Interview with Jennifer Gilden: Education & Career Guidance in Fisheries Management

Interview with Jennifer Gilden: Education & Career Guidance in Fisheries Management

Jennifer Gilden conducts education and outreach activities and serves as the marine reserves liaison for the non-profit Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). She is also co-founder of the non-profit Institute of Culture and Ecology, she has worked as a researcher, and she has written several papers in the fisheries field.

Ms. Gilden received her Master's degree in Applied Environmental Anthropology from Oregon State University, where she focused her studies on fisheries issues, and her Bachelor's degree in Political Science at Vassar College. Her professional interests include the human dimensions of fishery management, and the adaptation, change and development of communities whose economies are centered around natural resource use.

The PFMC is one of eight regional Councils in the United States working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), other government entities and fisheries groups to preserve fishing areas and protect the livelihoods of those involved with the fishing industry.

About Ms. Gilden & Her Career

Tell us about your career. How did you get started?

My history has reflected a wide variety of personal interests rather than a planned climb up a specific career ladder. I am a generalist and have always had a hard time narrowing down my options; as a result, I've tried out several different paths. When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist, a vulcanologist and an ambassador; then my parents took me to Europe for six months when I was eleven, and I developed a strong interest in other cultures. In my current job I combine all of those interests - except, so far, vulcanology.

As an undergrad, I studied political science and focused on issues in developing countries. After college I traveled in Europe and spent a few years soul-searching. I became inspired to study anthropology while I was on a trip to Thailand. I found an applied environmental anthropology program at Oregon State University and was lucky to work with Dr. Court Smith, who was a fabulous mentor and guide.

My MA thesis focused on women and gender symbolism in timber communities. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I began studying anthropology (I had romantic ideas about living in a grass hut in Borneo), but I found that studying "domestic" cultures was fascinating and important. My focus then shifted from timber communities to fishing communities, which are similar in many ways. I worked with Oregon Sea Grant on several projects, including a study of communication in fisheries management. I also worked with other anthropologists to found the Institute for Culture and Ecology, an independent research group which focuses on the human dimensions of natural resources. When my last project ended, I contacted the Pacific Fishery Management Council about career opportunities. They had a job opening, and now I work here and am creating a position that uses a variety of skills.

You have been involved in a number of research projects. How has this contributed to your success? How important is the role of research within Fisheries Management?

My research projects have been important in two ways. In the most practical way, the projects and the publications that resulted from them form a solid base of experience that helps me climb the career ladder. Whether applying for grants or applying for a job, it is helpful to have a history of successful research and publications. However, the research has also shaped my views, values, and experience of the world. For example, I grew up in a community that tended to demonize the timber industry and timber workers. My views of timber families changed substantially when I went into their homes to talk to them individually. I quickly realized that the black/white world that I saw previously was a false dichotomy, and that this issue was made up of complex and shifting shades of grey. This experience and subsequent research experiences changed me into a "passionate centrist." To make real change in the world, you need to understand the complexities of what you are trying to change.

For these reasons, research is extremely important in fisheries management, as in any natural resource management. Fisheries management already relies heavily on biological research, and it is turning more and more toward social research. However, social research receives far less funding. This is interesting when you consider that managing fisheries is not about managing fish - it's about managing people. We need more information about who fishes, why, where, how, and when; the values and goals of commercial and recreational fishing communities; how they interact with management; and how management can use social information.

How have your earlier work and volunteer experiences contributed to what you are doing now?

I want to emphasize that none of my work experience has been wasted. I know that many liberal arts generalists like myself try out many different jobs (including temp jobs) before they settle on a career. I worked as an administrative assistant at MIT for two years. It was an extremely challenging job, and I learned a great deal about maneuvering through a complex bureaucracy, working with difficult international geniuses, and organizing meetings. All of that knowledge works for me now, though at the time I despaired that I was on the wrong career path.

What are some of your other favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

When I'm conducting research, I tend to fall in love with whatever community I'm studying at the moment. I really enjoyed working with both timber and fishing families. In general, the people are interesting, independent, and strong. They were usually very helpful and kind to me - the older loggers and fishermen would take me under their wing and explain things to me as if I were their granddaughter. Some people see this type of behavior as condescending, but it doesn't bother me because in their world, I am a novice. I know nothing about how to fell a tree or run a trawler.

About Fisheries Management

What exactly do you do in a typical work day? What are your key responsibilities?

At present, my work day begins around 8:00 and ends around 4:30. I usually work in an office in front of a computer, though five times a year we have meetings in other cities where fisheries management decisions are made. I also attend one or two conferences or meetings every year. On Mondays, we begin with a staff meeting where we update the staff on what we're working on for the week. My work varies a great deal, but it falls into four main areas: staffing the Council's Habitat Committee, developing outreach and education materials, working with the media, and coordinating marine reserves issues. I often have other projects that I do as well. I am not currently conducting research, but this year I will write a white paper on research needs in fisheries management.

