Lee Alverson has completed a memoir that chronicles his participation as researcher, bureaucrat and consultant in the dramatic transition of the U.S. and global fisheries.

Share story

Marine biologist Lee Alverson thought his first trip aboard a Pacific trawler back in 1949 might well be his last. Awakened in the early morning by a violent pitching, he feared the boat was sinking. So, he threw on his pants and rushed to the galley.

There, he found the crew savoring Canadian Club and coffee in another rough but routine passage over the Columbia River Bar.

“I sat down and the crewman at the table passed me the bottle of whiskey without saying a word,” Alverson, a longtime Normandy Park resident, recalls. “I picked up the bottle … and took a drink although it didn’t go down easy.”

For the next several days, Alverson was introduced to an astonishing diversity of red, rose, orange brown and black rock fish hauled up aboard the decks, and then largely discarded because there was no market for them.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Key moment

It was a pivotal moment in the young biologist’s career, which redirected him from a focus on salmon to the largely unexplored world of Pacific rockfish, hake, cod, pollock and other groundfish.

Alverson’s career has spanned more than a half century as he helped document the scope of the marine resources, and later tried to protect them from overharvest by foreign and U.S. fleets.

Along the way, Alverson emerged as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential fishery biologists. At the age of 84, he has completed a memoir, “Race to The Sea,” that chronicles his participation in the dramatic transition of the U.S. and global fisheries.

As a researcher, bureaucrat and industry consultant. Alverson has had a close-up view of the evolving science and often vicious politics of the fisheries. He relished the firsthand knowledge gained joining a fishing crew at sea or mingling with them at a dockside coffee shop even as he traveled to Europe, Japan and the former Soviet Union to help negotiate fishing agreements.

“We used to say he got his hands wet,” said Stanton H. Patty, a former marine reporter for The Seattle Times. “There were a lot of biologists who would just sit in the office. Lee was always on top of the situation, and a jump ahead of everybody else.”

Alverson grew up in a Navy family, and followed his father on a series of assignments that included several years in Hilo, Hawaii, during the Great Depression.

For Alverson this was one of the best times of his life. He and his brother, outfitted with a small outrigger canoe, would catch parrot fish, puffers and other sea life.

As a federal biologist based in Seattle during the 1950s, Alverson launched ambitious research explorations of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska fisheries.

Alerting industry

His publications were intended to alert the U.S. fishing industry to the vast potential of these resources. But as Alverson headed off to international fishing conferences he realized that they also had helped draw a new generation of Soviet and Asian factory fleets to fish off U.S. coasts.

“That didn’t make me feel very good, and I quickly realized that we didn’t have any management, and we didn’t have any control,” Alverson said.

In the 1970s, Alverson was involved in international negotiations to try to track the foreign harvests as angry U.S. fishermen pressed for new federal legislation that would give the U.S. government fishery controls over a 200-mile area off the nation’s coasts.

The State Department, fearing the diplomatic repercussions of claiming that zone and pushing out foreign fleets, was opposed to the extension.

At a 1971 meeting in Geneva, Alverson dared suggest that the U.S. was “out of the loop” in opposing the 200-mile limit, and he said he was told by a State Department aide that he could be arrested if he promoted an idea out of step with U.S. policy.

In 1976, Congress stepped in to pass legislation to create the bigger fishery zone and set up federal fishery councils to help set harvests. A decade later, foreign fleets were on their way out, and a new series of bitter allocation battles flared among U.S. fishermen.

Alverson’s book also offers a few inside glimpses of the life of a fishery-conference delegate. There was, for example, an unnamed director of The Scripps Institute of Oceanography who drank so much at dinner during the Geneva meeting that he ended up asleep, face down, on his plate.

During the last 20 years, most of the fishing stocks in Alaska have held up well, sustaining the largest fishery by far in North America.

Alverson says the success is, in part, due to the industry’s support for scientists who worked on Alaska fisheries. That helped the regional council to set harvest limits well within the conservation recommendations.

Decline in harvests

That didn’t happen in New England, where fish harvests have declined dramatically. There also have been major problems in harvests off Oregon and Washington. He and other scientists initially underestimated the age and growth of some rockfish species, so the harvest rates were too high.

Another big problem, Alverson, said, was the enormous amount of fish thrown away at sea.

Today, Alverson and his wife, Ruby, live in Normandy Park in a house he first moved into back in 1951. It’s just a block from Puget Sound, where he often likes to stroll the shore.

Earlier this week, he shared morning coffee with friends at Chinook’s at Fishermen’s Terminal in Magnolia. He brought along a half dozen copies of his book.

Everybody at the table bought them.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.