Farewell to Lee Alverson
Remembering a great mentor in marine science, policy, and life
By Brad Warren
When I started out as a rookie correspondent for National Fisherman, I had no idea how fortunate I was to be taken under Lee Alverson’s wing. I am reasonably sure he preferred it that way.
At 19 I found work as a cub reporter for a weekly paper on San Juan Island, near the Canadian border in Washington. My landlord, boss, postmaster, and many neighbors fished commercially, and the Northwest’s salmon fisheries were falling around their ears, echoing the ruin of Columbia River runs that had driven my grandparents from the life they loved. People on the island encouraged me to investigate these losses in a series of articles. Not knowing any better, I jumped right in. Soon an editor at National Fisherman called, and I began freelancing nights and weekends for the magazine.
When they tired of hours of troublesome queries, some of my wisest sources took advantage of the pause while I scribbled furiously, and devised a brilliant escape: Lee Alverson. Soon every knowledgeable finger pointed to the eminent fisheries scientist and marine policy leader in Seattle.
As a young writer I learned that Doc would unfailingly steer me straight. He had at least hundreds of protégés—some say thousands— and it seemed to come naturally for him to coach me in the fundamentals of fishery management and science. He would pull books off the wall and hand them to me, or send me to his favorite librarians at Seattle’s two NOAA science centers or the University of Washington to hunt down titles and references. Sometimes he added a request for a reference he needed too.
Lee’s instructions began with material that will be familiar to fisheries scientists and managers: Beverton and Holt, Ricker, Pontecorvo, Crutchfield, and more. In fact it was Jim Crutchfield (who had a second home on San Juan Island), who first introduced me to Lee. I would often catch Lee for only a few minutes before he flew out to meetings in Tokyo or Anchorage or Washington DC. Sometimes he would emerge from his office, hand me one of his in-press papers, and then stride away. His parting words would be, “Read this and we’ll talk in two weeks.”
Over the years the study list widened, taking in stacks of gray literature as my assignments on fishery resource management swelled. Lee directed me to reports from the National Academy of Sciences, the Stratton Commission, the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fishery management councils, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the UW Fisheries Research Institute, federal court rulings in U.S. v. Washington, proceedings from the U.N. Law of the Sea negotiations, and publications by his colleagues in universities and agencies around the world. Over time, Lee also introduced me to scientists and fisheries leaders from Alaska to Norway, Japan, and Australia.
This relation of master and pupil continued for more than three decades, until Lee’s death in January 2013 at the age of 88. I was slow to realize that I had lucked into a mentor who didn’t just know a lot; he was one of the most influential figures in the last half century of marine science and policy. But Lee never seemed to mind. He relished the chance to shed his titles and show a kid the ropes.
Skipping the formalities, Lee would often slip through the back conference room door from his office to chat and visit the magazine archives. In these visits I noticed that Lee took a sly delight in snatching up an office cookie or two: unpoliced by people who revered him and worried over his health.
It was more than Norwegian modesty that kept Lee from touting his own accomplishments. For one thing, his work was so widely recognized—Google Scholar now lists 11,600 works that reference his publications—that horn-tooting would have been redundant. When he died, colleagues at the marine science and policy firm he started, Natural Resources Consultants (NRC), phoned the Seattle Times to pay for a standard obituary. The editors waved them away and assigned a senior journalist, Hal Bernton, to cover the story.
Lee was a committed egalitarian. One of his noted pupils was Wally Pereyra (an AIFRB fellow), who first encountered him in 1959 during a research cruise in the Chukchi Sea. He saw Lee “Treat everyone with value from the crewmen on fishing boats to the pre-eminent fishery scientist of that period.” Later, Wally became a trusted lieutenant to Lee at the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Lee’s response to a new era of federal equal opportunity policies made an impression on him: “Lee embraced this 100%. He made certain that our organizations at the Center participated, and participated in a meaningful way.” As Jeff June, vice president of NRC, put it, some of Lee’s protégés now run fisheries agencies and research institutes around the world.
In many ways, Lee’s life story was so prodigious and protean that a cynic might be forgiven for wondering if it sprung from the pages of a mid-20th-century comic book. But that was when Lee came of age, and in many ways he lived up to the era’s dreams. It was a time when a boy and his friends could go spelunking near their homes in Hawaii and find a cave unknown to science (as Lee did); when he could study fisheries after the war and soon land a contract to assess the possible consequences of Edward Teller’s dream of using atomic bombs to blast open a new harbor in Yupik hunting grounds along the Chukchi Sea; when the Stratton Commission could earnestly announce that the oceans’ bounty would feed the world’s hungry millions; when Lee and his staff could explore the Northeast Pacific in small vessels and define foundational methods for modern fishery resource assessments (Alverson and Pereyra 1969); when their findings could inspire the construction of massive new fleets to harvest these resources, including the Russian and Japanese factory fleets that he later worked to restrain and eventually exile from U.S. waters. He is often described as one of the fathers of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
When extended jurisdiction alone proved insufficient, Lee worked to rein in the consequences of unchecked fishing. Starting in the early 1990s, these efforts help to usher in a succession of initiatives by industry, conservation groups, and governments that appeared to be starting to turn the tide, at least in parts of the world, by the end of his life.
Lee’s resume captures only a spare outline of the history he helped to shape. Lee served as a University of Washington fisheries professor, director of the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, and acting director of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. In 1980, he left the federal service to found Natural Resources Consultants (NRC). He was called upon as an advisor to the U.S. State Department, to heads of state and ministers of foreign nations, to bankers trying to assess risk in their fisheries portfolios, to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, to fishing leaders trying to steer the industry toward better management of its own conflicts and excesses. It often seemed that if you were tasked to assemble a panel of eminent experts to sort out tough issues in oceans and fisheries, you had to get Lee Alverson.
