Sara Borok is an environmental scientist with the Klamath River project. She is responsible for counting the sport harvest on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and for gathering natural spawner escapement data (which involves counting deceased fish which have finished spawning) on the Salmon River and approximately three dozen tributaries of the Klamath River above the Trinity River. She is also the co-coordinator of the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team.
Borok initially studied forestry at Humboldt State University before changing her major and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife management. She jokes that she also “majored in minors” by earning minors in forestry, fisheries, art and music.
She has worked her entire CDFW career in the Klamath Basin, striving to “bridge the desires of our constituents and protecting the health of the fishery” as she counted live fish going out of the river and the dead fish that returned and spawned.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
Even when I was young I knew I wanted to work in the outdoors. I am from the era of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and I always wanted to be the assistant, “Jim.” He always had the cool jobs! I grew up in Southern California, and when I started high school, there was a wonderful summer school class, Outdoor Biology, that taught basic sampling techniques. We went to Catalina Island to do some marsh sampling, and I got hooked. I used to seek out wild places, often riding my bike up to Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades and then hiking in four miles to find some solitude.
Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?
When I was 16, I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps, and later at Will Rogers State Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve and at Ft. Clatsop, which is part of Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. I started out with CDFW in 1985 as a seasonal aid working the Klamath Creel Crew for Jim Hopelain, a wildlife biologist who at that time served in my current position. I fell in love with the idea of getting paid to do this job out in the woods. I still cannot believe that I get paid for what I get to do.
What is a typical day like for you at work?
During the “creel season” in April through November, I help the crew at busy spots on the Klamath River by interviewing anglers about their effort and catch of salmon and steelhead. We keep track of the numbers because they dictate size restrictions. Once a certain number of fish have been caught, anglers can’t keep the big ones anymore.
I also help out during the “carcass season” in October through December by organizing crews with individuals drawn from CDFW as well as other state agencies, tribes, volunteer groups and schools. Those crews then are kept quite busy counting dead fish to determine the “floor escapement,” or the number of fish that are returning to the river to spawn in natural areas. We need to meet a minimum number before we can allow any kind of harvest.
I field a lot of complaints from anglers, typically regarding our regulations! It is helpful that I have a great group of people working for me and with me who do a lot of the hard work.
What is most challenging about working with fish?
I would say that wading through large amounts of swift-moving water is the most challenging aspect. In years such as this past season, when we had such heavy rains, we had a hard time getting out on the tributaries to get good counts of the few spawned-out fish that were out there. Other challenges, ones that have nothing to do with the weather, are gaining access to specific areas from private landowners and the simple matter of having to cover such a large geographic area.
What is special about working in the Klamath Basin?
The Klamath kind of grows on you. I have been working in the basin for 32 years (wow, it doesn’t seem that long!). Working with live fish is the best, but even during spawning season the beauty out on the rivers makes up for dealing with dead fish. There are also really wonderful people living and working up here. I have worked every Labor Day Weekend for the last 20 years, and I get to see some of the same families that come up to fish then. It is like a big family reunion.
What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?
I work with a huge cooperative group of agencies, tribes, non-government groups, volunteers and school kids. We all get along and work hard to get the work done. What is really rewarding to me is that we have school kids who come out and do the spawner surveys with us. The students are actually walking through the water along with CDFW staff, counting carcasses. Their enthusiasm in being out in the fields is always refreshing and amusing. There have been a few who fell in love with this type of work and went on to school in this type of field and then came back to work on this very project.
Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?
Learn basic accounting, people management, vehicle repairs, public relations and logistics, as you will be spending more time on this kind of stuff than on the science.
I have been thinking of teaching a short class at Humboldt State University on all the other stuff like this that you will need to be a biologist/environmental scientist. People should also learn to work without the aid of fancy gadgets, as there may not be cell reception when you are out in the river or woods, and gadgets tend to fail when you need those most. Learn to improvise!