of the study. I got accepted into SAFS and worked also at the AFSC with Dan Ito (MS, 1982; PhD, 1999), who was a stock assessment scientist there.

During this time, my office was in the Fisheries Research Institute, and the RV Alaska was docked right outside the building. I had participated on a research cruise with Don Gunderson on that vessel and got to know the crew, including Tom Oswald (Captain) and especially John Drumm (engineer). One of my favorite memories during my student time at SAFS is the hours spent visiting the Alaska and sitting on the dock with my large malamute dog, drinking “boat coffee” and solving serious world problems with John and Corey, the crew of the vessel.

I finished my MS degree and became a SAFS employee working at the AFSC in the stock assessment group, mostly on the reproductive biology of rockfish and later Atka mackerel. My involvement with this species put me in the middle of the creation of the “Fisheries Interaction Team” at the AFSC. This team was tasked with assessing the impact of fishing on the prey field of the endangered Steller sea lion, including Atka mackerel.

This led to a large-scale Atka mackerel tagging project in the Aleutian Islands. At the same time, with the continued support from Don Gunderson, I was accepted as a PhD student and took on this new Atka mackerel tagging study as my PhD project. My time as an observer helped me greatly to understand what was needed to conduct a collaborative project with the commercial fishing industry, and the lessons learned from my time at SAFS and the help from all of the colleagues and fellow students helped to put this project together. I fondly remember the classes taught by Don Gunderson, Ray Hilborn, Bob Francis, Bruce Miller, and Steve Mathews, particularly the applied survey, fish biology, management, and statistic classes that built the foundation of my fisheries knowledge. Little did I know that this project would continue to occupy my life for the following 17 years! I finished my PhD in 2003 and was hired permanently at the AFSC. Our team worked with the commercial fishing industry, the North Pacific Fisheries Foundation and the FV Seafisher, and we tagged over 100,000 Atka mackerel along the entire Aleutian Chain during more than 15 research cruises and many additional projects. We studied the Aleutian Island ecosystem and the connection between fish and sea lions, and the commercial fishery. Our group really brought together scientists from many different disciplines including oceanography, survey techniques (Libby Logerwell,Team Lead,  Peter Munro, MS, 1989), fish ecology (Kimberly Rand, MS 2007, Troy Buckley, MS 1995), and tagging models (Jim Ianelli, PhD, 1993, and Vivian Haist, MS, 2002). I feel extremely lucky to have worked and continue to work with such great colleagues and friends. The connection between SAFS and the AFSC is still going strong and hopefully will continue on for many years into the future.

SAFS alums love their “career species”


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