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 snailfish. 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. Snailfish hold a special fascination for me. They are some of the most diverse fish in Alaska, and among the most adaptable fish 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 snailfish, 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.