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Items: Jack Helle of Auke Bay Laboratories Retires With 49 Years of Federal Service

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Jack Helle
 
 

Dr. John Helle of Auke Bay Laboratories retired after 49 years of service focused on measuring marine ecosystem productivity.

"Forty-nine is my lucky number," said Helle, who goes by 'Jack'. "I live in the 49th state, this year is my 49th wedding anniversary, my first paper route in junior high school—in Fargo, North Dakota—was number 49, and the year I turned 49 was a great one, so I’m going to retire with 49 years."

In retirement, he said he plans to publish papers explaining the results of decades of research, but he will take time in winter to slip off to "warm, sunny beaches and warm, sunny deserts."

"For very nearly a half century, Jack has made invaluable contributions to our understanding of fishery biology in the Northeast Pacific Ocean," said the Center's Science and Research Director Doug DeMaster. "He represents what a biologist can accomplish in a lifetime."

Starting in the 1960s, Helle was a leading innovator of fisheries research in the North Pacific. His zeal for building long time series of observations on chum salmon resulted in 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.

Helle's career-long observations helped set the stage for the emerging ecosystem approach to fisheries management. Observations by Helle and his colleagues underpin current scientific understanding of how ocean physics can drive the production of all species in the Pacific salmon-bearing ecosystems of the North Pacific.

His published works cover a wide range of fisheries topics-from single species life histories, to the biology and oceanography of the Gulf of Alaska, to an examination of the effects of climate change on the Bering Sea. Helle has fostered international collaborations among U.S., Canadian, Japanese, Korean, and Russian scientists and interdisciplinary collaborations among climatologists, oceanographers, and molecular biologists.

He began his career working in fisheries in the summers of 1958 and 1959 in Prince William Sound for the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. In 1960, he accepted a permanent position in the Bureau’s new laboratory at Auke Bay in Juneau. His early work at Olsen Bay, Prince William Sound, helped lay the foundations for the current management of salmon fisheries there. His studies from that era on chum salmon and the intertidal spawning of pink salmon are considered classics. Helle'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.

In the 1970s, Helle's research broadened to include the effects of climate variability on production of salmon. In the 1980s his Stock Identification Team pioneered the use of a combination of scale characteristics, parasites, and genetic information 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 called for research on carrying capacity in the North Pacific Ocean.

As program manager of the AFSC's Ocean Carrying Capacity Program at Auke Bay Laboratory, Helle 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. That program was later redirected to the Bering Sea to address international treaty obligations.

In 2001, Helle led the Ocean Carrying Capacity program in a partnership with Russia and Japan for the Bering Aleutian Salmon International Survey (BASIS) under the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. He was elected to chair the BASIS group and led what started as an effort to answer questions about stock-specific distribution of salmon and developed into an international ecosystem study 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.

By Sheela McLean
 


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