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Milestones: Auke Bay Laboratories (ABL)

Bill Heard Retires with 52 Years of Federal Service

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bill heard  
Bill Heard.  

Bill Heard ended his remarkable career at Auke Bay Laboratories on 31 December  2012 with 52 years of federal service.  Bill’s career is remarkable not only for its longevity but also for its many positive impacts on fisheries in Alaska. In fact, almost no scientific career so fully mirrors the evolution of U.S. federal fisheries research as Bill’s, beginning with his broad assortment  of basic biological field studies in the freshwaters of Alaska under the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to the NOAA Fisheries’ management-focused ecosystem-level studies in the international waters of the North Pacific. 

Over the span of more than five decades in fishery science, Bill played a pre-eminent role in developing our understandings of salmon biology, aquaculture, and ocean ecology in Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean.  His sustained excellence in scientific achievement is illustrated by his contributions over four periods: the founding of the Alaskan salmon aquaculture industry (1961– 73); the ratification of the Pacific Salmon Treaty (1973– 85); the publication of the definitive work on life history of pink salmon (1991); and the series of annual pink salmon harvest forecasts in Southeast Alaska (1999 – 2012).

Founding of the Alaskan salmon aquaculture industry (1961–74)
Bill recognized early in his career that not all Pacific salmon species are abundant in all areas of Alaska and that annual abundances fluctuated widely. While Southeast Alaska (an area the size of California) often has an abundance of the relatively low-priced pink salmon, it has few sources of the more highly-valued coho and Chinook salmon, which are so prized by commercial and sports fishers.  The pioneering aquaculture research conducted by Bill and his associates at NOAA’s Little Port Walter (LPW) research facility was so successful that it resulted in the production of commercial quantities of coho salmon and was a key factor in the 1974 decision of the Alaska State Legislature to authorize the private nonprofit (PNP) aquaculture industry to conduct ocean ranching of salmon. The enormous positive economic impact of the PNP industries in Alaska today is exemplified by the year 2008 when PNP operations in Southeast Alaska generated a total economic output of $233 million, including 821 jobs with a $39 million payroll. 

Ratification of the Pacific Salmon Treaty (1974 – 85)
Negotiations for the international treaty between the United States and Canada on the conservation, equitable harvest sharing, and enhancement of Pacific salmon were stymied for years not only by U.S.-Canadian differences, but also by opposing interests of Alaska and those of the rest of the salmon-producing United States. Because relatively few Chinook salmon were locally produced in southeastern Alaska, Bill and state scientists conducted research at LPW on the feasibility of using aquaculture to increase Alaskan Chinook salmon production. The success of the LPW research in developing brood lines based on Alaska stocks allowed negotiators to seal a deal in which reductions in Alaska’s harvest of migratory Chinook would be substantially offset by increases in production of Alaskan Chinook, thereby removing one of the major road blocks to ratification.  The Pacific Salmon Treaty was ratified in 1985, and it continues to be the ultimate management forum for preventing overharvest of North American Chinook salmon.  

Life history of pink salmon (1991)
In another honor, Bill was selected by his colleagues to write the chapter on pink salmon in the definitive 1991 book Pacific Salmon Life Histories, published by University of British Columbia Press.

Annual forecast of pink salmon harvest (1999 – 2012)
Bill’s understanding of pink salmon biology led to a breakthrough in forecasting annual harvests to the benefit of the salmon fishing industries in Alaska. Prior to 2004, forecasts of annual harvest were made by a standard stock-recruitment  model that relied on knowledge of abundance of spawners. That model lacked the level of precision desired by industry and fishery managers for pre-season planning because early marine survival normally controls year-class strength in pink salmon, independent of spawning stock size. Bill and his team launched an investigation in 1999 into the relation between early marine pink salmon stock size and subsequent harvest. From 2004 to 2012 Auke Bay Lab’s forecast  estimates deviated from the actual harvests by an average of 7% with only one exception. The 2006 forecast was more than twice the actual harvest, serving as a reminder that later marine survival can sometimes determine year-class strength.

The staff at the Center and Auke Bay Labs wish Bill the very best in his retirement.

By Phil Mundy

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