Centennial Story 23: Jose Villalon (MS, 1981)

After a BS degree in Biology from Florida International University in 1979, I went to work for my father for six months while thinking about graduate school. UW came to my attention because it was rated in the top three aquaculture schools in the USA. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a marine biologist and thought aquaculture was the “way of the future”. I therefore packed my belongings, including my pet Quaker parrot, Balboa, into my CJ-5 Jeep and drove to Seattle. It took about 8-days with 5-days of actual driving and 3-days repairing mechanical failures. It took about three days walking the waterfront’s white-linen restaurant area and filling out job applications at all the restaurants before I got a job at the Fisherman’s Restaurant. Those three days were hungry days as I had little money; my meals were basically sourdough bread and coca cola – a combination that filled me up.

I went to the College of Fisheries to try to meet the Dean of Admissions. He told me they were not accepting more students and my only option was to enroll as a 5th-year student, which I did. I then went looking for Ken Chew who had written me a nice and potentially promising letter. He heard my story and could not believe that I had driven across the USA without a promise of being accepted! My naivety impressed him so much that he wrote the Dean of Admissions, which led to me arguing my case for possible admission. He accepted my arguments and authorized a change to my 5th-year status to “applicable for graduation”, contingent on being accepted into the Graduate School as a full-time student.

As I started taking two classes, I met John Halver, the world’s undisputed “father of fish nutrition”.  I was really hungry to learn more because I thought nutrition must be the key to efficient aquaculture. I started visiting him in his office and asking questions about fish nutrition and one day he said; “Why don’t you do a Master’s program with me?”

I owe a lot to John Halver; he accepted me, taught me to think critically and always ask; why? He was always supportive and ready to offer advice, solicited or unsolicited! He opened many doors for me throughout my career. George Pigott and George Brown rounded out my MS Committee. George helped me obtain a small but important scholarship to defray my academic costs.

I met a lot of incredible people during my two years at the UW, including Ron Hardy (PhD 1978; now at Hagerman Idaho’s Fish Laboratory). Barbee Tucker (MS, 1974; PhD, 1983), Nancy Heck (PhD, 1983) and Dick Stockard (MS, 1983) all studied under George Pigott and we collaborated on projects; in particular, the development of pre-digested protein flake diets for marine fish larvae. Dan Grosse (MS, 1982; PhD, 1994) and Jeff Laufle (MS, 1982) shared some classes with me and we became friends. Dan went on to own an oyster farm in Maryland and Jeff is now retired after a successful career with Washington State Dept. of Fisheries. I also remain friends today with Jim Buizer (MMA, 1984) which was a graduate student at the School of Marine Affairs. Jim went on to become a scientist and administrator at NOAA and is now a professor at the University of Arizona.

After graduating, I began a career as a shrimp farmer. John Halver was instrumental in setting me up for my first job interview with a company where he was consulting, Worldwide Protein, Inc in St. Croix Virgin Islands. After two years there, I went to Guayaquil Ecuador with an American company who were exporting shrimp. I remained in Ecuador for 12 years managing their 1,000 hectares of shrimp farms, a hatchery and a feed mill. I wrote a shrimp farming manual in 1991 that was well received by the industry and remains in use today. I married, had a daughter, and then moved to Mexico for 12 years working for a variety of shrimp farming operations; our son was born there.

Mexico became too violent to raise a family so I took job with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to lead their global aquaculture program. I managed WWF’s ambitious and global multi-stakeholder initiative called the Aquaculture Dialogues, which involved 2,200 stakeholders from the farming community, food retailer sector, NGOs, academia and government creating environmental/social standards for 12 species in the aquaculture industry, including farmed salmon, shrimp, and tilapia. WWF then asked me to set up an independent NGO to manage the certification process for a business-to-consumer ecolabel. I then created and co-founded the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) with partners in The Netherlands. Today, the ASC is the most credible and robust environmental aquaculture standard in the world. Establishing the ASC was probably the most rewarding professional experience and accomplishment in my career.  Later I joined Nutreco in The Netherlands as its Corporate Sustainability Director.

My take-away? -When you’re not the “sharpest knife in the room” you can still come out on top if you’re persistent and not afraid to plead your case. This experience made me aware of that. Granted, I had a lot of good luck and found myself surrounded by really good people, but I did my part to make things happen and things eventually fell into place. Albeit an insecure place where I may have been the first person to predict failure –but the quilt was woven ultimately well.





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