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Dr. Bruce Collette (right) with Dr. Larry Allen (Chair of the Nelson Award Committee) at the announcementof the 2014 Joseph S. Nelson Award for lifetime achievement in ichthyology during the plenary of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists annual meeting in Chattanooga, TN, July 31, 2014 (photo by Maureen Donnelly).

NOAA Scientist Wins Prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award

NOAA Fisheries Senior Research Scientist Dr. Bruce Collette was recently awarded the Joseph S. Nelson Award for lifetime achievement in ichthyology (the study of fish) from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. This award recognizes an outstanding body of work in ichthyology and is only the second of its kind to be awarded. The award is named for Joseph Nelson, a distinguished ichthyologist best known for his several editions of "Fishes of the World."

What Fish Are You Really Eating?

Chances are if you’ve eaten sushi or sashimi, Bruce’s work has affected you.  In fact, without his research you might not know the actual species of tuna you’ve been eating at your local restaurant.

Early in his career at NOAA Fisheries (then called the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries), Bruce and his colleague Bob Gibbs were asked to characterize a specific group of tunas that include some of the more well-known species such as albacore, bluefin, and yellowfin, and determine how many species of these tunas existed—a project that ultimately took more than 8 years. In 1961 it was widely believed that yellowfin tuna found near Hawaii were a different species than those in the Atlantic.

As it turned out they were all the same species (Thunnus albacares). A major paper was published in Fishery Bulletin in 1967, describing seven species of tuna in the genus Thunnus. That body of work has stood the test of time, with one exception subsequently established by Bruce himself when he identified three separate species of bluefin tuna (Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern) in 1999.

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Bruce holding a needlefish in a Qatar fish market during an IUCN Red-Listing workshop on Persian Gulf fishes (2013).

The Birth of a Taxonomist – A Lucky Accident

Taxonomists are scientists who study and classify organisms and determine the evolutionary relationships between them. Can't figure out what fish you caught? Think you might have identified a new species? Bruce Collette is one of the few people who can tell you for sure.

The road to becoming a taxonomist, and especially one who also studies fish, is not always an obvious one. As a freshman at Cornell, Bruce happened to be walking through a natural history collection of preserved specimens and noticed that the lizard samples were low on alcohol. He volunteered his services to help ensure the specimens were adequately preserved and the rest, as they say, is history.

During summer breaks from college, Bruce proceeded to conduct field research in Cuba. While trying to catch lizards, he noticed that some lizards ran up trees to escape whereas others ran down. He wondered why and started to investigate further. These discoveries ultimately led to his first research project and eventually the foundation for a field of research called ecomorphology, which investigates the relationship between an animal's ecological roles and physical adaptations. Following his fascination with reptiles, he hoped to pursue graduate studies in herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), but unable to find an advisor, Dr. Edward Raney suggested he pursue the study of fishes, ichthyology. Fortunately for NOAA he did and obtained his Ph.D. in vertebrate zoology from Cornell University with research on the systematics and biology of freshwater darter fishes.

Bruce receiving his 2013 Gold Medal award with NOAA Fisheries Chief Scientist Dr. Richard Merrick.

Coming Up NOAA

Bruce began his career with the precursor to NOAA, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (Department of the Interior), in 1960. Ten years later he was conducting research on the ecology of coral reef fishes, staying for days in an underwater laboratory that was part of a cooperative research effort known as the Tektite Program. When he came up to the surface he was part of NOAA, which had officially formed while he was under the sea.

Bruce started out as an entry-level zoologist and grew to become a lab director and ultimately a senior research scientist at the National Systematics Laboratory housed at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. His body of work is almost unequaled in his field. He has published more than 270 scholarly articles, co-authored several books on fishes—including The Diversity of Fishes, a leading college textbook on the topic—and is considered a global expert on many fish species including tunas, mackerels, needlefishes, and toadfishes. His work has also led to the description of over 40 new species that include mackerels, needlefishes, halfbeaks, and even a colorful toadfish (Sanopus splendidus).

Why is Taxonomy Important to Fisheries Management?

As Bruce points out "Step 1 in fisheries management is to know what species you have. Frequently, people are uncertain and so we (scientists at NOAA's Systematics Laboratory) have to tell them."

A good example relates to Spanish mackerel—a popular game fish harvested both recreationally and commercially. Biological information about a fish, such as its growth rate, ultimately factors into management decisions about how many fish of a given species can be caught. And this is where knowing the correct species you are working with can make a big difference.

For example, Spanish mackerel are typically found along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. In the 1970s, most available biological data on Spanish mackerel came from fish found off the coast of Brazil, and fishery scientists at the time wanted to use this data to help manage U.S. fisheries. Bruce and his colleagues, however, discovered that the Brazilian Spanish mackerel were in fact a distinct species—Serra Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus brasiliensis). The Serra Spanish mackerel grows larger and matures later than the species found in U.S. waters (Scomberomorus maculatus). These different life history characteristics would affect any subsequent management measures. Had biological information from Serra Spanish mackerel been used to manage U.S. fisheries, the results could have been problematic due to species differences. Thanks to Bruce's work, fishery managers were able to use the correct and best available information.

Bruce volunteering at the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall and showing a tuna skeleton to visitors.

A Lifetime of Achievement and Still Going Strong

Bruce's dedication to the fields of ichthyology and systematics continues to this day. He recently led efforts to conduct the first ever global assessment of tuna, mackerel, and billfish populations using International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List Criteria. This pioneering effort, as described in a 2011 Science article, highlighted the extinction risk of 61 species of tunas, mackerels, and billfishes and has helped improve conservation and management efforts for these high-value, at-risk species. Bruce received a Gold Medal for Leadership from the Secretary of Commerce for these efforts in 2013. As exemplified by his recent work, taxonomists don't just tell us what to call certain species; they also help identify patterns in nature that can inform decisions on how best to protect individual species that are part of the world's biodiversity.

A Commitment to Giving Back

It might surprise people to learn that this world-renowned researcher has spent many of his summers teaching undergraduate and graduate students about ichthyology at institutions that include Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine (Cornell affiliate), the Bermuda Biological Station, and the Marine Science Institute of Northeastern University in Nahant, Massachusetts. He has mentored or served on the graduate committees of countless students and, if you're lucky, you may catch him at the Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall volunteering through "The Scientist Is In" program. He also gives back to his research roots. He has been a member of American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists for more than 60 years, with contributions ranging from publishing extensively in the Society's Copeia journal to serving as the Society's president.

The Difference $100 Can Make

Most people come to a fork in the road at various points in their life or careers, and Bruce encountered an important one at age 21. He received $100 from his parents to buy a suit. But the aspiring scientist realized he could also use the money to purchase a lifetime membership to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and receive a lifetime subscription to their journal Copeia. The choice was easy—he took the Society membership. Fortunately for us, Bruce parlayed that $100 membership into a rich career and countless contributions to ichthyology and to fisheries conservation and management.