Meet Fisheries Biologist Jay Orr

May 13, 2019

Meet NOAA Fisheries Biologist Jay Orr. He's made some remarkable discoveries in the deep waters off Alaska.

Jay Orr, Alaska Fisheries Science Center Researcher

Jay Orr, Alaska Fisheries Science Center Researcher

How are strange fish part of your job?

I work on NOAA Fisheries Groundfish Surveys, specializing in taxonomy. Our first priority is to assess commercially targeted fish. As part of an ecosystem approach to management, we also study species that are ecologically important, such as forage fish. We see a lot of things come up in the survey nets. Midwater species with big teeth, like viperfish and lancetfish, and species that few people have seen, like many recently discovered snailfishes. It is my job to identify them, sometimes for the first time.

What are your particular areas of expertise?

Over time I have worked on rockfish, flatfish, skates, and sandlances. Snailfishes hold a special fascination for me. They are some of the most diverse fishes in Alaska, and among the most adaptable fishes in the world, ranging from the shallow intertidal to deep sea—the deepest of any known vertebrate. Understanding snailfish is important for understanding the evolution of fish and how they adapt to changing environments.

What is a day at work like?

For 25 years I spent one or two months each year at sea in Alaska and off the West Coast. Now I train staff biologists to identify fish and invertebrates (such as crabs) in the field. I identify specimens that are brought back to the lab, prepare guides, and write scientific papers. I work with our collaborators, especially at the University of Washington where our fish specimens are archived.

What do you do when you’re not working?

My wife is a serious home brewer. I like tasting some of the unique beers she creates. We like to travel too. Most recently we toured breweries in Belgium. It was wonderful.

What is the most challenging thing about your job?

When I go out to sea, it is definitely fieldwork, some 16-hour days in difficult weather and sea conditions. Back in the office it is an academic challenge, blending techniques of traditional genetics and morphology with advanced molecular techniques to  identify and better understand how species are related. The recent rapid development of the genetic field is challenging, but also illuminating. For snailfishes, for example, we’ve conducted standard morphological approaches, used molecular “barcoding” techniques for identification, and most recently applied genome-wide techniques to understand global evolutionary relationships.

What is the coolest thing about your job?

New Species! Discovery.

How many new fish species have you discovered?

I’ve named and formally described 24 new species. Of those, 20 were from Alaska. Most were snailfish, but also two eelpouts and a skate. We still have at least 12 more new snailfish species waiting to be described and named.

Orrichthys

The wry snailfish, Careproctus staufferi, was unknown to science until 2016. It was discovered and described by Jay Orr, who named the species after a colleague at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

What are some of the species you named—and how did you choose them?

I name some of them for their features or color: mischievous, comic, peaceful, wry, arbiter, dusty, peach, tomato, whiskered, combed, goldeneye, wrinkle-jaw, and comet snailfishes.

I named some in honor of the Aleut people. For example, Allocareproctus unangas, the goldeneye snailfish, was named after the Unangas people of Atka Island, where the species was discovered.

A few species are named after individual people. The hardheaded snailfish (Lopholiparis flerxi) was affectionately named after a colleague with strong opinions.

You didn’t name any after yourself?

That’s just not done. But there is a new genus of fossil anglerfish discovered by other scientists and named after me: Orrichthys.

Is there one particular discovery that stands out?

The first lot of snailfish we collected in the Aleutians and didn’t know what they were. We ended up with five new species out of one haul, including a new genus. That led to more discoveries, and to my realizing the incredible diversity of the Aleutians. After that I saw new species every time we went to the Aleutians.

Why are the Aleutians so richly biodiverse?

Volcanoes and the intersection of different water bodies make the Aleutians a very dynamic, productive, and varied environment. The islands are also remote and cover a vast area, spanning 1500 miles. It is difficult to comprehend the scale. The factors, weather, currents, and distances also make it challenging to work there.

What led you to this work?

I knew I wanted to be an ichthyologist (a scientist who studies fish) since 6th grade. When I got aquarium fish. Actually, it started with an interest in lizards. When they all died, I filled the tank with water and added fish. That was it for me. I started taking biology classes to learn more about fish.

After school at Wheaton College I went into the army as a Chemical officer for several years, then left to go to graduate school at Auburn. After completing my Masters degree there, I met Ted Pietsch at the University of Washington, beginning a career-long collaboration—we just coauthored a new three-volume set of books, Fishes of the Salish Sea. Under his mentorship I completed my PhD on evolutionary relationships among a fascinating array of fish: ghost pipefishes, sea moths, trumpetfish, cornetfish, tubesnouts, snipefish, shrimpfish, even paradoxfish.

While completing my PhD, I also worked training fishery observers to identify Alaskan fish. I wrote a field guide to rockfishes for them. About the same time I was offered the Associate Editor position with Fishery Bulletin.  

During that time I got a call from the Groundfish Program director at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, asking if I wanted to be an ichthyologist — officially fulfilling my 6th grade career plans.

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on May 20, 2019