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 44-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.
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.
From there he moved in Juneau in 2000 to become 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.
But for a research project in forestry which fell through back when he was pursuing his doctorate at the University of Washington, leading him to research work in fisheries, he likely never would have ended up with a career in fisheries.
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 said. “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 new 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, but the impetus will have to come from the new regional administrator,” he said.