Big fish: NOAA scientist marks 50 years of service

Fisheries biologist Bill Heard's vocation and avocation are the same

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

Even though NOAA scientist Bill Heard has innumerable fish stories to tell, both as a recreational fisherman and as a research biologist at Auke Bay Laboratories, he'll likely keep them to himself.

Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

"Everybody has fish stories, but people ask me, 'How many fish have you caught, Heard?' And my standard answer, regardless if it's been really good or bad, is 'Not enough,'" he said.

Last week this modest fisheries biologist marked 50 years in Federal fisheries research, mostly in the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"I don't know why everybody makes a fuss about it," he said of his benchmark. "It's not just me but other folks, too."

While Heard, 76, has served the longest of anyone currently employed at Auke Bay Laboratories, Bruce Wing served 47 years and Jack Helle retired in 2008 with 49 years of service. Three other recent retirees, Richard Wilmot, Jerry Taylor and Alex Wertheimer, had a combined history in Alaskan salmon research of 111 years.

"Auke Bay Laboratories has extraordinary scientific and institutional knowledge as a result of the long and productive careers common to the community of scientists in which Bill Heard now holds the record," said Dr. Phil Mundy, director of Auke Bay Laboratories.

"Auke Bay Lab's exceptional rates of retention are shown by the fact that more than 50 percent of its 71 permanent staff have been on the job at least 20 years, 18 percent more than 30 years and four percent more than 40 years."

"This has been a challenging and rewarding place to work over the years," Heard said. "Alaska fisheries science has always been an exciting field. People get very emotional and committed to it.

"There is kind of a strange bond between humans and fish. People get very passionate about fish and fishing."

This western Oklahoma native, who grew up running alongside small streams and rivers chasing fish, understands this special bond more than most.

"My vocation and avocation, coincidentally and fortunately, happens to be the same," Heard said. "Fishes in general are one of the most numerous and abundant vertebrate species. They're very diverse."

At work, Heard oversees nine other scientists as program manager for the Marine Salmon Interactions Program, a multi-faceted program focusing on stock assessments of salmon within their ecosystems. He also manages and directs research at the Little Port Walter Marine Station and another fuel station at Auke Creek.

"For a half century, Bill has been building a scientific legacy that has helped lay the basis for greater understanding of marine life in Alaska, especially salmon," said Douglas DeMaster, director of NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "His work has informed the decisions of fisheries managers for many years, and all for the better."

With his boundless energy, constant good humor, consummate professionalism and prodigious output of more than 60 scientific publications, Heard has been an inspiration to four generations of Alaskan scientists.

Heard's first assignment in Alaska was in 1958 as a graduate student at Brooks Lake in Bristol Bay. He returned to Brooks Lake in 1960 with a permanent job as a fisheries biologist studying sockeye salmon and other fishes in the Naknek River system.

In 1965, his work began in Southeast Alaska at Little Port Walter researching pink, coho and Chinook salmon life histories and stock enhancement.

Since the 1980s, he has managed the MSI program, which includes:

• year-round research at the Little Port Water Marine Station on Lower Baranof Island focusing on stock enhancement technologies, hatchery-wild stock interactions, life history and genetics studies on Chinook salmon and steelhead;

• research at Auke Creek Station on the Juneau road system which provides a long-term data set on survival of seven anadromous salmonid species;

• inshore and coastal ecological surveys on juvenile salmon in Southeast Alaska;

• and laboratory research on code wire tag data and on the diet and energetics of salmon.

Heard has served on a number of federal, state and international advisory groups and panels, including the Governor's Fishery Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s that developed the framework for the successful stock enhancement hatchery program in Alaska today. He also is past-president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. He remains active in North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission and Pacific Salmon Commission technical committees, and is on the Aquaculture Panel for the United States and Japan Cooperative Program in Natural Resources.

Heard works mainly from the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point in Juneau, where, I must say, he has a phenomenal view of the fishies from his office desk.

As for the R-word?

"As far as sitting-down-rocking-chair retiring, no way," Heard said. "There's too many more exciting things to do - chasing some more fish, maybe catching a really big one, big salmon, big Chinook, some day."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at

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