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Jack Helle Receives Distinguished Career Award

Dr. John (Jack) Helle  

Dr. John (Jack) Helle of the AFSC’s Auke Bay Laboratories was awarded NOAA’s Distinguished Career Award for 47 years of pioneering scientific accomplishments in measuring the ecological basis of marine productivity that makes the ecosystem approach to fishery management possible.

From the 1950s to the present, Jack has been a leading innovator of fisheries research in the North Pacific. Never losing his zeal for building long time series of observations on chum salmon his efforts have documented 35 years of continuous data collection at Fish Creek near Hyder, Alaska, the Chilkat and Klehini Rivers in Alaska, and the Quilcene River in Washington.

Jack’s horizons have grown throughout his career to encompass the broad array of observations that now set the stage for the emerging ecosystem approach to fisheries management. Our current understanding of how ocean physics can drive the production of all species in the Pacific salmon bearing ecosystems of the North Pacific rely on the foundation of observations that Jack and his colleagues have built. His published works cover a wide range of fisheries topics-from single species life histories (describing the underpinnings of international fishery management agreements) and the biology and oceanography of the Gulf of Alaska, to an examination of the effects of climate change on the Bering Sea. In the process, Jack has fostered international collaborations among U.S., Canadian, Japanese, Korean, and Russian scientists and interdisciplinary collaborations among climatologists, oceanographers, and molecular biologists.

Jack began his career in fisheries in 1958 in Alaska, joining the staff of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF) two years later where he was one the first scientists to move into BCF’s new Biological Laboratory at Auke Bay. His early work at Olsen Bay helped lay the foundations for the current management of salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound, and his works from that era on chum salmon and the intertidal spawning of Pacific salmon are considered classics. Jack’s 30-year time series for Olsen Bay salmon proved invaluable in assessing the impacts of the 1964 Alaska earthquake on salmon production and later served as a key baseline of historical intertidal habitat data for the Natural Resources Damage Assessment following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

  George Harry and Dr. Jack Helle
Founding director of Auke Bay Biological Laboratory George Harry (left) hired Jack as a fishery research biologist in 1960 and helped launch Jack’s career.

In the 1970s, Jack worked with Canadian and state biologists to prepare data for the anticipated U.S. - Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty. His research broadened to include the effects of climate variability on production of salmon where he applied cutting edge genetic tools to study production of individual salmon stocks. As a measure of the success and innovation of his work, Jack was selected to lead the federal Stock Identification Team in 1982. Employing a variety of innovative statistical models, the team pioneered the use of a combination of scale characteristics, parasites, and genetic alleles to separate U.S., Canadian, and Russian stocks of salmon. The allocation of these mixed stock fisheries was the catalyst for success in the negotiations that led to the U.S. - Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty in 1986. Following ratification of the treaty, Jack participated in a number of its technical committees, which were the scientific impetus for the complex process used to set international fishing regulations.

Jack’s publications on long time series of age and size of chum salmon documented the dramatic decline in body size during the 1980s and early 1990s that coincided with increasing population abundance. Asian studies showed similar declines in body size of chum salmon. Based on these studies, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) in its Science Plan called for research on carrying capacity in the North Pacific Ocean.

As program manager of the AFSC’s Ocean Carrying Capacity Program (OCC) at Auke Bay Laboratory, Jack recognized the necessity of collecting oceanographic (physical, chemical and biological) and fish abundance data at the same time in order to make inferences about the impacts of the environment on target species of fish in the Gulf of Alaska. Jack extended the integrated sampling approaches developed for single species by the California Cooperative Fisheries Investigations program and NOAA’s Fisheries Oceanography Coordinated Investigations (FOCI) program for understanding an important ecosystem level variable, carrying capacity. The OCC program was later redirected to the Bering Sea to address international treaty obligations.

In 2001, Jack led his OCC program in a partnership with Russia and Japan in BASIS (Bering Aleutian Salmon International Survey) under the auspices of the NPAFC. Jack was elected chair of the BASIS Research Group in NPAFC and led what in the beginning was a study to answer questions about stock-specific distribution of salmon into an international ecosystem study of the epipelagic area of the entire Bering Sea. The BASIS data set is widely hailed by ecologists and environmental scientists as an invaluable reference for understanding climate change. The annual BASIS survey now covers one of the largest and most logistically difficult to monitor ecosystems in the world.

For half a century, Jack has made invaluable contributions to our understanding of fishery biology in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Jack exemplifies the interdisciplinary spirit of NOAA and represents what a biologist can accomplish in a lifetime.

By Gary Duker

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