Charles "Pete" Peterson (1946 - 2020)

The following tribute to Charles "Pete" Peterson was excerpted from the Gulf of Alaska keynote presentation honoring Pete Peterson and Pete Hagen at the 2021 Alaska Marine Science Symposium. The video recording can be watched here. Speakers included Molly McCammon, Bob Spies, Phil Mundy, Jim Bodkin and Jeep Rice with contributions from Brenda Ballachey. Full transcript can be downloaded here.

Two leaders in understanding and advancing recovery of injured resources from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) passed away in 2020. Both were called Pete, and both contributed to the evolution of EVOS studies, from assessing the damages caused by the spill to developing a legacy program of marine science across the Gulf of Alaska. Charles “Pete” Peterson was instrumental in shifting the paradigm of looking at the recovery of individual species to examining the recovery of spill-affected communities and ecosystems. Pete Peterson was fundamentally a nearshore ecologist who conducted seminal work on the physical and ecological processes driving coastal biological communities. He was a long-serving member of the EVOS Trustee Council Science Panel where he was able to guide the development of long-term monitoring efforts designed to promote collaboration among researchers of many disciplines and aspects of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, ranging from ocean physics to marine birds, whales, and intertidal organisms.

(Bob Spies, Senior Scientist, Applied Marine Sciences, Inc.) Pete Peterson had a full and productive academic, teaching and research career on the Atlantic coast, mainly at the University of North Carolina, where he mentored 50 graduate and post-doctoral students. But I will mainly dwell on his invaluable contributions to Alaskan marine science, as we knew him mainly for his advice to the Trustee Council during the damage assessment and restoration programs for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and his testimony in the private plantiff’s trial for damages from the Exxon-Mobile Corporation. 

Pete had a great academic pedigree: cum laude from Princeton working with the pioneering population ecologist Robert MacArthur, as a Ph.D. student of the renowned intertidal ecologist Joe Connell at UC Santa Barbara and then faculty positions at University of Maryland and finally 43 years at University of North Carolina, retiring in 2019 as a full Professor. He lived just 15 months beyond retirement. He was awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship and had several awards from the state of North Carolina for his contributions to local marine conservation efforts.

Peterson was involved from the start in the oil spill program and we first met in 1989 as reviewers for the studies of damage. His background in intertidal ecology was very useful, but what was immediately apparent was his ability to communicate effectively. Actually, he was beyond effective, he was compelling. He could move a crowd. A well structured series of points, an elegant delivery and ending with a seemingly inescapable conclusion—he was outstanding. The attorneys loved him. People were reluctant, to speak before or immediately after him. Even if you did not agree with him on a particular issue you might be more than a little reluctant to challenge him in debate. So, smart and articulate, yes without a doubt. But there was another side to him a hard-working reviewer to whom I could hand off a inches thick final report on the intertidal study and who would have an exhaustive, lengthy review back in a few weeks—an effort that must have kept him busy at night and on the weekends while still meeting all his other commitments as a full professor, doing his own research in coastal North Carolina, publishing, teaching and mentoring students. Pete was a reviewer for Exxon Valdez oil spill studies for more than 20 years. He read and commented intelligently on hundreds of reports, proposals and publications. He came to Alaska frequently and made his Exxon Valdez oil spill efforts a priority among his many other commitments both at his University, but also in various government boards, committees and commissions. It was all for his goal of improving the human understanding and management of marine nearshore ecosystems. 

I especially appreciated Pete’s strong endorsement and advocacy of two overarching goals for the Exxon Valdez oil spill science program: an ecosystem based approach to restoration research and for long-term monitoring. He was a very strong voice for the former early in the program, particularly in 1993 following the crash of the Prince William Sound Pacific Herring population and weak returns for pink salmon. He was a strong voice for the SEA, APEX and NYP ecosystem programs and particularly effective with the Trustee Council in advocating for these programs. And then around the year 2000 Pete helped us greatly in our advocacy for long-term monitoring in the Gulf of Alaska, now Gulf Watch. 

