Field Tools

Live Sockeye in a net waiting to be tagged and measured – we release them live and unharmed

I grew up eating it from a grocery store, something farmed, something light orange, kind of bland and a little too oily. My first trip to Alaska served up some of the darkest, reddish fish I’ve ever seen. I didn’t buy it at a kitschy tourist shop with totem poles on the package. It was served to me by people I just met who welcomed me into their home. It was given to me in a cabin far away in the Alaskan wilderness. It was for sale at a store with no sign and a box to leave money in. It was everywhere. It was also in the names of many local establishments; it was on logos and printed on t-shirts. People wore it on their car bumpers. There were tattoos. If there was one thing I learned that summer: the salmon is not incidental.

The following series will highlight some experiences from my time working as a field technician for the Alaska Salmon Program. For over a century, Bristol Bay has served as one of the leading sites for ecological research, centered around studying the productivity of wild salmon runs. Due to the historic presence of commercial salmon fishing in the region, the University of Washington was initially commissioned by industry and the federal government to begin research on salmon in the area in the early 20th century. The University of Washington Alaskan Salmon Program houses one of the largest collections of historical data about Alaskan salmon dating back to 1946. These data, generated in varied political and technological eras, represent past documentation of salmon as well as the infrastructures and organizations to which they serve. 

As Bruno Latour followed botanists and soil scientists through the Amazon rain forest to look at how empirical evidence is turned into text, he found that through the process of measuring and sampling, we lose “locality, particularity, materiality” but we gain “compatibility, standardization, text, calculation.” In a similar fashion, I participated as a field technician with the University of Washington’s Alaska Salmon Program, primarily assisting in collecting long-term program data such as limnological data, adult sockeye spawner surveys, tagging adult and juvenile fish, collecting brown bear hair, and lavaging resident fish to understand their diet. 

Zooplankton sampling

My larger research objectives include: (1) determining the characteristics of data stewardship protocols that enable movement from one site of scientific inquiry to another; (2) exploring how locally-generated and citizen-derived data is made tractable to management; and (3) identifying the ways in which expertise is distributed throughout the understanding of an ecological system.

As part of this research, I looked at the practices of how salmon is taken from the stream and translated into databases, with a sensitivity to some of the historical changes that have occurred. This is of particular interest in an era in which data-centric practices for scientific knowledge production are becoming prevalent. The following series highlights some of the data I collected, the things I learned, the relationships I formed, and the fish I counted.

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