Centennial Story 26: Melissa Haltuch (PhD, 2008) and Juan Valero (MS, 2001; PhD, 2011)

Melissa and Juan started their Aquatic and Fishery careers long before moving to Seattle from Ohio and Argentina, respectively, to add School and Sciences. They found much more than that at SAFS.

Melissa (lower right) carrying a john boat up the banks of the Blanchard River following a day of electroschocking fish to understand relationships between fish and endagered freshwater mussels.

Melissa grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, doing undergraduate fieldwork on endangered freshwater mussels, subsequently completing her MS at The Ohio State University (OSU). At OSU, she sat in the Byrd Polar Research Center, where climate and climate change were the principal research topics that seized her interest. While at OSU, she was awarded a National Science Foundation Summer Institute Fellowship to work in Japan, and then a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship to work on fisheries issues at the intersection of science, management, and politics within the US Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation. This perked her interest in applied quantitative fisheries research, leading her to pursue a PhD that integrated her earlier climate interest with fisheries population dynamics. Dr. Pamela Mace (then NMFS), whom Melissa met while working in Washington DC, introduced her to Drs. Richard Methot (NMFS, BS, 1975), André Punt, and Ray Hilborn, who supported her successful application to the NMFS-Sea Grant Fellow in Population Dynamics. Melissa relocated to the University of Washington (UW) during 2002. In Melissa’s own words: “Three things lured me to Seattle: the mountains, the sea, and graduate school, but I had no idea how much I would gain from my time at the UW.” Melissa benefited from being in André’s first cohort of graduate students and from his energy and enthusiasm for teaching. “Collectively, we were probably the least quantitatively trained group of incoming students that André will ever accept into his lab. Given that we needed to build a quantitative skill set quickly, André created a series of special ‘off book’ classes, focused on coding and modeling skills that have since evolved into for-credit courses within SAFS.” The quantitative fisheries community in Seattle is unique in that between SAFS and NMFS there is a critical mass of people thinking about, and working on, state-of-the-art quantitative fisheries issues, making Seattle one of the best places in the world to be working in fisheries. Many of these people are not only intellectual companions and colleagues, but are also friends and family. “To that end, one of the greatest things about SAFS was meeting my husband, Juan Valero, while we were both students,” says Melissa.

Juan was born into a family of fishermen and seafarers, and as such has always being drawn to the sea. Like Melissa, he also grew up by the water, next to the largest fishing harbor in the southwest Atlantic (Mar del Plata, Argentina), and he started his undergraduate work with shellfish (Patagonian scallops). Argentina did not have formal graduate programs in fisheries or quantitative population modeling. Juan actually failed the final exam of the only fisheries class offered by exploring what would happen when departing from the assumption of known natural mortality and invariant by age in a simple cohort equilibrium model—it was time to move! Juan was asked to apply to three universities, yet he only wanted to go to one, it was the UW or BUST—“it took a bit of convincing to get my application submitted.” Juan will forever be grateful for the support not only from Fulbright, but also from other funding sources that supported him during his MS and PhD work, including SAFS, Washington Sea Grant, the William H. Pierre Fellowship, the Floyd E. Ellis Memorial Scholarship, the James and Joy Ellis Scholarship in Fisheries, and the Claire L. and Evelyn S. Egtvedt Fellowship. Moving to Seattle was not easy for Juan, but the SAFS community was more than he could have imagined, with students, post-docs and faculty from what seemed like every corner of the world. Over the years, some of them became part of his family, figuratively and literally. On the one hand, many fellow students (too many to name here), along with mentors like Janet and David Armstrong, Ulrike and Ray Hilborn, and Ana Parma (PhD, 1989) and Lobo Orensanz (PhD, 1988) became dear friends, essentially adopted family. On the other hand, Melissa Haltuch became his wife.

A young Juan (look at that hair!) starting his aquatic and fishery career with his sister and mother in Argentina.


How Melissa and Juan started dating goes beyond the scope of this story; suffice to say it was the “longest, farthest away first date-no-date ever” during a couple of weeks spent hiking around Torres del Paine (Chilean Patagonia) and southern Argentina. Years after returning from that trip, André suggested that Melissa talk with one of Ray’s students about some analyses that could be relevant to her PhD, none other than Juan, wondering if she perhaps knew him…Melissa broke the news that they were actually a couple and living together! André was the last to know!

Melissa and Juan transitioned from student work to post-graduate employment prior to graduation, similar to many other SAFS quantitative students, attesting to both to the high quality of education at SAFS and the need in one of the fields that the School excels in worldwide. Melissa

David Armstrong, Melissa Haltuch, Juan Valero, and Ray Hilborn at a SAFS celebration. Missing from the picture, is a 120lb pig roasting next to Ray to dedicate Ray Troll’s SAFS mural – it was delicious!

began working with the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, where she is assessing groundfish stocks for management, and conducting research on climate and fisheries issues, stock assessment methods, management strategy evaluation, and west coast groundfish transboundary fisheries. She is also a member of the North Pacific Research Board Science Panel. Juan’s transition was not as smooth. He was hired by the International Pacific Halibut Commission during 2008, where he poured his heart and mind into continuing some of the groundbreaking work started there decades ago by some of the giants in the field of fisheries, many of them also SAFS alumni. However, his scientific findings did not support the official view of a rapidly rebuilding stock, instead suggesting that persistent methodological issues had been masking a declining stock, which he suggested should be acknowledged and corrected, while providing alternative methods to do so. His scientific findings were not supported internally, some of his work was censored, and eventually he was fired in 2012 without cause. During this time, support from the SAFS community was crucial to overcoming this professional and personal crisis, starting with Melissa and then spanning informal and formal letters of support and job offers from SAFS alumni, faculty, and staff. Sometimes you can lose your job for doing your job, or you can keep your job and lose your integrity. Well, Juan lost that job, kept his integrity, got up on his feet thanks in great part to the SAFS family and has been vindicated by history. He currently works as an independent fisheries research scientist/consultant focusing on stock assessment, management strategy evaluation and education. He has been involved in international research programs, stock assessments, and management strategy evaluation for industrial, recreational, and artisanal fisheries around the world.

Melissa and Juan are involved in shaping the next generation of SAFS students and future fishery scientists. Melissa is a SAFS affiliate faculty member, serving on graduate student committees, guest lecturing, and teaching classes. Juan is an associated research scientist of the Center for the Advancement of Population Assessment Methodology (CAPAM), where some of his work includes mentoring SAFS students in real world fisheries work. In addition to teaching at SAFS, Melissa and Juan organize fisheries stock assessment and management courses and workshops internationally and maintain international collaborations with institutions in Chile and Argentina.

Melissa and Juan conclude, “SAFS and the Seattle fisheries community have been foundational in making us the people we are today, both as individuals, family, and community. We expect that this influence will extend to our daughter as she grows up in Seattle, exposed to the exceptional community at SAFS.”

Melissa & Juan teaching a stock assessment course in Concepción, Chile


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