• A Day on the Lake with the MHCC Fisheries Program

    Mt. Hood Community College Fisheries program student Conor Milligan pilots the 20-foot aluminum skiff out towards the western edge of Blue Lake, past docks and brightly colored boathouses on the southern shore. He’s checking on some fyke nets, a type of fish trap with cylindrical netting mounted on rings, submerged in the water, and anchored to the shore with several leads and lines.

    From left to right (foreground), Conor Milligan,
    Fisheries Technology instructor Todd Hanna, Tyler Rakes,
    Josh Czech (background), Ryan Strobel, Joe Gregoire,
    and Fisheries Technology instructor
    Marla Chaney identify fish.

    As fish swim into the net through a series of small openings, they become trapped and unable to swim back out without running into the previous section’s tapered openings. The fyke nets allow fisheries biologists – and fisheries biologists-in-training – to survey local fish populations and estimate the makeup and health of those populations.

    Milligan and his colleagues and instructors in the Fisheries Technology program set the nets the day before. They’ll spend the morning hauling in the traps; emptying the fish into oxygenator-equipped buckets aboard the boat; scooping the fish out into floating nets along the shore; and finally netting each fish, identifying and measuring it, noting its sex, unique markings, and life history stage before releasing it back into the water. Altogether, they’ll pull 600-700 fish today from the three nets they’ve set.

    For first-year Fisheries Technology student Milligan, a day spent outside sounds idyllic – and that’s what he’s looking forward to most in his new career. A longtime outdoorsman, he’s fished and hunted for most of his adult life. After spending the last 20 years bartending, he began looking for a career that combined his love of the outdoors and of fishing. It was on a friend’s recommendation that he sought out the Fisheries Technology program at MHCC shortly after moving to Oregon.

    “What’s great about this program is we have options to go anywhere in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, even Northern California, to all different types of positions and job locations,” says Milligan. “We can be in a hatchery, or we can do fieldwork and spend three months of the year at the coast and the other months out at John Day or in the wilderness somewhere just surveying.”

    “There’s all kinds of stuff you can do with this training,” he adds. “It just depends on what you prefer or what your lifestyle’s like; for instance, if you have kids and want to stay put, perhaps a hatchery job is best. If you like traveling, fieldwork might fit your needs and let you to determine where you want to settle down.”

    The Fisheries Technology Program at MHCC

    A fyke net set in the water at Blue Lake.

    MHCC’s Fisheries Technology program began in the early 1970s. Today, it’s the only program of its kind in Oregon. Graduates of the two-year, limited entry Associated of Applied Science degree program can work within a number of different agencies and organizations in the private, state, tribal and federal sectors as fish culturists and/or fishery technicians. Today, more than 50 percent of State of Oregon hatchery jobs are held by graduates of the MHCC program.

    “After graduating, our students often work for state agencies, like the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife,” says Todd Hanna, Fisheries Technology instructor. “Some graduates also go to work for federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various tribal agencies, and we’ve had some work for private, non-profit aquaculture corporations in Alaska and a variety of fisheries consultants.”

    “Some of our graduates that don’t pursue work out of school transfer to a four-year degree program and pursue bachelor’s degrees in fisheries management,” he adds.

    Fisheries Technology students at MHCC learn a combination of field surveying techniques, fish husbandry principles, and hatchery care and maintenance practices. About half the program focuses on hatchery technician work, the other half on field technician activities, says Hanna. In their first year, students learn common fish surveying methods, such as fyke and seine netting, electrofishing and surveying for spawning fish. They also study fish biology and identification, as well as a variety of fisheries-related laboratory techniques.

    During the second year of the program, students train in the campus fish hatchery, raising trout and preparing them for release into local waterbodies. They also work on fisheries-related research projects, examine statistical processes for analyzing fisheries data and travel off-campus to local, state, tribal and federal hatcheries and facilities. About a third of the entire Fisheries Technology curriculum includes fieldwork.

    A Career of Passion and Practicality

    Along the shore of Blue Lake, Carolyn Erb, a Fisheries Technology student and military veteran, grabs fish from a floating net with her hands and calls out their species and lengths (in millimeters) to her colleagues, Elle Coles and Adam Kostick.

    “Adult bluegill, 1-2-0,” she says. “Adult green sunfish, 119.”

    Between identifying fish, Erb says that working at a fish hatchery is something she’s always wanted to do. Some of her earliest childhood memories involved fishing, and she sees working in the industry as an ideal way to encourage youth to take an active interest in environmental conservation.

    “For a lot of kids, that first fish they catch was raised in a hatchery,” says Erb. “The range of emotions and expressions – from, ‘Ewww it’s so slimy,’ to ‘Awesommeee, look!’ – that’s just worth a lot. And if you’re trying to get people to care about conservation, you’ve got to start young.”

    Coles, another first-year fisheries student, also cites her love for conservation, as well as her love of eating fish, as key to her enrolling in the program.

    “Before joining this program, I didn’t have any formal experience in fisheries; I’ve only fished for fun,” she says. “But I’m getting into this to find work doing something in restoration, conservation or maybe even the aquaculture industry.”

    “I just care about fish, in particular salmon,” Coles adds, “and I want to do something to help them out.”

    You can learn more about the Fisheries Technology program at MHCC by visiting mhcc.edu/Fisheries

    Two catfish in a net.
    From left to right (foreground), Elle Coles, Carolyn Erb and Adam Kostick measure and identify fish captured in a fyke net.