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Ken Sherman: Plankton Biologist With A Global Perspective

April 23, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people who helped build the foundation of fisheries and marine science. Meet Ken Sherman, 60-year NOAA Fisheries employee, now retired but still working on global fisheries.

Ken Sherman at the waters edge. Credit: Michael Clarke, Suffolk University

Ken Sherman’s long career began with a fascination with fish at an early age. He was born in 1932 and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, where he spent time as a boy with his father at the Boston Fish Pier, watching the fishermen bringing in their catch. Although he intended to get a law degree while at Suffolk University, a mentor steered him  toward his earlier interest in marine biology. He graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences.

Not long after, he visited Woods Hole and applied for a job at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. While waiting for an opening, he taught science in elementary schools in western Massachusetts for the Audubon Society, taking live animals from school to school. In 1956 he was offered an entry-level biological position at the federal fisheries laboratory in Woods Hole. Turns out his application had been forwarded from the oceanographic institution down the street. His job: interviewing fishermen at the dock and collecting data on fish.

While working at the fish pier he took classes in marine ecology at Boston University, and later applied for an Office of Naval Research fellowship at the University of Rhode Island. He was accepted into the master’s degree program in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. He worked under mentors Charles and Marie Poland Fish as one of five Navy-supported fellows.

After graduating in 1959 and waiting for a fishery research position to open, Sherman took a position as a biology teacher at Randolph High School. At the end of his first year of teaching, a biological research position with the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries opened in Hawaii. He jumped at the chance, and with his wife Roberta, also a teacher, moved to Honolulu for three years.

A 60-Year Fisheries Career

Ken Sherman at work in his office.
Ken Sherman in his office at the Narragansett Laboratory, working on Large Marine Ecosystems research. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

His work would later take him to Boothbay Harbor, Maine; Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; and Narragansett, Rhode Island. He focused on different topics at each location, from fish sounds, plankton distributions, and young herring used in the Maine sardine fishery, to the management of fish stocks off the U.S. East Coast. His interests began to expand beyond plankton and fish species to much broader views of the entire ecosystem, including oceanography and fisheries management.

Sherman worked for ten years at the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Lab in Boothbay Harbor. He made a number of coastal surveys along the Maine coast aboard the R/V Rorqual, a 65-foot converted army vessel. He towed plankton nets of various types to collect and document the distribution of copepods and lobster larvae. He also mentored cooperative education students from Northeastern University in marine science.

The creation of NOAA in 1970 opened a new career path for Sherman that combined research and long-term multidisciplinary planning. Recruited to Washington, D.C., Sherman helped plan the integration of the new National Marine Fisheries Service into NOAA, merging the operations of individual labs around the country into the network of fisheries science centers we have today. After two years, he returned to Rhode Island as leader of the fishery ecology group and the first director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Narragansett Laboratory.

Sherman played a major role in developing and implementing a national systematic survey of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and ichthyoplankton in 1974. The Marine Resources Monitoring and Assessment Program ran for more than a decade until 1988. He established a regional office for that program at the Narragansett Laboratory and served as national coordinator. He launched a version on the Northeast continental shelf from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras. Today’s successor to that program is the Ecosystem Monitoring Program, also located at the Narragansett Laboratory.

Developing A Global Perspective

In 1984, together with professor Lewis Alexander from the University of Rhode Island, Sherman came up with the concept of “large marine ecosystems,” or LMEs. It is a way to manage large areas of the ocean by identifying distinct ecosystems based on their bathymetry, currents, productivity and food webs. The Northeast continental shelf is one example. NOAA has supported the concept, and the United Nations has provided funding through its Environmental Programme. A series of volumes have been published, with Sherman as senior or co-editor, detailing the characteristics and state of the 66 LMEs around the world.

LMEs are ecological units made up of estuarine, coastal and offshore waters. Their establishment has given managers, policy makers, and scientists an important tool for addressing the challenges of habitat loss and degradation, pollution, and overfishing. The concept has allowed NOAA and management agencies in other countries to do a better job of protecting and managing marine resources.

Following his tenure as director of the Office of Marine Ecosystems Studies and the Narragansett Lab, Sherman became director of the U.S. Large Marine Ecosystem Program for NOAA, now under the NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology.

The Work Continues

Ken receiving Sweden's Goteborg Award for Sustainable Development.
Ken Sherman was a co-recipient of Sweden’s Göteborg Award for Sustainable Development in 2010. Photo courtesy WinWIn Gothenburg Sustainability Award

Sherman received a D.Sc. degree from the Sea Fisheries Institute in Gdynia, Poland. He was also awarded that institute’s Professor Kazimierz Demel Medal in 1997 for his contributions to fisheries science. Other career honors include:

  • Department of Commerce Gold Medal (2005): the department’s highest honor, awarded to Sherman for “his international leadership in establishing a global network of LMEs using interdisciplinary scientific attributes rather than single species or geopolitical boundaries.”
  • Oscar E. Sette Award (2006): given annually to an outstanding marine fishery biologist by the Marine Fisheries Section of the American Fisheries Society.
  • WIN WIN Göthenburg Sustainability Award (2010): awarded annually in Sweden and considered by many to be the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Sherman was recognized for his lifelong contributions to solutions for sustainable relations with the oceans. He shared the award that year with environmentalist Randall Arauz of Costa Rica.

Ken Sherman retired from NOAA Fisheries in 2019 after 60 years of service. He maintains an office at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. He has served there as an adjunct professor of oceanography for many years and continues his work on large marine ecosystems.

For more information, contact Jerry Prezioso.