Curt Holt is a deeply enthusiastic Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fisheries biologist.
Holt has worked with WDFW since 2001, and before that, was a salmon biologist with the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) for 22 years.
“I started working in fisheries when I was four,” Curt said.
After high school, Holt’s deep love of fishing and the outdoors brought him, along with three buddies from the greater Seattle area, to the Harbor. Holt enrolled in the two-year Fish and Wildlife Program at Grays Harbor College — and stayed. He and his family now live in Aberdeen.
Even before graduating with an associates degree from Grays Harbor College, Holt was hired by the QIN fisheries program. At the time, most fisheries jobs were at hatcheries, but as the Quinault are a treaty tribe and self-governing, they had an expanded view of salmon restoration, management and resource protection.
“The Quinault Nation was the perfect place for opportunity, a place to grow, and to learn about coastal and inland Fisheries.” Holt said.
He continued his education and later received his bachelors in science degree from Evergreen State College.
“I was selected to participate in the two-year Washington State Agriculture/Forestry Leadership Group while at QIN and have been learning ever since,” he said.
Through the leadership program Holt gained insight into how to work collaboratively with other natural resource professionals instead of fighting over the same pots of money. To this day, Holt continues to find commonalities with others instead of focusing on differences.
Currently Holt’s team of biologists and four field technicians are responsible for the coastal district of the Queets, Quinault, Humptulips and the Chehalis watersheds.
“If these waterways were linear miles, the distance would span from Washington state to Pensacola Florida,” he said.
He discusses the often-hectic life of a salmon biologist.
“in the typical week of a biologist — flexibility, grace and patience are the best terms to use,” Holt said. “There have been early mornings sampling for commercial gillnet fisheries from the Willapa … spawner surveys for spring chinook, followed by late evenings doing administrative stuff to get staff hired, order gear, equipment and vehicles.”
Holt is on local rivers doing stock assessment from September through June. Stock assessments are estimations of natural spawning by hatchery and wild salmon and steelhead in specific watersheds. These are fish that have escaped past both sport or commercial fisheries to return to their home creek to spawn or to a hatchery facility and are termed “natural spawners.”
He and his team are currently busy estimating populations of spawning salmon, including spring and fall Chinook, coho, chum as well as steelhead and lamprey.
“During our sampling season in the fall, it’s usually grab the waders, boots, rain gear, float vest and survey gear because we’re walking and floating rivers counting redds (spawning beds), counting live and dead fish, and sampling dead fish to determine age, genetics, and hatchery vs. wild status,” he said. “We cannot physically assess each river mile, so we set up indexes for sample areas to count the salmon redds.”
The majority of the field work is by foot surveys. Staff also utilize jet and/or drift boats, pontoon rafts and helicopters to survey for redds.
“In the summer, I am busy writing reports and participating in educational fairs and festivals, as the fish are in the ocean,” Holt said.
There is close collaboration with other biologists including from the Quinault Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis regarding stock assessments. Holt sees terrific value in “talking biologist to biologist.”
At a recent public presentation along the Newaukum River, Holt invited participants to “listen to fall — the rustling of dry leaves — this is my world.”
Salmon inspires awe in him and are his teacher.
“A female Chinook salmon often excavates a 10 by 15-foot gravelly area using her tail,” he said. “I once handed a garden shovel to a reporter to try the same feat, and they gave up after five shovels full. Hey, you’ve got 13 more feet to go.” Holt’s work also depends on collaborating closely with local landowners.
“I work with all groups, especially on responding to their requests. I collaborate most closely with tribes and local landowners for property access, which is crucial to get our work done,” he said. “I’m only a fish biologist — not the expert. I don’t have the one, two or three generations of knowledge that local landowners do, but I am a good listener.”
For anyone interested in getting into the salmon biology field, Holt offered advice.
“Like so many fields, you need to be flexible and be willing to work a lot of seasonal work,” he said. “Education is important especially for higher level positions, but so is experience, and other personality traits like desire and trainability. The profession does not pay a lot compared to other fields, so it’s important to love the work.”
Holt pondered the fate of salmon and why we should work to save them.
“The question should be ‘why not?’” said Holt. “… Salmon and steelhead, these icons of the Northwest, like the Orca, are visible signs to everyone that something is happening to our region. Especially when we look at our local river resources like the freshwater mussels, crayfish, cutthroat and other freshwater species who don’t even go on vast migration journeys. If we don’t save all these inter-connected resources, it says something about our short-term priorities. Like our Pacific Lamprey, they’ve been around for 425 million years, so they must have some ecological benefit to be one of the oldest resources.
“I have learned valuable lessons from salmon: I have learned to try to talk less and to listen and observe more. We are stewards of the salmon resource, and their fate is in our hands. Fortunately, most Northwest people are passionate about this resource. … We’re not all consumers or users … but most want this resource to exist for future generations.”
Curt Holt can be reached at 360-249-1212; email: Curt.Holt@dfw.wa.gov.
Kathy Jacobson is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Chehalis Basin Lead Entity.