In honor of the 50th anniversary of Washington Sea Grant, we’re sharing reflections from current and former longtime staff about their work.
Serving as director for over 22 years, Louis Echols’ influence on Washington Sea Grant’s (WSG) mission can be seen throughout our community. Echol’s joined WSG in 1983, developing the program into a coherent and responsive organization by being an advocate for fellows and staff and by developing community partnerships. In celebration of WSG’s 50th year, we reached out to Echols about his perspectives on WSG’s impacts and growth.
Echols says he first heard about WSG in 1970 through meeting with then director Stan Murphy and others at a Sea Grant Association meeting. “These conversations convinced me that WSG was one of the principal places where the action was: a first-rate program, based at a major institution in a region where the marine resources and environment are significant, where we had the opportunity to make a significant difference,” he says.
Murphy established WSG as a leading organization of its kind. After Murphy, Bill Davis served a brief but influential term as WSG director — one that was affected by an attempt by the Reagan administration to abolish Sea Grant, subsequent budget cuts, and turmoil at the university level because of state-mandated changes caused by the recession of the early 1980s. The scope, organization, and staffing of WSG were also in flux due to the recent formation of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington (UW).
The strong leadership of Murphy and Davis was critical in establishing WSG as a coherent and responsible program with early community accomplishments in hydroacoustics, shellfish aquaculture, and education programs. “One of the most enduring achievements was the considerable support to the foundation of the UW’s nascent Institute for Marine Affairs, the forerunner of the current School of Marine and Environmental Affairs,” Echols recalls.
WSG ACCOMPLISHMENTS UNDER ECHOLS’S DIRECTION
Echols built upon these early achievements, being a consistent proponent of innovative research collaborations and fellowship training opportunities. WSG staff members were able to thrive in this environment of collaboration, making both regional and national impacts on communities that interact with marine habitats.
The discovery of the “crab condo” by David Armstrong and Paul Dinnell in 1984 stopped an important Dungeness crab breeding area from being used by the Army Corps of Engineers to deposit the dredge spoils from the development of the then-new U.S. Navy homeport in Everett. The Corps and Navy both directed funds through WSG to establish new disposal protocols and siting that would protect this crab breeding ground. Thomas J. Dowd, the port specialist at WSG during this time, supported the development of port professionals by arranging internships for more than 30 students. Echols says that Dowd’s advice and publications on port finance, planning and governance were in high demand in both U.S. and international ports and served as an example of how passionate WSG professionals can “work so effectively that their work becomes a national standard.”
Seabird bycatch, a serious threat to seabird populations by accidental entanglement in commercial fishing gear, became an important focus at this time and started to be addressed with a rapid response program in northern Puget Sound with field agent Ed Melvin. This would become an international success story with volunteers from all over the world, funding from a variety of sources, and numerous subsequent attempts to complement and imitate this groundbreaking work. Echols emphasizes that this was an “example of Ed’s and Sea Grant’s ability to work with disparate interest groups to provide credible scientific information to help solve serious environmental resource problems.”
Many impactful regional studies were also championed during this time, including Ocean Resource Assessment studies, the Regional Marine Resource Program, the Pacific Northwest Coastal Environmental Resource Studies, partnerships with the Northwest Straits Commission and other Puget Sound initiatives. Echols reflects that these collaborations were often the most challenging to manage because they required much work to coordinate. Much of this difficulty came from balancing the need to “do justice to our primary duty to WSG, while delivering on the regional initiatives. Despite the challenges, these studies provided great opportunities for students and had “the advantage of promoting multi-disciplinary research and enhancing interactions between the university faculty and staff and a range of governmental and private interests,” Echols says.
CHANGE OVER THE YEARS
During Echols’s time as WSG director, he says there was a substantial shift in research focus to molecular biosciences and biotechnology to expand opportunities for sustainability work. “Efforts to infuse the scientific advances in molecular biology into fisheries and aquaculture expanded the possibilities of developing knowledge and practical solutions to marine issues,” he says. The encouragement of collaboration between disciplines supported work from multidisciplinary teams with scientists across fisheries, marine affairs, oceanography, and atmospheric sciences. This focus on collaborating with enthusiastic faculty and students on marine biotechnology helped lead to the UW’s development of the Marine Molecular Biology Laboratory. WSG prioritized innovation and multidisciplinary science in both research and education, placing “considerable emphasis on recruiting and supporting students for a range of Sea Grant and NOAA fellowships.” Echols cited this emphasis as something he’s particularly proud of, especially when considering that to this day WSG leads the nation in the numbers of students who have participated in these national fellowships.
ADVICE FOR WSG STAFF
His advice for people at WSG today? “1. Keep your sanity, and protect your health, so they are there when you need them. 2. Enjoy your time here, for it is a program full of wonderful opportunities.”