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Ransom Myers Predicted the Future of Fish


Now it's time for Science Out of the Box.

This week, we have the story of a scientist who earned an international reputation by thinking outside the box. His name was Ransom Myers, and he died this week after a short illness. Myers was best known for warning that overfishing was changing the world's oceans.


NPR's David Malakoff has more on the scientist's life and work.

DAVID MALAKOFF: Ram, as he was called, was one of those guys who always stood out at big scientific conferences. Partly it was the kids. He had five, and one or two always seemed to be following him around at a meeting. But it was also that bushy sea captain's beard and his ability to instantly see the hole in any argument.

Professor PETE PETERSON (University of North Carolina): Here was a guy that had all the appearance of a Santa Claus with a wonderful twinkle and good humor, and yet his comments were sharp and to the point.

MALAKOFF: Pete Peterson is a biologist at the University of North Carolina. He says his friend will be most remembered for some studies that made headlines over the last decade. They showed that industrial fishing was systematically killing off most of the ocean's big predatory fish - tuna and cod, swordfish, sharks. Two years ago, Ram described the findings this way.

Ms. RANSOM MYERS (Marine Scientist): The amazing thing we found was this long-term, slow erosion of biodiversity due to fishing. We see increases of odd things like snake mackerel and stingrays. So we're changing fundamentally the world's oceans without really thinking about it, without really understanding it.


MALAKOFF: Those studies made Myers a hero to conservationists. They also put them on Fortune's magazine elite list of ten people to watch. But he once joked that it was a bit of a fluke that he ended up studying seafood. He grew up in rural Mississippi and a precocious talent for math and science caused problems at school. Andy Rosenberg is a fishery scientist who knew Ram for more than 25 years.

Mr. ANDY ROSENBERG (Fishery Scientist): He told me once that when he was in high school he came to some agreement with the teachers there that they had thought him everything that they could and so it would probably be better if they just left them alone to sit in the library and work on things by himself.

MALAKOFF: Ram Myers went on to study physics in college and to do oil exploration in the Middle East. Then he became a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he fell in love with the ocean and started using his mathematical talent to understand how it worked. Andy Rosenberg was at Dalhousie at the time and he remembers watching some elevator doors slide open.

Mr. ROSENBERG: Ram comes out and he's got this stream of paper behind him from the old teletype sheets and he says, I had an idea and I did this analysis and I've written it up. It was like fragments of sentences and equations and then graphs, you know, and he's off down the hall with the paper streaming behind him, and that was just so much Ram.

MALAKOFF: That energy paid off with a Ph.D. Then Ram Myers moved to Newfoundland to work as a fishery's biologist for the Canadian government. That's when the public first heard of him. It was the early 1990s and government officials were trying to explain why Canada's cod fishery was collapsing, putting thousands of people out of work. They blamed the collapsed on the weather and on hungry seals. But Ram Myers crunched the numbers and he said the problem was overfishing. The government tried to stop him from talking about his findings, but Andy Rosenberg says they failed.

Mr. ROSENBERG: Got into a fair bit of controversy there because his analysis didn't agree with the official view. But in Ram's mind it's the data that matters.

MALAKOFF: In fact, Ram Myers was never shy about defending his work. At one public debate he entitled his PowerPoint presentation "I Am Right." Andy Rosenberg was there, and the memory brought tears.

Mr. ROSENBERG: You know, an interesting thing about that? Some of the people who were arguing against the analysis were Ram's students, and he was proud of them. Those guys learned from Ram, and he was saying, you know, those guys are good.

MALAKOFF: It will now be up to those students to push for one of the few things that Ram Myers did not accomplish in his life, protecting the oceans from overfishing. Ransom Myers died of brain cancer on March 27th. He was 54 years old.

David Malakoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.