Centennial Story 80: Steve Ralston (PhD, 1981)

Oh my, where do I start? I suppose I should begin in 1975 as I’m completing my MS thesis at the University of Hawaii (UH), studying the life history of a butterflyfish. At the time, I was fully submerged in reef fish ecology and thought Peter Sale’s lottery hypothesis was “the thing.” I was hoping to continue on to get a PhD, perhaps at Scripps or the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, a new faculty member had recently joined the Zoology Department at UH, and I had taken his fisheries seminar. Tim Smith (PhD, Biotstat, 1973)­­ encouraged me to apply to the UW and to consider a career with NMFS. So I went off to Seattle in 1976 with the idea of studying Hawaiian reef fish recruitment using SCUBA and artificial reefs, a plan that was not surprisingly a difficult sell. I was the tropical outlier that few members of the faculty were willing to entertain. Would I consider Alaska and/or perhaps salmon?

Observing walleye pollack aboard the Nissan Maru No.2
Observing walleye pollack aboard the Nissan Maru No.2

As I was pondering the problem, I lost my Center for Quantitative Science TA-ship in spring quarter 1977 due to a lack of funding. Having completed only two quarters of study, I was unable to afford out-of-state tuition. The timing was propitious however, because the Magnuson-Stevens Act had just been passed, and observers were needed to quantify bycatch in the Japanese fishery for walleye pollock in the Bering Sea. So I signed up with NMFS and spent 74 continuous days at sea on the Nissan Maru No. 2, the largest fishing vessel in the world at the time. What an epiphany this experience was for me. I became very appreciative of the large scale of fisheries impacts and the need for management to protect things.

I returned to my studies at the College of Fisheries in fall quarter 1977 and, once again, the timing was perfect. A large-scale marine and terrestrial research program was developing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study the area. Several agencies were involved, including the NMFS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, and Sea Grant Hawaii. I prepared a proposal for submission to Sea Grant to study the Hawaiian deep-sea handline fishery for bottomfish, including especially the deepwater snapper opakapaka.

Opakapaka (Pristipomoides filamentosus), a pricey Hawaiian bottomfish.
Opakapaka (Pristipomoides filamentosus), a pricey Hawaiian bottomfish.

Simultaneously, I brought together my dissertation committee chaired by Bud Burgner, who to his credit, supported my desire to return to Hawaii to pursue my research. The grant was funded and I was contracted to the Fisheries Research Institute at the UW, which hired me for three years to do the work. I was admitted to candidacy and returned to Honolulu with funding in spring 1978. Moreover, because the NMFS Honolulu Laboratory was very interested in my research, Richard Shomura provided me with an office and full support for the next three years as I completed my field work. I returned to Seattle, defended my dissertation in the summer of 1981, and was hired by NMFS Honolulu shortly thereafter. While working at the Lab, I continued work in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, was involved in a resource assessment of the Mariana Archipelago, and studied deepwater caridean shrimp.

Beginning my career with NMFS Honolulu in 1982.
Beginning my career with NMFS Honolulu in 1982.

Having started a family and wanting to return to the mainland, I transferred to the NMFS Tiburon Laboratory on San Francisco Bay in 1988, where Bill Lenarz (MS, 1966; PhD, 1969) gave me responsibility for running a midwater trawl survey for pelagic juvenile rockfish. The survey was designed to estimate pre-recruit abundance to forecast impending recruitment. I was back to my original interest in studying recruitment. Then, following Lenarz’s retirement in 1996, I started doing committee work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Groundfish Management Team and Scientific and Statistical Committee, [SSC]) and completing groundfish stock assessments. At one point while chairing the SSC, I found myself on thin ice with the Council for my participation in the “Groundfish Players” video, produced by Milton Love for the 2008 West Coast Groundfish Conference. Fortunately, I recovered from the scandal and my standing was restored. To the end, I found working with the Council to incorporate our best available science in the management of West Coast fisheries to be very gratifying and rewarding. Now retired, I’m enjoying travel, volunteering, cooking, music, family, and friends.

As a member of the Groundfish Players.
As a member of the Groundfish Players.
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