To Hells Canyon and Back: Conducting Fisheries Science with a Disability

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.  Guest author, Sasha Pereira, recently completed a summer internship with Idaho Power working with Sturgeon and Trout on the Snake River in Hells Canyon.  Sasha overcame an unexpected flare up in her disability by identifying her physical abilities, relying on her incredible strengths, and interacting with her supervisors and employer to overcome any issues.  I challenge you to identify what you can do in your workspace to help others create the path to success that Sasha and Idaho Power achieved in this story.  -Patrick Cooney.

Guest Author: Sasha Pereira

Editor: Patrick Cooney

The first fish I ever caught was a seagull.

What started out as a burst of excitement in response to a jerking line quickly transitioned to full-fledged panic as I locked eyes with the angry ball of feathers on the other end of it. Luckily, it managed to dislodge the hook with an assortment of frenzied head movements and flew off to continue its reign of terror elsewhere.

At the time I was interning with the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City (North Carolina, USA), an opportunity facilitated by the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program that served as my gateway to the world of aquatic ecology. Despite my unfortunate initial attempt at casting, I soon became fascinated with the abundance and diversity of fishes. There are few things that I enjoy more than working outdoors, and I will usually find a way to cover myself in mud and algae while in the field. For science, of course.

The aftermath of using a hand trawl to collect bait. Credit: Joshua Pil

Idaho Bound

Earlier this year, I accepted a summer intern position in the environmental department of Idaho Power, a hydroelectric utility company based in Boise. In the subsequent weeks, many of my friends had their internships cancelled due to COVID-19, and it was not lost on me how fortunate I was to still have employment.

After a long, 40-hour solo drive over the Appalachian Mountains, across the waistline of the Mississippi River Watershed, and just over the Continental Divide in the northern Rockies, I arrived in Boise, Idaho and went straight into self-quarantining for 14 more days of isolation. My excitement at the prospect of working with sturgeon and bull trout continued to grow, and I could hardly wait to get out on the boat.

Then, after almost 2500 miles of travel, my plans hit a road bump.

Untimely Flare Up

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis soon after birth, or as I like to call it, the “snap, crackle, pop” disease. RA is an autoimmune condition that targets the joints, and I take immunosuppressant medication to keep it under control. It is an invisible illness in the sense that unless I am having a major flare up, it would be just about impossible to tell that I have a disability. While I am always mindful of how my body is feeling, most days I am able to go about my life as a fish fiend with minimal to no disruptions. I rarely have a flare that severely impacts my ability to complete everyday tasks, and when I do it is usually back to normally shortly following treatment.

Towards the end of my two-week quarantine period I noticed some swelling in my right knee. The next morning, it was worse. In fact, it was difficult to bend and straighten my leg fully.

My condition had never affected my ability to perform the essential functions of any of my previous field jobs, which included pulling in trawls and seines and carrying heavy scuba tanks. Truthfully, I was at a loss as to what my next steps should be. Nobody wants to start a new job when they are not at their best, and I was worried that my supervisor might not understand that this flare was temporary.

I decided to be upfront about my situation and what it entailed. I explained to my supervisor that I might not be able to help with heavy lifting during my first week, but that I could still safely move around on a boat and record data. He was empathetic and encouraged me to do what I could and continue being transparent about my abilities.

The next day, I strapped on my knee brace and went to work. I was able to get treated by a doctor later that week once we returned to Boise, and my knee behaved itself for the rest of the summer.

Sporting a knee brace in the field. Credit: Jacob Hughes

To Hells Canyon and Back

The next three months were full of field work, adventure, and…fish. I spent the month of June working in Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. We deployed D-rings to sample larval white sturgeon in the Snake River, with the goal of collecting enough data to help us identify their spawning grounds. I also got to handle adults that were close to eight feet in length. Sturgeon are a fascinating species because they are prehistoric and can live to upwards of 100 years old, but they can be challenging to study due to how long it takes them to mature and reproduce.

