There are many paths that lead to science, but for Jim Thorson it runs in the family.
“My Grandpa Thomas B. Thorson was an ichthyologist (a marine biologist who studies different fish species). He was interested originally in why sharks have such big livers, before doing early shark tagging and life-history work. So in some ways it's the family business to sort out why fish are the way they are,” said Thorson.
Hanging on the wall behind Thorson in his office is a sawfish skeleton. His Dad went out with his Grandfather tagging sharks in Nicaragua in the 1960s. “My Grandpa and Dad’s interests in evolution influenced me,” said Thorson. “Fish are the biggest group of vertebrates. There is endless interesting stuff to learn about their evolution.”
Thorson grew up in Portland, Oregon. At the time there was a heated debate over listing spotted owls as threatened, given potential impacts on jobs in the timber industry. For young Thorson, this provoked questions such as “how do you make things work for a landscape and the people and animals that live there?”
Thorson earned a Masters in fisheries and wildlife science from Virginia Tech, and a Ph.D. in fisheries and aquatic science from the University of Washington. Thorson joined NOAA Fisheries in 2012 and worked as a stock assessment scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center until 2018. He is now a statistical ecologist researching topics supporting sustainable fisheries management at Resource Ecology and Fisheries Management.
“The Goal is to Look for Win-Win Solutions”
“Fisheries are endlessly interesting—where people and nature exist together. The goal is to look for win-win solutions to improve fishing opportunities while sustaining ocean resources for generations and millennia,” said Thorson.
“As scientists we are always looking for ways we can use limited resources to gain what information we can and improve information to achieve win-wins. Field research, new sampling methods, and whole-of-ecosystem analysis will help us find new solutions and more efficient ways to better understand ecosystem changes,” said Thorson.
Big Picture Fishery Management
Thorson’s research is used to inform fishery management. Resource managers at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council use results from methods he’s developed to make decisions that account for ecosystem changes. They want to develop strategies to help coastal communities adapt to climate change.
“Communities want to know what is happening and what the ecosystem is doing over time,” said Thorson.
Thorson’s research is about looking at the big picture of what’s going on in the ecosystem. “Not just looking at one aspect, not just phytoplankton, but seabirds, fishing and shipping and other human activities.”
He envisions and encourages collaboration across NOAA Fisheries science centers between different types of scientists. This broader approach advances a new way of looking at fisheries management that looks at changes in the ecosystem and how that affects marine resources.
Habitat and Ecological Processes Research Program Success
Thorson joined the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in 2018 as the program leader for the Habitat and Ecological Processes Research in Alaska. The program focused on fostering collaboration between different divisions to support research on habitat and ecological processes.
Key Areas of Research
The program studied the effects of loss of sea ice in the Bering Sea due to climate change. This is especially important because ecosystem-related shifts directly affect commercial fisheries and marine mammals located within the southeastern Bering Sea, which Alaska communities depend on.
The program also worked on defining Essential Fish Habitat. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, EFH is defined as “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding or growth to maturity.” These efforts to understand EFH help determine the best way to protect these habitats.
In 2022, having achieved much of what he and his predecessor Mike Sigler set out to accomplish—increasing cross-divisional collaboration throughout the center—Thorson moved on to focus on other research.
Cooperative Approach to Advance Stock Assessment Science
Thorson is now part of the Center’s Resource Ecology and Fisheries Management Division. In this new role he is able to devote more time to developing data products for stock and ecosystem assessments. But he is quick to point out that this still involves a lot of collaboration with other center scientists and academic, non-profit, state, federal, international and industry partners outside NOAA Fisheries.
Most notably, Thorson leads the development of the Vector Autoregressive Spatio-Temporal R package. This statistical computing package is used for stock, ecosystem, habitat, and climate-vulnerability assessments across the US and worldwide.
Drawing Inspiration while Inspiring Future Scientists
Thorson also has a passion for teaching. He has taught at both the University of Washington and at the University of Concepcion. He is currently writing a textbook on his spatio-temporal models and already has 11 chapters written. He is planning on teaching again in 2024.
For Thorson, passing on his passion for science to his own kids is equally rewarding. It’s a full time job on its own. Following in his footsteps is his oldest, Avi, who is a world expert on “blood cats.” This invented animal has a particularly complicated life-history. According to Thorson, there are also plenty of drawings of the unique animal scattered throughout the house.
In reflecting on his personal and professional journey, Thorson says he has always been inspired by a quote by Sir Isaac Newton. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”