Careers in Fish Biology
What do fish biologists do?
Fish biologists can have many sorts of jobs. They may work for a government agency, a consulting firm, a non-profit organization, a tribal organization, or at a college or university.
Some fish biologists figure out how to protect species, manage fisheries and get rid of undesirable species in the best way possible. They gather data and use data that other biologists have gathered to figure out the best way to do these things using mathematics, statistics and computers. An example would be figuring out what the size limit in a trout fishery should be to make sure there is enough reproduction for the population will be sustained for future generations.
Some people work for a government agency and are in charge of managing fisheries. They try to control the number of fish that are caught in the ocean, or in a lake or river, so that enough fish survive and reproduce to allow the species to carry on. This job requires a lot of negotiation with commercial fishermen (men and women!), and/or recreational anglers.
Other fisheries biologists work to assess how many fish are in the ocean, a river, or lake. This requires a lot of field work to observe the fish, usually by capturing and counting them. This information helps the fisheries managers to decide how many fish can be caught.
Some fish biologists do basic research on fish populations, learning about where they live, how old they live to be, where they migrate, what they eat, and what animals eat them. This may involve genetic sampling of fish to determine how different fish populations are related to one another.
Other fish biologists specialize in rearing fish in captivity, and may work in commercial aquaculture (raising farmed fish for food), hatcheries, or at a public aquarium. Some fish biologists study fish in a laboratory setting where the environment can be closely controlled. This allows detailed studies of fish behavior, physiology (temperature or oxygen tolerance), effects of toxic chemicals, and fish pathology (diseases).
Some fish biologists have taxonomic training to specialize in identifying many species of fish, including fish fossils, and may work in a museum.
Other fish biologists work to convince people to care about fish, and to protect fish and their habitat, often through a non-profit organization.
Most fish biologists spend at least some of their time working at computers, communicating via email, purchasing supplies online, entering and analyzing data, and writing reports and articles.
What equipment do fish biologists use?
The equipment fisheries biologists use depends on where they are studying fish. On the ocean they use large sea-going boats (over 20’), and perhaps large nets to capture fish. Often they need to capture fish in order to identify them, measure their size and growth, and see what they are eating. Sometimes biologists do surgery on a fish and put a radio, acoustic, or RFID tag (like those used to identify pets like cats and dogs) inside its body cavity, so they can track the movement of the fish, and see what kind of habitat it is using. To study fish in rivers biologists use smaller boats (e.g., 14’ long) and nets. In small streams they can often wade into the stream to look for fish, or move around in an inflatable kayak. In streams and rivers they can also capture fish with minnow traps, or a device called an electrofisher (it produces an electrical current in the water that draws the fish near so they are easier to net). If the water is clear biologists can snorkel to view fish without having to capture them.
Laboratory-based equipment used to study fish includes tanks, swimming chambers, flumes, water pumps, oxygen pumps, temperature controllers, flow meters, and water quality meters.
Computers are used for communication, purchasing supplies, entering and analyzing data, and writing reports and articles.
Below is a video of a fish biologist snorkeling in a creek. The water temperature was about 12oC (54oF) so the biologist wore a drysuit to keep warm. The white plastic tablet is used to record observations underwater.
Snorkeler in Cow Creek, 7 June 2005. Videography by Richard Enos. Edited by Lisa Thompson, with permission. Some of this video footage was originally shown in the KVIE documentary "Sacramento: River of Life", produced by Craig Miller.
How much are fish biologists paid?
Someone with an Associate's Degree from a junior college may find work as a fisheries technician with a starting salary of about $20,000 to $30,000 per year. A person with a Bachelor of Science in fish biology might expect to earn a starting salary of $30,000 to $40,000, working for the state or federal government, as a research assistant at a university, or as a junior scientist at an environmental consulting firm. With a Masters of Science degree one would earn a starting salary somewhat higher, probably about $50,000/year. Some fish biologists decide to work for a non-profit organization, for example Trout Unlimited or California Trout, and advocate to protect and restore fish and fish habitat. Usually salaries at a non-profit are less than in government or private industry, but these biologists may have more freedom to speak out about fisheries issues. Some fish biologists choose to work in colleges and universities, although these jobs are relatively rare. University professors in fish biology at the University of California Davis have a starting salary of about $60,000. A top salary for a very experienced professor near the end of her/his career would be about $165,000, but not all professors reach this level. Specialists in Cooperative Extension at the University of California have the same salary range as a professor. Either of these jobs requires a Ph.D (doctorate) degree.