Please tell us a little about the Pacific Fishery Management Council. How are they making important contributions to Fisheries Management and other marine sciences?

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional councils that were created by the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1976. The Council recommends harvest levels and management measures for fish in federal waters off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts. The Council is a quasi-governmental organization, in that we are funded by Congress but are technically a nonprofit. Its members are chosen from the private sector and are not Federal employees.

The Council itself has about 15 members who come from state and federal agencies, tribes, and the commercial and recreational fishing communities. They recommend decisions about fisheries management to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which approves (or disapproves) the Council's recommendations. The Secretary of Commerce has the final say on whether the Council's recommendations are approved. In a nutshell, the regional Councils were designed to be a public process for managing fisheries in a regional way. The Council staff, of which I am a member, supports the Council in this process. We are a bit like congressional staffers supporting the congressional process.

How do people in your field use computers?

In every way possible. We use them constantly for email and for word processing; we use our website intensively to store information and to get information out to the public. I use Pagemaker and Photoshop to design the newsletter and develop other outreach materials. Our staff economists use Excel, SPSS and dBase to measure the economic impact of fisheries management decisions. We use GIS to create maps, and Access to manage our contact database and mailing lists. The biologists and fishery scientists who contribute data to the fishery management process use computers to develop stock assessments, and social scientists use both quantitative and qualitative data analysis software. The fishermen themselves rely extensively on computers for navigation and other purposes.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job? What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

There are many challenging aspects to my job. I think the most challenging part during the last two years has simply been to learn how the process works. I used to work more independently as a researcher focusing on a relatively narrow subject; now I must understand a very complicated administrative and political system. This job requires a working knowledge of basic fisheries law (especially the Magnuson Act and the National Environmental Policy Act), and as I become more involved with marine reserve issues I also need to understand the political complexities of planning and designating marine reserves. (The Council itself is not currently planning or designating marine reserves, but we work with other organizations that are). This job also requires me to be an ambassador. Many of the Council's decisions are highly political. I consider myself an environmentalist, but as a "passionate centrist" I can see both sides of environmental issues - the human side and the environmental side. I don't believe they have to be mutually exclusive, and I have less and less patience for black-and-white, "people vs. the environment" arguments. So it is personally challenging for me to balance my own views on these issues and work with people who have strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. I do enjoy it, though.

I also have to add that this job requires a fair amount of public speaking, which is challenging for me. I am much more comfortable writing than speaking, but I have chosen a job that often requires me to represent the Council in public or speak at Council meetings. I believe we choose the challenges that make us grow, and I certainly have done that here.

The most rewarding parts of my job are when I get to talk to people one-on-one and help them navigate the Council process or understand how it works. I love talking to fishing community members. Also, this summer I volunteered on a trawl survey. The surveys are conducted every year, and charter a fishing boat to collect data about fish populations. I served as an honorary biologist for eight days at sea, from Eureka to Morro Bay. I weighed, measured, and sexed hundreds of Dover sole, sanddabs, lingcods, whiting, and other fish. It was fascinating and fun. I finally got to be the marine biologist that I always wanted to be!

I also enjoy getting positive feedback about my educational efforts or know that some fact sheet or newsletter article has helped people understand an issue or get more involved in the management process. And I enjoy working with the Habitat Committee, which provides advice on habitat issues to the Council. They are a fun group to work with, and I get a warm fuzzy feeling when a meeting goes smoothly and I know my organizational efforts have been successful.

Education In The Field: What To Expect

Is it important for a student to major in Fisheries Management if they want to enter the field, or are there other degrees that could lead to this career?

There are definitely other degrees that could lead to this career. My Master's degree was in applied environmental anthropology; many of the other staff here studied fisheries biology or economics. A fisheries management major would provide a useful overview and would be valuable, but many of the positions here are narrowly focused on specific fisheries (groundfish, salmon) or disciplines (economics). On the other hand, we have such a small staff that we are all generalists as well - we all staff committees, talk to the media at times, and represent the Council in various arenas.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in Fisheries Management?

I would look for a school that provides a wide variety of practical experiences and disciplines. I was a liberal arts major, but went to a land-grant, Sea Grant university (Oregon State University) that had a very practical, applied focus. OSU started out as an agricultural college and still has a strong focus on agriculture and extension. This was very useful for me in gaining practical experience. My MA program required me to do an internship; I worked for a 4-H program in a timber town for a summer, and used that time to conduct research for my thesis. When looking for a school, I would remember that you are interviewing them about what they can offer you. Visit the school, talk to the professors, talk to the students. Many students are more concerned about being accepted by a school than about finding a school that offers what they really need. Also, if you're interested in going into fisheries management, remember that it is inherently multidisciplinary. Management work requires people skills, writing skills, verbal skills, the ability to absorb huge amounts of information, an interest in marine issues, meeting facilitation skills, and a working knowledge of basic fish biology (which I learned on the job). Find a program that isn't too narrowly focused, and that allows you to take classes in other disciplines.

