WSG News Blog

After nearly 40 years of sharing life-saving skills, Sarah Fisken retires

As a WSG marine operations specialist, Fisken grew the organization’s marine workshop program and forged trust and community across the state in the process

By Samantha Larson, WSG Science Writer

The first time Sarah Fisken put on a survival suit, she was immediately thrown overboard. She was on a boat anchored out in Southeast Alaska, as she was spending the summer commercial fishing for salmon. There was another boat anchored nearby that she and the rest of the crew wanted to get to, but they didn’t have a skiff. So, they all put on their survival suits — emergency gear intended to protect oceangoers from hypothermia. Then the boat’s skipper picked Fisken up and threw her into the water.

“He thought it was funny,” Fisken says. “We swam over to the other boat, had a party, and swam back. The suit kept me warm and dry!”

Little did she know then, Fisken would go on to have a long career teaching hundreds of people how to put on survival suits and other skills that are essential to a water-based lifestyle. Having worked as a Washington Sea Grant (WSG) marine operations specialist for nearly 40 years, she retired this past summer. Over that time, Fisken’s name became synonymous with marine education across Washington, as she offered about a dozen workshops every year to commercial fishermen and recreational boaters. Many people have credited Fisken with giving them life-saving skills that they used when they found themselves in an emergency. Perhaps most of all, however, she’s known for the great lengths to which she’ll swim in the effort to foster connection and community.

Fisken on wheel watch sailing south from Alaska.

When Fisken joined WSG in 1984, she was the first female marine advisory agent at the organization. Having worked as a commercial fisherman for several summers by that point, however, she had an easy rapport with her male-dominated constituency and was able to quickly gain their respect and trust. When she began at WSG, she was helping out with fishing net mending courses from her office at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle. As she walked the docks and chatted up the skippers and fishermen, they would tell her about their other educational needs, such as first aid at sea and how to maintain a diesel engine. At the same time, she met more and more people who had the knowledge to serve as instructors. “I would say, okay, well, let’s try it,” Fisken says.

As WSG’s workshop program continued to expand, Fisken increasingly brought the workshops to communities outside of Seattle. In particular, she became an advocate for underserved stakeholders on the Washington coast, particularly for tribal communities. Fisken’s connection with the Makah Tribe goes back to the summer of 1972 when she worked on the Ozette Village Archeological Site in Neah Bay as a fresh high school graduate. For 30 years, Fisken drew upon those connections to offer First Aid at Sea workshops to the tribal community. “Participation is a big deal,” says Cheryl Sones, Makah Fisheries management coordinator. “Every topic covered in the workshops is something that could happen out there, anytime — but they know what to do in case an accident happens.”

At least 15 people credit Fisken’s workshops with saving their lives. For example, fisher Libby Cain knew exactly what to do when her boat caught on fire while at sea, having recently taken WSG’s Drill Instructor workshop. When another course participant’s boat sank in Southeast Alaska, they also knew exactly what to do. “He told me that no one panicked, because they had been through the class,” Fisken says.

Makah Tribal fishermen swim toward a life raft during one of Fisken’s Safety at Sea workshops.

Throughout her career at WSG, Fisken made an impact in other areas of work as well. She helped fishermen with directly marketing their fish to consumers, including helping with the development of outreach events like the Wild Seafood Exchange. She was constantly in the community, watching out for the next need. During the pandemic, she had the nimbleness to connect a food bank in Jefferson County tasked with feeding Native families to a fish processor who had truckloads of fresh fish he couldn’t sell due to the loss of his overseas market, creating a win-win for all.

Fisken’s fondest memories of working at WSG are her time spent in a close-knit team. For years, she worked with former WSG staff Steve Harbell and Eric Olsson to bring workshops to the coast. “We would go to La Push and share a condo and make meals together — and we had just over-the-top fun,” Fisken says. “It was a perfect dynamic.”

Getting the chance to work with Fisken meant a lot to these colleagues as well. “As a work colleague, I found her to be a dedicated, steadfast and committed professional — a true catalyst for getting things done. As a friend, I continue to find comfort in her unwavering loyalty,” says Olsson. “Sarah never sought the limelight but found success in her ability to engage in a trusting and honest manner — to grasp obscure maritime traditions and to understand and embrace cultural sensitivities.”

After retirement, Fisken’s next adventures will include continuing to work on Jefferson County’s Marine Resources Committee as well as lots of time on her sailboat. She’ll be sure to have her survival suit at the ready for whatever may come her way!

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Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

www.wsg.uw.edu.

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