Pete Hagen (1957 - 2020)

The following tribute to Pete Hagen was excerpted from the Gulf of Alaska keynote presentation honoring Pete Hagen and Pete Peterson 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. Pete Hagen, as the NOAA liaison to the EVOS Trustee Council, was a strong proponent for research to understand recovery from oil spills. His tireless efforts guided the development of multidisciplinary research programs supported by the EVOS Trustee Council and advocated for science that addressed ecological and societal needs, as well as those specific to agency mandates. He played a critical role in the administration of funding to allow research activities to succeed. We will reflect on the contributions of the “Petes” and how their leadership has led to a better understanding of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem

(Phil Mundy, Director, Auke Bay Laboratories, NMFS, Retired) Pete Hagen grew up in Seattle, fishing with his family on Puget Sound and working in seafood processing and commercial fishing, which sent him to the University of Washington (UW) for his bachelor’s degree, and then on to the University of Alaska for M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. During his decade-long career with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), Pete established and directed the Mark, Tag, and Age Laboratory (MTA) in Juneau which provides information necessary to implement sustainable fisheries management. At the National Marine Fisheries Service, Pete’s portfolio covered the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the U.S. Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, the North Pacific Research Board, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative. He became well-known and respected in Alaska and western Canada for his ability to explain science to policy makers and for his mastery of federal and state budgets and regulations. Pete joined another part of NMFS, Auke Bay Laboratories, as Deputy Director and he later served two years as acting Laboratory Director. Even so, Pete’s career in science and management was only a part of the rich life he enjoyed in Alaska. He was a devoted husband to Sara and the proud father of Annie.

Using halibut ear bones, otoliths, sampled as long ago as 1914, Pete constructed a time series of observations on growth at age in halibut spanning nine decades of the 20th Century. The standardized observations made it possible to statistically compare patterns of growth among decades, and to compare changes in growth to changes in environmental and biological factors that contribute to growth. Such long time series of biological observations supported the feasibility of the ecological approach to restoration of injured species adopted by the EVOSTC. The Council recognized that determining the recovery of any oil-damaged species required not only a knowledge of the temporal trend in the species’ abundance, but also of the temporal trends of the species’ predators, prey and environmental drivers. Pete Hagen was among those scientists who demonstrated the feasibility of the EVOSTC's ecological approach to restoration of injured species by showing it was possible to measure and compare decadal patterns of growth at age in a keystone predator in the Gulf of Alaska.

Pete’s experience in taking and interpreting large numbers of measurements from halibut otoliths was put to work at ADFG to create an operational program with the goal of permanently thermally marking the ear bones of all hatchery salmon prior to their release into salt water. Thanks to Pete’s leadership of the Mark, Tag, and Age Laboratory, funding from EVOSTC, and the efforts of the many dedicated scientists and technicians who marked, gathered and read the otoliths, as of 2002 close to one billion hatchery fish were being marked annually in Alaska, and estimates of hatchery-wild stock composition were being provided for more than 200 sampling strata to aid in in-season harvest management. EVOSTC pilot projects helped ADFG establish the proof of concept for thermal mass marking as an operational fishery management tool in Prince William Sound, since wild pink salmon was an oil-injured species.

During his time at NMFS Pete was well known to scientists in Alaska and western Canada for his abilities to turn good ideas into funded projects, and to keep good projects funded. Pete was a master of the interdisciplinary and multicultural communication skills that allowed the complex processes of the Restoration Program to properly function. As such he was highly respected within the public process of the EVOSTC by both scientists and policy makers, as well as by members of the public. Pete could produce temperate solutions in the tense situations created when allocating funding among competing interests due to his gift of equanimity. His equanimity was displayed by carefully exploring all sides of each issue, which created a fair process for all concerned. Coming as it did near the peak of his 34-year career in Alaska, Pete’s untimely and unexpected death was a major loss to the community of the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. 

(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.

Pete Hagen, a marine scientist with significant contributions to the conservation and management of fisheries in Alaska, played an equally decisive role in the transition from damage assessment, to ecosystem recovery and eventually to the Gulf Watch Alaska long term monitoring and research program. We shared with Pete Hagen a common scientific interest in the use of annuli to estimate the age of long- lived species; layers in the teeth of sea otters and layers in otoliths (or ear bones) in halibut that Phil Mundy described, and Pete always wanted to hear the latest news from the sea otter community. While Dr. Hagen represented NOAA, with authority over fisheries and marine mammals on the continental shelf, he was always ready to support and advocate for the nearshore, recognizing the large effect of the oil spill in this ecosystem, and the value of integrating science across the Gulf of Alaska.  Regardless of the pressures coming from various organizations and interests, Pete believed in the truth of science and we will always appreciate his interest in, and support for studies in the nearshore.

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.

Friends and Colleagues Remembering Pete Hagen

Craig Matkin (Executive Director, North Gulf Oceanic Society) Pete Hagen worked with me for years to make sure the needs of our project were taken care of and that all was going smoothly with funding. He was, of course, the NOAA manager who dealt with the non-governmental agencies that had EVOSTC projects.  Always looking to make things work, I knew that if there was any funding issue or implementation issue he would address it. I love people who’s approach comes from a “lets make it work”  attitude. And in every case  where there was an issue, he made it work.  At meetings he would always seek me out and make sure we had time to connect so he could hear the latest… not just about the results…. but about how it was going for me personally and in regard the killer whale project. I loved his consistency and warmth.

Rob Suryan (Program Manager, RECA Program NOAA Fisheries) Pete Hagen was instrumental in my transition from work at Oregon State University to NOAA Auke Bay Labs and Gulf Watch Alaska when my family and I moved to Juneau. His pleasant personality, depth of knowledge, and historical perspective meant you always received a comprehensive answer - and often a fun story - to any question you posed. He was definitely the go-to-person!  Pete made you feel welcome in the workplace and your family feel at home in the community. He was one of those people that you simply enjoyed passing in the halls.

Gordon Kruse (EVOSTC Science Panel; Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks) I knew Pete since he was a graduate student working on growth of Pacific halibut in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This work led to his employment with ADF&G where he set up and directed their otolith lab. As a former chief marine fisheries scientist with ADF&G at that time, I greatly appreciated Pete’s leadership and huge contributions to the state’s growing marine fisheries program. This ADF&G lab remains very productive and successful to this day as a legacy to Pete’s ground-breaking efforts. Our paths continued to intertwine throughout the rest of my career at UAF and his career with EVOSTC and as Deputy Director of the NMFS Auke Bay Lab. Pete was always motivated to help solve problems, facilitate collaborations, support students, and promote science. He did all of this with a great sense of humor that endeared him to all who had the pleasure of working with him. He truly enjoyed helping others by fostering an environment for their success. He helped forge a very strong bond between the Auke Bay Lab and UAF-Juneau Center as evidenced by the large number of current and former UAF students working at ABL. And while I had so many enjoyable and productive professional interactions with Pete over the decades, what I value most was his friendship. He was a kind, generous, thoughtful, and most caring person.

Remembering Auke Bay Laboratory Deputy Director Peter “Pete” Hagen

Obituary for Pete Hagen