For 35 years, Pioneer-Valley bred Steve Murawski studied some of the most complicated species in the sea: Fish. He once worked on a swordfish boat. He served as a measured, respected scientist during some of the most fractious debates over the future of New England’s fishing industry. He was a key scientific voice for the Obama administration during this year's Deepwater Horizon spill disaster.
Now, after rising to become the nation’s top scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Murawski is retiring to go back to his first love, research. In January, he will become a fisheries and ecosystem research professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. We caught up with Murawski over the holiday break for a reflection on his career - and fish.
Why did you go into fishery science?
I wanted to be an oceanographer and particularly a fishery scientist since my high school days in Northampton, Mass., when I read a scientific article on how to determine the age of fishes. I was interested in the oceans but also wanted to be involved in the practical aspects of science that have meaningful outcomes for people and the environment.
Have you ever fished and if so, what and where?
As a boy I always enjoyed sport fishing, but over the years there has been less time for that. I fished commercially on a swordfish harpooner out of Gloucester during college, which was a tremendous experience that helped me understand how fisheries fit into the fabric of local communities and exposed me to an industry I would eventually help regulate.
In what ways has fisheries science changed in the 35 years you have
been on the job?
There used to be a fairly strict emphasis on measuring population changes of economically important species, but over time it has shifted to a more holistic view of species in a larger ecosystem. It has been exciting to participate in that evolution. The technology to sample and inventory populations and ecosystems has significantly improved to emphasize the use of everything from multibeam sonars (science-grade fish finders) to acoustically quiet research vessels such as the new NOAA ship Henry Bigelow, stationed in New England. Lastly, there has been greater emphasis on evaluating the economic and social consequences of different regulatory approaches.
What has been the most challenging part of your career?
The most challenging, and most rewarding part of my various jobs has been to translate scientific information into concepts that people can understand and use to make decisions about the environment. The ocean is a very challenging arena to explore and comprehend, and it is not very visual. Most people will never see the animals we are researching such as fishes, shellfish, marine mammals and turtles in the wild, and convincing managers and the public that regulatory actions may be required means that scientists must not only develop good evidence, but present it in ways people can relate to so that they can understand the consequences of inaction.
You have been deeply involved in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What science lessons do you think NOAA has learned, or is learning, from that disaster?
The “lessons learned” from the Deepwater Horizon spill will be the subject of inquiry by NOAA and many other agencies and institutions for many years to come. Personally, I think all of ocean science, and society was unprepared for a spill of this magnitude. It required the use, at one point, of all of NOAA’s Atlantic ships and most of the National Science Foundation’s fleet, plus hundreds of scientists, technicians and technologies that needed to be adapted for this purpose. If we as a nation are going to undertake activities such as deepwater drilling, which apparently have much higher risks than previously thought, we need a commensurate investment in monitoring of the environment and the research into new more rapid methods to determine the concentration, distribution and impacts of oil than we do now. In my opinion, this should be a cost of doing business in this environment.
What is your favorite fish and why?
For interesting species, I’d say the squirrelfish: When I was an undergraduate student at UMass-Amherst, I took Tom Andrew’s ichthyology class. Part of the course was to describe and assemble the skeletal structure of a species of fish – mine was the squirrelfish, which is actually a group of tropical coral reef fishes.
Their skull structure is very unique in that they use their swim bladder as an extended ear – with direct connection to their brains. So every time I have dived on coral reefs – from the Caribbean to Hawaii, to Indonesia - I always look for the reclusive, nocturnal squirrelfish.
For eating, my favorite seafood is fresh Georges Bank haddock done in a recipe from the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives cookbook.
What do you believe to be your most significant contribution to the field of fishery science?
My Ph.D. dissertation involved looking at mixed-species fisheries, such as bottom-dwelling fishes off New England, to develop methods that helped understand the larger ecosystem concepts at play. Throughout my career I have researched and promoted an ecosystem approach to fisheries science and management, and it is heartening to see that being translated into the President’s new National Ocean Policy.
In your ideal world, paint a picture of New England fisheries in 20 years.
The New England fisheries have been buffeted by enormous changes over the past century. While there has and continues to be great angst in the fisheries, we are now seeing sustainable, well managed fisheries emerge. My vision is for more complete rebuilding of stocks (there have been some spectacular successes like scallop and haddock). Importantly, I hope for a new ethic where fishers, managers and scientists can work in an environment of greater mutual respect with the shared vision of sustainable, profitable and environmentally responsible outcomes.
PHOTO: Steve Murawski examines a baby loggerhead sea turtle. (NOAA)
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