Pete was also a memorable presence in other ways, for example his sartorial habits. The old running shoes, the corduroy Levi's, the thread bare red sweater and in winter the red and black checked wool lumberjack coat. I have not been able to remember him wearing anything else. It made him easy to spot in the local Thai restaurant in Anchorage where we would meet with other biologists after a day of formal meetings, then exercise (he was a great swimmer)—relaxing with a beer, sidewalk noodles and sharing news of families and friends. In any case dressed in his usual attire one March morning, waiting in front of the EVOSTC office in downtown Anchorage one of Anchorage’s finest asked Pete to “move along”. So Pete took a couple of trips around the block before the rest of us showed up and the front door was opened by Cherri Womac. Another EVOSTC stalwart we recently lost. So we were lucky to have worked with Pete and he paid us many times over with his contributions to marine science in Alaska.

(Jim Bodkin, Alaska Science Center, USGS, Scientist Emeritus) The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill plunged marine sciences in the Gulf of Alaska into uncharted waters.In the decades prior to 1989, science in Alaska’s oceans focused on species over the continental shelf, with little emphasis in the nearshore or in Prince William Sound, where most of the spilled oil would be deposited and persisted, and where injury would be most evident. Further, prior studies generally did not consider linkages among species or their role in ecosystem function, and thus were unable  to provide a comprehensive basis for understanding the full range of spill effects. But almost overnight, an unprecedented environmental catastrophe initiated a massive response, one that required science to assess injury and recovery, that in some cases would take decades. The development and integration of ecosystem studies across a relatively pristine marine ecosystem would eventually come to change the course of oil spill science across the globe, well into the 21st century.

As scientists engaged in coastal marine research in Prince William Sound, focused on sea otters, their recovery from the fur trade and the ecological consequences, the oil spill was a bit of a train wreck, but one that posed new opportunities. Although sea otters were one of the few species with some abundance data prior to the spill, the data were  incomplete and determination of defensible loss estimates was challenging, at best. But one of the “Petes”, Dr. Peterson, a nationally recognized expert in coastal marine ecosystems and a member of the Exxon Valdez Science Team, along with Bob Spies, recognized how acute, chronic and indirect spill effects might be best demonstrated by sea otters and by extension, applied to other injured resources. Through Pete Peterson's support and guidance, we developed a research program that would illustrate a pathway from oil sequestered in beaches where sea otters fed, to their chronic injury and delayed recovery, and the realization that damages from chronic effects may in fact exceed those of acute oiling. The breadth of his  vision would eventually lead to a publication in Science in 2003 that would synthesize the variety of mechanisms at play in ecosystem and species injury caused by marine oil spills. This paper would extend the concept of ecotoxicology across marine food webs, from kelps to whales and alter the course of how science evaluates the full range of impacts of spilled oil.

At times it was a torturous road, from the futility and conflict inherent in assessing injury to species with little or no baseline data; to the development of ecosystem research for evaluating complex pathways of injury and delayed recovery; and leading eventually to the implementation of Gulf Watch Alaska, a program that will allow detection of trends in hundreds of marine species and provide new insights into the relations and mechanisms that drive those trends. The Gulf Watch program is extending data sets that, often extend over many decades. These time series are preparing science and management for ongoing changes, as well as unexpected perturbations in the Gulf of Alaska. We owe deep appreciation and gratitude to the “Petes” for the significant role they collectively played in navigating the obstacles and opportunities on the road from the Exxon Valdez, and for their vision of the destination to which that road would lead. 

(Jeep Rice, Program Manager, Auke Bay Laboratories, NMFS, Retired) Both Petes had great careers, and their sustained contributions to the Trustee science process was huge, but it needs to be put into perspective. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a game changer: 911 was a game changer; you probably know exactly where you were when you heard the news. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was an environmental game changer, and for Alaskans, you probably know where you were at when you first heard the news.The Exxon Valdez oil spill was historic; the largest spill in US waters at the time; the largest cleanup response in history at the time, and largest environmental damage assessment in history at the time. There was no historic road map to organize such a huge scientific enterprise, how to manage it, and how to figure things out. 

Developing that “road map” is a very complicated process - there are a lot of moving parts to the process. Science just does not “happen”. Scientists doing the work and Trustees approving the research had visibility, but there are many behind the scenes that made this new process work. The science was complicated. Very complicated. The study of previous oil spills was largely anecdotal; chemistry of the toxicity was not understood; biological effects on reproduction, growth, were not documented. In the earlier spills, once all the oil was cleaned off the beaches and the dead birds picked up, the spill event was pretty much over... Exxon Valdez changed that. A rigorous scientific process needed to evolve. Well thought out proposals. Peer review. Transparent. Productive. And, Accountable. For a research effort of this scale, under emergency conditions, there was no road map.