Picture 1: An adult sturgeon caught with a setline. Each fish had a PIT tag inserted, and we collected biological data such as blood samples, fin clips, and length/weight measurements. Picture 2: Preparing to jet off into Hells Canyon. Picture 3: D-rings helped us catch drifting larval sturgeon, along with every macrophyte in the river.

In July, I switched crews and conducted bull trout abundance surveys using electrofishing equipment in a tributary of the Snake River. We also suppressed invasive eastern brook trout, which felt strange given the efforts to conserve them in my home state of North Carolina. Brook trout can breed with bull trout and produce hybrid offspring, a result that is detrimental to native bull trout populations. During the week we camped out near our sites, and I was introduced to the arctic phenomenon known as a creek shower. I will never again complain about a pool being too cold after bathing in a snowmelt stream.

Stream electrofishing for juvenile bull trout found during one of our multi-pass abundance surveys. It was subsequently tagged and released. Credit: Jim Trainer

COVID-19 Considerations

While in the field, we were assigned to small groups called “pods” and limited our contact with other members of the company. We wore masks in public, social-distanced when appropriate, and were mindful of our weekend activities. Being immunocompromised during a pandemic is highly stressful, and I am thankful that my coworkers were supportive of taking all the necessary precautions.

It is indeed possible to trip and fall in ankle-deep water. Credit: Brad Alcorn

Knowing your limits (and when to challenge them) is beneficial

It can be daunting to disclose medical information in any capacity, and I was hesitant to even write this article in the first place. The word “disability” sounds inherently limiting to anything that requires physical labor, and I was (am) concerned that future employers or graduate advisors may fall guilty to unconscious bias or label me as a diversity hire regardless of my qualifications. I also do not want to be given tasks that are considered physically easier when I am able-bodied. The risks of public disclosure are nothing to scoff at, but reducing the stigma around people with disabilities is crucial to achieving equity in the workplace.

Not everybody has the same experiences with their disability, but I am incredibly fortunate to be in good health for a majority of the time. I passed my Open Water Scuba and Firefighter 2 certification tests, the latter of which required me to cover three miles in under 45 minutes while carrying a 45 lb backpack. I spent three days hiking 31.3 miles on a backpacking trip in the Grand Tetons this summer. Several years ago, I earned my first-degree black belt in karate after a grueling 12-hour physical exam that pushed my body, mind, and spirit to their extremes.

Backpacking in Grand Teton National Park. Credit: Madi Thurston

My point is that I know my limits, but I also know that I am capable of accomplishing great things.

Trading a relentless army of horseflies for mild hypothermia in a lake seated at an elevation of nearly 10,000 ft. Credit: Madi Thurston

Flipping the script on “disability”

My condition has taught me how to exemplify adaptability, resilience, and grit. If the act of pulling in ropes becomes uncomfortable, I switch to an overhand grip and carry on. When I get devoured by mosquitoes while seining, I joke about being an insect delicacy and suck it up, albeit in a different way than the swarm of tiny vampires around me. If I will be staying overnight on a sampling trip, I plan my medication schedule in advance and bring an emergency stash of braces, wraps, and ibuprofen. If a coworker becomes tired or hurt, I am the first to jump in to help because I know what it feels like to have your body work against you.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and I encourage each of you to challenge any preconceived notions you have, see, or hear about people with disabilities. I am grateful to all of the supervisors and coworkers who have supported me by finding opportunities for everyone to be a valuable member of the team, regardless of ability level. Inclusivity and equity are more than buzzwords, and the field of fisheries conservation needs representation from all backgrounds in order to maximize its success.

About the Guest Author

Sasha Pereira @sasha_piranha is a Senior majoring in Zoology and minoring in Applied Ecology and Environmental Education at North Carolina State University. She has interned with the NCSU Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Idaho Power Company. On campus, she serves as Vice President of the Student Fisheries Society, an AFS subunit. After graduating in the spring of 2021, she plans to continue working in conservation before pursuing graduate school. Her interests include aquatic ecology, outdoor education, and environmental justice.

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