Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:57 PM on Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Kachemak Color

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Editor's note: "Kachemak Color" features residents who make the communities of the southern Kenai Peninsula interesting. If you know of someone who you think would make a good story, call the editor at 235-7767.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Nicky Szarzi sits at her desk at the Homer office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Like a lot of people in Homer, Nicky Szarzi started her Alaska life here. Like others, she also left Homer, went to college, advanced in her career, got married and came back. The circle of her life continues this week as Szarzi, 53, retires Friday from her job as Lower Cook Inlet sport fish area management biologist and 28 years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"I started in Homer, and I'm starting over in Homer," Szarzi said.

Szarzi has come to be known as the biologist who gathers the data that helps manage sport fish resources on the lower Kenai Peninsula. Whether Anchor Point king salmon or Ninilchik razor clams, she has a hand in understanding the fisheries. Want to know why thousands of juvenile clams died at Ninilchik? Need to understand king salmon escapement levels? Ask Szarzi. She's also been a big advocate of the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit, the "fishing hole" named after her predecessor.

Born in Annapolis, Md., Szarzi grew up in Boulder, Colo. She went to several colleges before getting an associate of arts in applied oceanography at Shoreline Community College in Seattle. That degree taught her how to be a technician on National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration survey ships like the Fairweather and Rainier that visited Homer. Her best friend got the job she wanted on a NOAA survey ship.

"It kind of worked out. It led me to a job with Fish and Game," she said of that degree.

Her first fishery job was doing creel research — interviewing sport fishermen about their catches — in Seattle as a worker under the Young Adult Conservation Corps program. Ever since she was a child she wanted to visit Alaska.

"This is an amazing state. I wanted to come here since I heard of it," Szarzi said.

She came up to Homer in 1980 and started to work at odd jobs, including summer work as a technician with Fish and Game. With an associate's degree, Szarzi understood her options were limited.

"I really wasn't going anywhere," she said. "I realized I needed to finish my degree."

Working summers, she went to school in the winter at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her summer jobs took her all over the state, including the Deshka River, Port Dick and, her favorite job, netting king salmon as part of a research project on the Kenai River.

"The finest job I ever had, wrassling those big fish," Szarzi said.

After getting a bachelor of science in wildlife biology in 1987, Szarzi continued on to graduate school. Fish and Game offered her a dream deal: work on a research project and get her grad school paid for.

That investment paid off in a tool Fish and Game uses today: calculating razor clam populations on lower Cook Inlet. On that project, Szarzi helped develop a systematic method of sampling and estimating juvenile clams. She used a water pump to emulsify mud and then counted clams in a sample. Using statistical models, samples were taken on a grid system.

"That gives you a ball park estimate of whether your harvest is sustainable or not," Szarzi said.

Combined with harvest records, it's resulted in fairly accurate estimates of clam populations — a method so reliable it's used by other states, like the Washington Department of Fisheries.

In grad school she met her second husband, Jeff Szarzi, now a math and science teacher at Flex School. After getting her master of science in fisheries in 1991, Szarzi got a job in Glennallen as assistant area biologist for sport fishing in the upper Copper River and upper Susitna River drainages. She came back to Homer in 1997 after Dudiak retired to become area biologist.

Szarzi has put in 22 continual years, enough to qualify for retirement, and has been with Fish and Game 28 years starting from her first tech job.

"I've been all over the state for this job," she said. "It's probably the best job in the world. ... It's a pretty outstanding field. You work with great coworkers. The public is pretty supportive of your mission. You have the means to actually make a difference."

What's next, other than sleeping in? Szarzi said she's looking forward to going to coffee shops in the morning and just talking with people. She wants to work on the right side of her brain — taking art classes, polishing up her Spanish. Her parents are in their 90s and still active on a small farm in western Colorado; she'll visit them more often.

An active member of the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club Women's Nordic group — she's one of the women who zip by in the pink fireweed ski jackets — she will teach some ski classes this winter. Eventually she will do some other kind of work, perhaps teaching.

"You retire, and you go back and have an undecided life to orchestrate," she said.

Oh, and there's one more thing the person who did the research that helped manage lower Cook Inlet sport fisheries will do.

"And I'm going to have time to fish," Szarzi said.

A retirement party for Szarzi with a potluck dinner is 5 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Homer Elks Lodge.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.