One of the highlights of experiential learning is the menu of options available so all students have the ability to completely personalize their honors experiences to make each one unique. Sometimes these experiences come about from something started within a classroom, and this was the case for Ben. Read below to learn more about his apprenticeship with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and how he took his sustainability knowledge from a class project and applied it to a position with sustainable fishermen in Alaska!
I love to fish. I’ve always loved catching any fish, anywhere…lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, and now–after a salmon fishing crew apprenticeship in Sitka, Alaska in the summer of 2021–I can add ocean fishing to that list. In the spring of 2021, I took a class called Comparative Environmental Policy as part of my Political Science/Sustainability coursework. A big part of the class was a policy research project in which I created a policy plan to combat a real and current environmental crisis. For mine, I chose the Snake River–America’s most endangered river. I grew up fishing from its banks with my mom and maternal grandfather in southern Idaho, and for years I listened to my grandpa tell stories of how the river used to be, before nitrate-filled irrigation runoff choked out large sections of it with algae. We tease my grandpa for being a Debbie Downer when it comes to fishing, but his complaints made a big impact on me during my formative years. The project taught me so much about waterways and their management and the way that poorly managed waterways threaten the environment and the species that live within them. At about this same time, things were opening up again after the pandemic and I felt a restlessness to travel. My mom sent me information about a competitive commercial fishing apprenticeship program through the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) based in Sitka, Alaska. The organization works with a partner called Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust (ASFT) to train young people in crewing on commercial fishing vessels, and the organization has a strong environmental mission of teaching apprentices not just the trade of commercial salmon fishing but also how to do it responsibly. For example, they promote trolling rather than gill-netting, the use of barbless hooks, and catch-and-release of smaller salmon even if they’re of legal size.
Once I applied and was accepted, I was assigned to a salmon troller called the I Gotta. Nerves set in a little bit at the beginning–what was I, an Iowan who had never lived or fished anywhere near an ocean, doing? I became more confident after finding out that the captain, Eric, and first mate, Kris, have decades of experience. Fortunately for me and my academic interests, the captain also happens to be an environmental and political activist in southern Alaska. Pretty much from the moment I stepped off the plane, they put me to work. I hadn’t known quite what to expect–I hoped it wouldn’t be just a glorified fishing expedition–but it turned out to be so much more, and one of the most formative experiences of my life. For the next ten days, I worked, slept, and ate on the boat with only a few stops in Sitka for showers and restocking. We fished from pre-dawn to nightfall, slept a few hours, and then went back to fishing. Trolling is more complicated than I thought it would be, but I picked it up, learned the techniques and rhythms, and improved greatly throughout the nearly two weeks on the boat.
Besides the fishing, one highlight is that because I had mentioned that I love to cook during the phone interview, I got the bonus job of being the main cook for the crew. This was an extra challenge but one that taught me a lot. Another highlight was getting to meet other movers and shakers in the fishing industry and environmental groups in the Sitka area. It seemed like everywhere we went, everyone knew Eric. I learned a lot from listening in and participating in those conversations. Another highlight was getting to spend hours every day talking and listening to music with the crew. When I wasn’t picking their brains about fishing, life in Alaska, and their environmental efforts, they were asking me all about living and fishing in Iowa, my environmental and policy research and coursework, and my rap music. Meanwhile, we pulled in hundreds of salmon, cleaned them, and put them on ice. Another highlight was realizing how much fun it is to go off the grid. Despite the use of modern sonar and radio equipment, most of the experience felt like stepping back in time. There were no showers, toilets, street lights, or city sounds–just the crew, the water, the birds, the whales, and the salmon. There was no data most of the time, so our phones were quiet. We had a lot of conversations, but sometimes we just comfortably worked in silence. I missed it when I got back to the noise of the mainland.
When you take a risk, there are no guarantees that it’s going to live up to what you’re hoping for. If you go into it with a mindset that everything that will happen, even the unanticipated or unwelcome moments, the experience will teach you something and make it rewarding. I didn’t love every moment on the boat. The lack of a toilet was a bit of an issue, and there is the fact that my clothes still smell like fish months later. But if I hadn’t taken the leap, I wouldn’t have met people on the front lines of climate change. I would still have knowledge of waterway management issues, but it wouldn’t be first-hand knowledge. I would love nature, but not in the way I do after feeling so small and at the mercy of the elements. I found my sea legs, and this experience inspired me to continue to be a part of the sea change when it comes to protecting our planet.
Ben Price was born and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He is currently a junior at the University of Iowa, majoring in Communications with a Pre-Law emphasis, minoring in Political Science, and working toward a Sustainability Certificate. When he isn’t studying, he enjoys working at his job in guest services at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, fishing, traveling, and playing sports.
Edited by: Delaney McDowell, Honors Student Admin