Graduate student spotlight: Carter Johnson

Graduate student Carter Johnson holds a Dungeness crab up for the camera while out in the field.
Graduate student Carter Johnson holds a Dungeness crab up for the camera while out in the field.

Carter Johnson, current Ph.D. student in Fisheries, is focused on understanding interactions between sea otters and the Dungeness crab fishery in southeast Alaska. Sea otters were reintroduced to the area in the 1960s after decades of absence and as that population has grown, concerns have emerged around potential conflicts with fisheries. Through his research, he hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics that control both sea otter and Dungeness crab populations in southeast Alaska and help inform the management of both species.

Johnson grew up in Washington state and spent his formative years in and around the waters of Puget Sound — boating, crabbing, and scuba diving all fostered his interest in the ocean. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington and while he was there, Johnson worked as a field technician for a Ph.D. student (Jessie Hale) studying sea otter ecology on the Washington coast. Johnson's experience as a field technician led him to the sea otter realm, and he has studied them ever since. Johnson said he thinks sea otters are a fascinating species ecologically, particularly in their ability to impact coastal ecosystems.

In 2019, Johnson attended a sea otter conference in Seattle where he saw a presentation from his (now-advisor) Dr. Ginny Eckert. Her talk focused on sea otters in southeast Alaska, their role in coastal ecosystems, and the impacts they have had on fisheries — all topics Johnson said he was interested in. He reached out to Eckert a year later to discuss research ideas, and after working those ideas into the research proposal portion of his application, Johnson received a  National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellow Program award that funded him to go to school. Johnson said his experience at University of Alaska Fairbanks has been amazing so far, and he has been lucky to assemble a stellar graduate committee that includes his advisor Dr. Eckert, Dr. Franz Mueter (UAF), Dr. Daniel Monson (U.S. Geological Survey), and Dr. Anne Salomon (Simon Fraser University).

Johnson explained that Dungeness crab and sea otters are both incredibly important in southeast Alaska, and many groups of people have a vested interest in how their populations change and interact. Because sea otters can have such a big impact on the invertebrate species they eat, discussions around sea otters in Alaska are inherently tied to food security and economic well-being. Understanding how humans, sea otters, and our shared prey coexist is crucial and it is Johnson's hope that his research can help contribute to that understanding. He said it is a privilege to work where he does and he feels lucky everyday to be working on this project.

Pursuing his graduate studies did provide Johnson some challenges along the way. Finding his way into graduate school was a challenge and took him three years of applying. Johnson explained that balancing a full-time job with graduate school applications was a big hurdle, but he was lucky to have an amazing network of family, friends, and his partner who encouraged him along the way. Johnson said he got a lot of “no’s” along his journey to graduate school, but he only needed one “yes” to get in — that persistence is what eventually got him there!

Johnson's next steps in his career path are to stay in the coastal ecology field after finishing his degree. He said his dream is to work as a research scientist and contribute to applied research that directly informs management, whether that is with an agency, a non-profit, or some other organization.

To the next group of incoming or current graduate students, Johnson offered the following advice. Talk to as many people about your research topic as you can and do your best to maintain those connections — every person offers a different perspective. Graduate school research is inherently about the details, but it can be easy to get lost. Take time periodically to remind yourself about the “big picture” of your project and let that drive your research.