Based on your knowledge and what you hear in the industry, what would you say the top schools in the U.S. for Fisheries Management?

Fisheries management is a broad area, so the schools would really depend on which discipline students are most interested in. The top schools for fisheries anthropology may be different than the top schools for fisheries biology or habitat biology. I would say that degrees that combine the social sciences with biological sciences are probably the most useful in practice, since managing fisheries is really about managing people who fish. Good fisheries managers have a grasp of both human and natural dimensions of management. That said, the top fisheries management schools that I am aware of are:

You can find much more information, including a useful summary of training programs and courses and a summary of the skills needed to work in fisheries management, here.

How do you feel that the educational system could be changed to better serve society?

I think that after high school every student should spend three years exploring the world, feeling their wild oats, and trying out various jobs; work for a year in a field that interests them in a well-designed, paid internship program or volunteer service; and enter college at age 23. Students now are rushed to pick a discipline before they have had a chance to find out what they want to focus on. This caused me enormous stress in college, because it felt so final. Of course, it's not; but how can you be expected to decide what you want to be for the rest of your life if you haven't looked outside the boundaries of your own youthful existence? I have friends who at 35 are starting all over again with grad school because they are just now figuring out what they want to do.

I also think that schools should rely more in internships and real-world experience (paid or volunteer). There should be more emphasis on the process of learning about the world, rather than the content of what is learned.

Jobs In The Field: What To Expect

What kinds of jobs do entry-level workers usually do? What kind of salary can they expect to earn?

There aren't any entry-level jobs at the Council itself, other than administrative/secretarial positions. Most of the staff here have backgrounds in biology, economics or other social sciences, and did their "entry level" work at another agency. I believe most of the staff here started out at state fish and wildlife departments, or came here directly from graduate school. Many conducted field research (fish surveys, stream surveys, etc.) before coming here. Some worked on fishing boats, as well. Salaries depend on experience and responsibility, and probably start in the mid-40s.

What are some of the best companies or agencies to work for?

Again, this would depend on your preferences and values. People don't generally work in fisheries management to make money or become famous, so other values need to come into play. Most actual "management" jobs are at state, federal, or quasi-federal agencies, but there are also research or teaching positions at universities, and advocacy/conservation opportunities at environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, Oceana, and the Ocean Conservancy. In traditional management, many people begin work as field biologists for state fish and wildlife agencies, and then move into research or administrative positions. Since the eight regional fisheries management councils usually have small staffs (15 people or fewer), most higher-level jobs are found at state fish and wildlife departments or federal agencies (like National Marine Fisheries Service).

Do you think that internship experience is helpful in landing a job? What kinds of internships are available?

It depends on the internship. I have had internships where I stuffed envelopes all day and didn't learn much about the organization or how it worked. Other organizations, like the Institute for Culture and Ecology, provide more meaningful internships where the intern has responsibility for an individual project. That type of internship is extremely valuable. I would recommend that people who are looking for internships interview their prospective "employers" about how much latitude they will have to develop their own projects, and find out whether the employers have clear ideas about how they will use the intern. We do not have any internships at the Council at present, mainly because we haven't had many small, discrete projects that an intern could do. However, internships at state fish and wildlife departments, the National Marine Fisheries Service, environmental organizations, or fishing community organizations would provide experience that would be useful in the Council arena.

What advice can you give recent graduates who want to stand out in the field?

I would recommend attending fishery management council meetings in your region and learning as much as possible about how the management system works; talking to fishermen (and women) and members of environmental groups about their views and concerns; volunteering to work on a field project (like a NMFS trawl survey or a watershed restoration project) to gain some on-the-ground experience; and generally trying to learn as much as possible about the diverse populations and issues involved in fisheries management. Don't be afraid to call people at NMFS or the Councils to ask questions or learn about opportunities. Most importantly, don't focus too narrowly on fisheries biology and population dynamics unless you want to be a fisheries biologist or a stock assessment scientist. Working in fisheries management requires strong people skills, including diplomacy, facilitation, and communication.

The Industry

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

Marine reserves, fisheries social science, and restructuring of management (using measures like rights-based management) are all hot topics at the moment.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Yes, it has helped us disseminate information more quickly. The fishing community has been relatively slow to use the internet (partly because it's expensive to access while out at sea), but more and more people are getting it on their boats. This helps us get out information on regulations, meetings, etc. We have also posted fact sheets on our website that answer the most frequently asked questions about fishery management, and that saves us time in the long run.

How is the job market now in Fisheries Management? How do you think it will be in five years?

I think the job market will remain relatively stable. National Marine Fisheries Service has been hiring more social scientists and conducting more biological research, which is a positive step, but I do not see the job market either growing or shrinking dramatically within the next several years. The fisheries will always need to be researched and managed.

If you have any questions for Ms. Gilden related to this interview, you may email her at:

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Fisheries Management majors, click here

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