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‘Getting Into Fishy Business’ Whitman Alum Tyler Dann ’00 manages salmon populations in Alaska

By Emily Solomon ’21

Tyler Dann standing in a river holding a large salmon

Born and raised in Alaska, fishing has been an important part of Tyler Dann’s life for as long as he can remember. He brought that love of fishing and the outdoors to Whitman, where he went on many backpacking trips and spent every spring break canyoneering in Southern Utah with his Beta fraternity brothers. 

After graduating from Whitman in 2000 with a combined major in environmental studies and politics, Dann pondered his professional path. He had a general interest in obtaining a career in natural resource management but didn't have a clear path to follow. Initially, he took a job at a sport fishing lodge and this position helped him realize he wanted to pursue a career that would allow him to work outside on the river every day.

Over the years, Dann worked many odd jobs, always with a focus on being outdoors. One of these jobs took him to Durango, Colorado where he lived with a fellow Whitman alum. In 2009, Dann ventured back to the classroom to earn his M.S. in Fisheries from the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Juneau. 

Dann is now pursuing his Ph.D. from the University of Washington with a focus on salmon genetics. He balances his work and studies with his job as a fisheries geneticist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Coincidently, another Whitman alum, Sara Gilk-Baumer ‘99 is his supervisor and a fellow fisheries geneticist. One of Dann’s primary roles with Alaska Fish and Game is within the Division of Commercial Fisheries, helping to inform how fisheries are managed by using DNA as a natural tag.

“Salmon are central to the Alaskan community, culture and environment,” Dann says. “Preserving genetic diversity among salmon populations and utilizing it to sustainably manage fisheries helps ensure this resource will be available to our descendants and other members of the ecosystem that depend upon them.”

Many fisheries are mixed-stock fisheries, meaning they harvest multiple stocks of salmon bound for different rivers. Understanding the quantity of fish returning from a given number of spawning fish is critical for Dann and his crew to define each stock’s escapement goal—the optimum number of fish that go up a river and spawn. 

To achieve these escapement goals, Dann compares DNA of the harvested fish to a baseline of all rivers to determine how many salmon originated from each river. Understanding the genetic makeup of salmon from each river helps inform how the fishery is managed by providing a better understanding of the productivity of a river’s stock of salmon. 

It's Not Just Fish Science

Although Dann is now working in the field of genetics, his politics background at Whitman has benefitted him greatly. Many political ideologies and skills that Dann studied during his undergraduate years have helped him navigate the political aspect of fisheries. 

“The liberal arts education prepared me for critical thinking and writing for the sciences,” Dann says. “It’s another great lens or way of looking at society. But also, there’s tons of overlap between politics and fisheries in Alaska. Competition for a finite resource among user groups, conflicts between indigenous, commercial and sport fish interests, and equity and power dynamics among stakeholders and governing institutions.” It can be a lot to manage, Dann says. 

Enduring Whitman Connections

Dann became a member of the Whitman Alumni Board in April 2020, but it didn’t take joining the board for Dann to connect with other Whitties. Dann has always enjoyed reuniting with and meeting other alumni and current students. On Saturdays, Dann frequently sees alum Eric Nordstrom ’99 when he’s skiing with kids at the local ski resort. 

Aside from connecting with Whitties personally and professionally, Dann has also been in contact with three recent Whitman graduates who are interested in fisheries. He shares his own experience from his career and is able to give them advice on how to develop their careers. 

“A lot of my friends and colleagues serve on boards of different organizations and in my line of work, we don’t usually have that kind of opportunity,” Dann said. “I just loved my time at Whitman. I love to support the institution in any way I can, and I saw the Alumni Board as a way of connecting with the college and also having that opportunity to work with the board and experience what that is like.” 

Dann hopes to continue helping the college as it works through the challenges of the pandemic while also ensuring that students are enjoying their Whitman experience the best they can.

Published on Apr 12, 2021
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