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In the World

Finding Direction in a Year at Sea

What really happens in the first year after college? Three members of the Class of 2004 share their stories — and tell new grads what they wish they’d known at Commencement. Check BU Today on Monday for next week’s story.

Sean Dixon came to Boston University with a clear career path in mind: he had planned to be a marine biologist from an early age. Dixon (CAS’04) majored in earth sciences and concentrated in marine biology, spent one semester at the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole and another in Ecuador, and rowed crew and worked as a resident assistant in his spare time. After graduation, he aimed to work for a consulting firm and then apply to law school to study environmental law. But at the advice of a mentor, he took a detour and wound up across the international dateline aboard a commercial fishing boat. Dixon spent 11 months traveling throughout the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, working as a National Marine Fisheries observer for the North Pacific region and discovering that a change of plans can be a great career move.

“No matter what field you’re in,” he says, “real-world experience right after you graduate is going to be worth a lot.”

Fisheries observers are stationed on boats throughout Alaskan waters to monitor commercial fishing and collect marine life data for federal and state agencies. Observers watch the fishermen as they haul in the catch to make sure that the fish are caught, cut up, and packed in compliance with local and national laws, and they take biological samples to determine the health, growth, and age of the fish caught. They also record information on fishing locations and catch rates, as well as the ship’s interactions with other marine life.

Training to be an observer is rigorous — the requirements include a bachelor’s degree in biology, environmental science, or natural science, classes in math and statistics, and a three-week training stint at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, where trainees learn to identify by sight 30 different species of fish.

Working as an observer, says Dixon, is grueling because the workday never really ends. “On a typical day, they start hauling the line at noon, and work from 12 to 3,” he says. “Then you’re off til 8 that night, work the next haul from 8 to 12, work another one from 2 to 5, then sleep from 6 in the morning until noon the next day. There was a period from mid-October until mid-December when I didn’t see daylight ever, because there’s only five hours of it that far north.”

During a haul, Dixon would take samples from the fish pots, watch to make sure that there were no mammals or seabirds caught in the nets, and record the information in his log. After his work was finished, he could return to his cabin (which was often shared with three other crew members), watch movies (“I watched How Stella Got Her Groove Back four times”), or read one of the 18 books he had packed. The shortest voyage was about 30 days, the longest 47. In between trips, he and the other observers stayed in apartments in tiny, remote fishing villages on Kodiak Island, where the hiking and mountain biking are great, but a large pizza is a pricey $32.

Life aboard a fishing boat is dangerous at times — Dixon almost fell overboard once while playing his iPod — and “very, very nasty. There was a period where I didn’t shower for 10 or 15 days — nobody did,” he says. “We only had one shower on the boat, and we used it to store Gatorade and water bottles. There are always fish scales flying through the air everywhere, and squid to use as bait. It always smells.”

The advantages, however, are numerous: when the boats are in port, observers have no responsibilities, and Dixon used the time to explore the beautiful Alaskan terrain. The pay is decent, ranging from $120 to $185 per day. “And every now and then,” he says, “you’re on deck with nothing to do, and it’s a gorgeous sunset, and there are a bunch of killer whales following the boat.”

Dixon returned from Alaska last May and began a joint degree program at the Pace University School of Law and the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in September. He’s convinced that his experience as an observer helped him get into graduate school, and that it will remain useful throughout his career.

“I’ve worked in the fisheries, and I’ve been up there and seen how fishermen react to the fisheries acts and conservation laws,” he says. “I’ve been down to the rain forest in Ecuador, so I can see how oil companies tear up the rain forest a lot more than they need to. And if I’ve been there and I have the degree, I can do a lot more.”