A few notable habits of mind illuminated Lee’s life. His joyful curiosity, his constructive insights, his mischievous knack for camaraderie, and his appetite for big questions gave his career an improbably wide scope. If anything, Lee’s experience during World War II carried him even further beyond the bell curve. He became a Navy radioman behind Japanese lines in occupied China. It will suffice here to note that he picked up enough Chinese language to negotiate and conduct secret missions, to resolve life-threatening conflicts between misbehaving U.S. servicemen and their infuriated Chinese hosts, and to become a favored dinner guest of China’s national leaders at the end of the war.
That stature followed him for the rest of his life. Decades after he had returned from China, married his sweetheart Ruby, got an education, raised a family, and risen in marine science, Lee would travel occasionally to Taiwan. He would return with tales from dinner with the head of state. On one occasion, the U.S. vice president, who had been seated far down the table, demanded to know why Lee was sitting next to the nation’s leader. Lee answered with a happy shrug: “U.S. Navy.”
Just as the young radioman had done, the mature crafter of fisheries science and policy made himself indispensible and often beloved in research centers, world capitals, boardrooms, fishing docks, and newsrooms. Lee freely crossed so many fences that people working with him needed a pocketful of nicknames and formalities just to keep up. He answered to Lee, or Doc, or Dr. A, or Dayton Lee Alverson, or Dr. Alverson, and probably a handful of other monikers (including some in foreign languages) that I never caught. A few colleagues laughingly called him “the codfather.” Early in his career, Lee had a column in a fishing magazine, which he wrote under a pseudonym. He once confided to me that he took pride in wandering the docks, picking fishermen’s brains, and hearing them talk about his columns without realizing they were talking to the author.
Near the end of his long life, Lee sat down to write about it. I got to see some early drafts, as Lee felt I might be able to help him hammer them into shape. From the text I saw, he hardly needed my advice. His efforts produced two remarkable books: an autobiography, Race to the Sea, and his memoir of World War II. I won’t review these books, as others have already done that, but it would be unfair to ignore them.
At their best, both books take wing in story, revealing yet another surprising gift. The two books embody values that Lee cultivated throughout his life: a gentle sense of humor, a well-tended equanimity, and an unflinching commitment to look squarely at evidence, even when it revealed shortcomings of the modern fisheries era that he did so much to shape.
Lee’s account of the war contained one anecdote that impressed me deeply, even more for the way he told it than the experience itself. He was part of a mixed force of Americans and Chinese advancing through fields on a Japanese stronghold, and he watched American planes come in low overhead. He reported simply that the pilots were confused and strafed their own forces on the ground. Without rancor, recrimination, or judgment, Lee simply stated the facts and moved on to the rest of the story. I don’t know that I could have done that. Aggrieved volumes have been written about similar episodes, and who should have been court marshaled (or not), and how the military should have known better. Lee just wrote it down and let it go.
To title the opening chapter of his autobiography, Lee distilled a grand swath of his philosophy into three words: “Opportunity to Live.” In the first lines, he joyfully poked fun at himself, his professional caution about data sources, and the rhetoric of fisheries management:
“Dayton Lee Alverson, I have been told, was born to George D. and Edith M. Alverson at the naval hospital in San Diego on October 7,1924, smack in the middle of the roaring twenties. I haven’t looked at my birth certificate, but it seems to me that the biomass was about eight pounds, a weight that would grow substantially over the years. As my early formative years are well beyond my capacity to recall, the following notes on my early life history are mostly the product of hearsay.”
By the time I got to know him, these habits of mind were profound. So were his ethics. It made a big impression among fishermen when Lee turned down Exxon’s money after the Valdez oil spill, when the oil company came looking for scientific consultants. Yet Lee and his partners at NRC refused equally to help fishermen overplay their hand as victims of that disaster.
Most of my work with Lee occurred during the last 20 years of his life, when the fishing industry had largely finished the race to the sea that extended jurisdiction had unleashed. Having learned how to harvest the available resource, the world needed to learn how to keep from wearing it out. In his last two decades, Lee poured his prodigious professional energies into strengthening fishery management worldwide: curtailing overfishing, reducing bycatch and regulatory discards, and even assessing the habitat consequences of modern mobile-gear fisheries. In 1992 I watched as Lee and a handful of leaders in the fishing industry and management agencies pulled together the National Industry Bycatch Workshop, held in Newport, Oregon. That meeting led to the publication of a tome by Lee and three co-authors who surveyed the world’s fisheries and crafted the first comprehensive assessment of fisheries bycatch and discards. Lee then served for the rest of his life as chairman of a nonprofit thinktank, the National Fisheries Conservation Center, that a group of us created to pursue the axiom of collaborative problem-solving that Lee had helped to define. A few years later, when Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund launched a new global initiative to apply market pressures to curtail overfishing, Lee became one of the drafters who developed the standards by which the Marine Stewardship Council would certify fisheries.
Lee felt personally accountable for the well-known failures of fishery management. In his autobiography, he noted that he had come of age at a time when the ocean was viewed as a frontier that would “provide the needed protein for the growing world population. It all seemed romantic and encouraging, but this optimism has long faded. More recently, the oceans have been characterized as a global cesspool for a variety of human waste, a dying biological system whose living resources have been contaminated, overexploited, and depleted. More and more species are said to be threatened with extinction. There is a modicum of overkill in some of these assertions; nevertheless, there is enough truth in them that it is not a very encouraging story to pass on to my grandchildren.”
Few people anywhere have done so much to ensure that those grandchildren (and everyone else) will still have fish to enjoy.