Veteran NOAA regional administrator Jim Balsiger says there was a time when he had no plans to ever hold a fish in his hands for research.
He had, in fact, set out for a career in forestry, but for a turn of events that found him doing modeling for a salmon management project in Bristol Bay on the way to getting a doctorate in quantitative ecology and natural resources management from the University of Washington.
That led ultimately to a 46-and-a-half year career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where for the last 21 years Balsiger has served as regional administrator for the Alaska Region of NOAA Fisheries.
“What a wonderful, unexpected career I’ve had,” he said during an interview after announcing his plans to retire at the end of November.
Balsiger began his career with NOAA in 1977, and as his official biography notes, has held numerous leadership positions with the National Marine Fisheries Service during his tenure.
His first field job in fisheries was in the Bering Sea, participating in the crab and groundfish surveys for the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Center, measuring king crab, doing experiments on them and eventually developing a computer model with management implications.
(The Science Center was divided in 1986 into the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.)
“I used those crab investigations and the model development for my thesis work and (working under professors Brian Rothschild, Gerald Pollock and Douglas Chapman) received my doctorate in 1974,” he explained.
Balsiger also went to Madison, Wisc. in 1973 to teach at the University of Wisconsin while finish up his thesis, passing the final exam in 1974.
After the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act passed in 1976, he went to work for NOAA and served as program leader for the status of stocks task within NOAA’s Resource Ecology and Fisheries Management Division until 1991.
From there, Balsiger was promoted to deputy science director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle from 1991 through 1995 before being named as director of AFSC.
In 2000, he became the regional director for Alaska, serving in that capacity on the North Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, and also for 16 years as the federal U.S. Commissioner for the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
One of the biggest challenges currently facing NOAA is climate change, Balsiger said.
“It’s fairly complicated. We have a fairly elaborate set of regulations in the Bering Sea (for vessels operating there). Everyone has an allocation for various species. It all worked well when we knew where the fish were, but now the fish are moving,” he explained. “They have to learn how to avoid bycatch and stay under bycatch limits. They learned how to do that, but now it’s changed. They don’t know how to deal with this new mix of species.”
Balsiger said he also thinks the Biden administration has indicated more interest in coastal communities and indigenous communities and that tribal entities need a better voice at council meetings and that small communities need a better voice too.
“These kinds of things need some work, and the council will work on that,” he remarked, “but the impetus will have to come from the new regional administrator.”