Both Petes worked tirelessly, passionately, and relatively invisible. Pete Hagen understood good science, and was able to translate the gobbley gook at times to lawyers and administrators to get approvals, guided contracts to keep money flowing to various state and non-federal entities. Pete Peterson was instrumental in the review process, a quality control check to ensure good science, and to suggest and push for a transition from the early species oriented studies to more of a long-term ecosystem research effort, which would have the most benefit to the science of Alaska environment. Pete Hagen advocated the same from within the agency, Pete Peterson advocated strongly from the Science panel as a lead reviewer.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a game changer in spill science by identifying damage to the environment and to species, in several well documented examples. Most importantly, the damage and the recovery was followed and documented over a long period of time. Several of us understood this was a big deal in science, but it was Pete Peterson who assembled several key scientists and reviewed their accumulated findings after the 10-year anniversary, when the uniqueness and significance of the science coming out of Exxon Valdez research was emerging. Pete’s leadership in a key article in the journal Science exposed to the world the quality and extent of the science that exposed the long term effects coming from an oil spill,  which had never been documented before as well as Pete Peterson’s review article... damage assessments were forever changed.

Lastly, to serve as long and as diligently as both Pete’s did in their respective roles, with little visibility or recognition, requires a passion and dedication for science. We honor their service to the understanding of oil spill and ecosystem science that has served Alaska so very well. Those legacy studies continue today, through warm and cold years, through good and bad years. No other region in the world has as many long-term environmental studies, from plankton to whales, that are coordinated and tied together for as long as the Exxon Valdez legacy studies that continue today in the present Long-Term Monitoring program.

Pete Peterson (2nd from left) with the EVOSTC Science Panel in September 2018.

Friends and Colleagues Remembering Pete Peterson

Gary Cherr (EVOSTC Science Panel; Professor, Environmental Toxicology and Director, UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab) I was so sad to learn of Pete’s passing. I joined the EVOSTC Science Panel in 2006, where I first really came to know Pete. Our paths had crossed briefly in the scientific community, but we had traveled in different circles (Pete, ecology and restoration, and me, toxicology and physiology). Serving on the Science Panel together was one of the highlights of my professional career as interacting with Pete, who had been on the panel since shortly after the spill, was wonderful! His outgoing personality and wisdom from the history of the spill response was so refreshing and his personality brought levity and joy to the science panel at all of our meetings.

I am profoundly aware of Pete’s highly accomplished scientific track record and I have tremendous respect for his science, however, it was the personal interactions in Alaska and later in Seattle that will always stay with me as the most vivid memories. Whether it was the frank discussions of scientific approaches for oil spill assessments and restoration efforts, or if it was listening to Pete talk about how proud he was of his family, in particular, his son’s swimming accomplishments. Pete was always one of the people we all wanted to have at our meetings and to be able to go to dinners with him when the meetings came to an end. Spending one-on-one time with Pete in discussion of our career paths and successes, quirky colleagues, and administrative frustrations, always gave me new perspectives on life in science and even now I can still picture us having these enjoyable times together over beers.

I will miss Pete so much!  It is very hard to think of our continuing efforts for the EVOSTC without him.  I know even at our last meeting, the first that Pete did not participate, I often was thinking during that meeting, “what would Pete say?” when it came to reviewing projects and discussing the pros and cons of different approaches for making the Alaskan coastal region a better place. I believe for all of us who worked with Pete, it is our responsibility to carry on his dedication to the environment.

Pete, you will be in our hearts and minds forever!

Craig Matkin (Executive Director, North Gulf Oceanic Society) Pete Peterson was an honored advisor and staunch supporter of our work from the early days of the EVOSTC.  He was dedicated to natural science and conservation and truly was a clear thinker. He always had great insights and realized from the beginning the importance of long term data sets and the value of the pre-spill baseline data. And we just hit it off in a personal way.... both our sons were serious swimmers.....Wow, he was such a supporter of his son. We used to meet at the hot tub and pool in the basement of the Hotel Captain Cook and talk killer whales, Trustee Council politics, and the exploits of our sons.  Perhaps there was a little bragging going on, but it was just a sweet time, when two proud fathers could exalt in the glory of their wonderful sons. What a big heart he had. I miss him, even though in recent years we didn't have a lot of contact. Despite this, his spirit has is still very alive for me.  It was alive when he was developing informed opinions in service of the EVOSTC. And now that he has passed I feel his spirit as still part of the energy of our program. There is a bit of Pete in so many projects, certainly in the killer whale program. 

