Centennial Story 4: John C. Field (PhD, 2004)

I began my fisheries career in Santa Cruz, California, when I took a night job as a deckhand on a local fishing boat while also taking a course in biological oceanography from the University of California Santa Cruz.  The course included a section on climate variability and the impact on fisheries resources, with a focus on the classic story of the rise and fall of both the California sardine fishery and the Peruvian anchoveta fishery.  The fishing boat was called “La Dulce Vita,” and the captain was a 70-year-old Italian fisherman who had experienced the collapse, as well as the then nascent recovery, of the California sardine firsthand.  These combined perspectives set the hook in me for a career in fisheries science and management, and the fisheries biologists to whom I talked made it clear that the University of Washington was the best place to start to pursue such a career.

John Field kissing a “king-of-the-salmon” (Trachipterus altivelis) on a West Coast bottom trawl survey, 2000.

Arthur McEvoy’s classic book, “The Fisherman’s Problem,” had inspired me to better understand how fishery science informed fisheries management, and thus I started at the School of Marine Affairs, with a plan to keep a hand in science by working with Bob Francis at SAFS on a paleoecology project that he and PhD student Diego Holmgren were just launching.  The following summer Bob arranged for a whirlwind of field work throughout Alaska to search for other potential sites for similar work.  With a small gravity coring tool, I joined a Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey to core Pavlof Bay and spent a week gillnetting sockeye on the Port Moller test fishery to sample nearby Herendeen Bay. I also worked on a halibut longliner out of Kodiak Island, sampling several promising bays and inlets in between setting and retrieving the gear.  Although none of our locations ultimately proved promising, it was amazing to have the chance to use so many different types of fieldwork in some of the most beautiful and productive waters on the planet.

My curriculum at the time was a joint program comprised of fisheries science and fisheries management and included the FISH 456/457/458 series (with Gunderson, Schwartzman, and Hilborn, respectively) as well as several case studies in fisheries management led by Ellen Pikitch and Bob Francis.  After completing that program, I went a very different direction and completed a Knauss Sea Grant fellowship in Washington, DC. That experience put me squarely at the intersection of science and policy.  We held hearings on implementation of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, on the collapse of West Coast groundfish populations, and on the West Coast dungeness crab fishery.  As I wrapped up my year on Capitol Hill, the Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel (EPAP) produced a report on ecosystem-based fisheries management that had been requested by Congress in the Sustainable Fisheries Act, and which included Bob Francis and Chair Dave Fluharty (SMA) among the panel members.  Although my master’s degree had given me a taste of fisheries science and modeling, the report inspired me to go back for more, and I lined up a project working with Bob to accomplish many of the recommendations of the EPAP report for the fisheries of the California Current.

I was very fortunate to start this work just as Kerim Aydin (PhD, 2000) was finishing his dissertation research and starting a comparable analysis at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.  He was a pillar of sanity in the otherwise nearly absurd effort to condense such a complex and dynamic ecosystem into a modest set of bioenergetics and food habits matrices.  Vera Agostini began her dissertation research in the Francis lab in the same year, with the objective of better understanding the drivers of variable productivity and distribution of Pacific sardine and Pacific hake.  We both took the opportunity to complete not only our SAFS courses, but also classic courses in the School of Oceanography, such as Barbara Hickey’s course in the Oceanography of the California Current and Bruce Frost’s Biological Oceanography.  As for my research, my fieldwork took place in the library, where the deep dive into decades of literature became a fascinating journey through all of the components of this complex ecosystem.

Rewarding as that was, ultimately one needs a job, and an opportunity arose at the Southwest Fishery Science Center (SWFSC) in Santa Cruz, in their new lab built just over a mile from where I grew up.  I joined Steve Ralston (SAFS PhD, 1981) and others in Santa Cruz to develop stock assessments of West Coast groundfish. Presently, I’m a member of the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, with no small number of other SAFS alums and affiliates.  I continue to support groundfish stock assessments, as well as run the SWFSC’s Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey.  The dedication and support of SAFS faculty and my fellow students, as well as those of the School of Marine Affairs and School of Oceanography, gave me a foundation of knowledge and abilities that would have been nearly impossible to find elsewhere, and it is particularly rewarding to stay in touch with my fellow SAFS alums who continue working successfully throughout academic, agency, and management arenas.


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