Alan Springer (EVOSTC Science Panel; Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks) I met Pete in the 1990s when I first began reviewing proposals for the EVOSTC and then serving on the Core Review Panel. It was always a treat to be able to go to the meetings, hang out with Pete, and have a singular Pete experience. Except once. That was on the occasion of, as I recall, the last EVOSTC annual public meeting of that era. The last event was for all the Panel members to come onstage and give our thoughts on the history and future of research, remediation, recovery, etc. to a rather large audience there for the occasion. I had the misfortune to be seated next to Pete, who went first. Pete launched into a typically eloquent, insightful, intelligent commentary that stretched for some 15 minutes I’m guessing—I became less and less able to judge time as I contemplated the distressing, very near future when I would have to go next. And when that moment finally arrived, I was speechless. What more could I say? There really was nothing more to say. I had a few ideas, but of course they had all been covered by Pete, who articulated them much better than I ever could have.  I managed some lame comments about the future of research in PWS and the GOA, and then quickly passed it along to whomever was next. I never saw Pete again after that meeting, although we did keep in touch and made some plans for collaboration on a project or two that he wanted to do. Sadly, they never came to fruition. And despite that separation, I miss knowing that he’s still there.

Brenda Konar (Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks) Pete Peterson was an all-around great guy and inspiration. I met him during my MS years when he hired me for a summer to drive boats around North Carolina. Over the years, he was so supportive of me as a graduate student, a researcher, and a junior faculty. He always had time to speak with me whenever we ran into each other, with kind words and great advice and insights. He will be missed by many but leaves us with memories of a kind soul and the type of person I would like to be.

Jay Stachowicz (EVOSTC Science Panel; Professor, UC Davis) Pete was among the first faculty I met in graduate school and was always encouraging. I didn’t work directly  with him, but  he was a great committee member and sounding board, and, as you might imagine, was never shy about pointing out flaws in my arguments or approaches. Years later, we reconnected on the EVOSTC science panel-- it was so great to get to work with Pete and experience his wit and intellect as a peer. When I was just a grad student, I remember Pete taking a very active role in the EVOS  response, and it was amazing to be part of that work with him so many years later. I’ll miss that dry wit and ability to cut straight to the heart of an argument. Science has lost a great one, but his work lives on through projects like this one, and even more so through the many students  and colleagues he influenced over his great career.

Rob Suryan (Program Manager, RECA Program NOAA Fisheries) I met Pete Peterson when I first began marine studies in Alaska in 1995, joining one of the first integrated ecosystem studies funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. As a young scientist, it was quite daunting to present your results and justify your project's existence in front of the EVOSTC Scientific Panel of experts that included Pete. While Pete could easily play the critical reviewer role that he needed to be, he did in such a way that was quite enjoyable. Not only was his depth and breadth of knowledge in marine science remarkably impressive, his genuine interest in your studies and ensuring they were conducted the best way possible was welcoming. Any criticisms clearly came from a perspective of wanting you to succeed. When I returned to Alaska 15 years later to work on another EVOSTC ecosystem study, I was very happy to see that Pete was still a review panel member. Along with many others, I am very saddened by his passing, but also look back on his enormous contribution to post-oil spill studies in Alaska, marine science in general, and the careers of many young scientists.

Gordon Kruse (EVOSTC Science Panel; Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks) Although I was well aware of Pete through his many impressive scientific publications, I did not have the pleasure of meeting him in person until I joined the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s Science Panel in 2012.  Although I wasn’t exactly sure how I would fit in with this group of scientific experts, Pete immediately warmly welcomed me and made me feel like I was part of the family. Over the years, I really valued his untiring efforts to promote sound science to improve our understanding of ecological mechanisms and processes throughout the spill area. He always brought valuable perspectives to the table, built upon his deep ecological knowledge and experience. He provided constructive criticism by emphasizing “constructive”, each time complimenting the positives and offering suggestions for improvements. Moreover, he always did so with a keen wit and a smile. The EVOSTC science program is a much better program thanks to Pete’s many contributions. He is missed but his legacy lives on.

Marine Sciences Community Mourns the Loss of Pete Peterson

In Memoriam Charles Henry Peterson (Marine Ecology Press Series)

Obituary for Pete Peterson