A trip to Nanaimo and a last visit with Jergen Westrheim

Fig 5 B6Charles R. (Bob) Hitz                                           Dec. 10, 2012

Carmel Finley sent me an E-mail telling me that Sigrid Jergen Westrheim had passed away on November 1, 2012 in Nanaimo, B. C. after a lifetime of research on Pacific ocean perch (POP).  She asked if I had any information about his life, no matter how small.  Reviewing the tape I made on my visit with him on June 2, 2010, I found there is information about his early career which I would like to share with her as well as the readers.

Sorting catch by species (Sig on right with watch cap) (Photo by Bob Hitz)

Sorting catch by species (Sig on right with watch cap) (Photo by Bob Hitz)

On April 2, 1968 I was invited to join the Canadian research vessel G. B. Reed on a rockfish cruise conducted by chief scientist Jergen Westrheim, and I accompanied him on Part 1 of the three part cruise on a program studying the reproduction of rockfish species off the west coast of Vancouver Island.  Apparently I was invited because of my interest in the early life history of the rockfish and because I developed a field identification key of the rockfish Sebastodes.  The vessel was a side trawler, a rarity on the Pacific coast and another reason for me to be interested.

Canadian R/V G.B. Reed (Photo by Bob Hitz)

Canadian R/V G.B. Reed (Photo by Bob Hitz)

In 2010 I thought that Jergen could fill me in on some of that history and arranged to see him at his home in Nanaimo, Canada.   I had a rough idea of the questions I wanted to ask him and took a handheld voice recorder to record his answers.  He was pleased to talk about his career.

Jergen was born in Portland, Oregon and his dad fished Bristol Bay salmon for 34 years in Alaska.  In fact he told me that his dad headed north in the old square riggers after World War I.  So in 1940, when Jergen was enrolled in Reed College where he was working for a liberal arts degree, there was a requirement to write a paper on a subject of his choice for an economic class and he and his professor decided he should write about how canneries arrived at the price of a case of salmon.  The report was due on May 1.  He wrote to all the salmon packers for information but never received an answer.  Since he was running out of time, he and the professor then decided that he should write a paper on the conservation of red salmon, which he knew a little about.  While this report didn’t launch him into fisheries, it was a start.

World War II came while he was at Reed College and he went into the service.  He said that he had to take a test like everyone else and those who scored in the top 10% were put into a scientific or a special assignment, so he was assigned as a meteorologist with the air force. 


Cod end of net coming aboard R/V G.B. Reed (Photo by Bob Hitz)

Cod end of net coming aboard R/V G.B. Reed (Photo by Bob Hitz)

While Jergen was in the air force he picked up a book on fly fishing, which he found interesting because he was fascinated by the biology of the food they fed on.  It described the life history of the May fly and the methods of tying lures that imitated different stages of the hatch.  This information became important when he was discharged in December, 1945 and wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.  Since he had heard there was a fisheries school in Seattle where his uncle lived, he decided to visit him along with the U/W College of Fisheries.

          Dr. W. F. Thompson, Director of the College, was in his office when Jergen was ushered in as a possible student interested in fisheries.  When their meeting was over he had talked Jergen into signing up for 6 courses, a very heavy load.  Dr. Delacy, his adviser, advised him to work for one degree, not two and then start a graduate master’s program in fisheries.  Jergen transferred his credits from Reed College to the U/W and entered the junior class in 1946. 

He said that he started working for the State of Oregon Fisheries Department in 1947 in a new groundfish program, with George Yost Harry. While Jergen was still at the College of Fisheries in Seattle he had become friends with Don McKernan, who I believe at the time was the director of research for the Oregon Fish Commission, who asked Jergen if he was interested in going to work for them in this new exciting Oregon groundfish program.  He told Jergen that he could then return to the U/W and finish his degree and still receive ½ his salary.  Jergen commented; “I’m sure he thought I could pay him back in overtime.”  Since Jergen still had the G.I. Bill, he took the offer and went to work for them in Oregon before he had a college degree.  He graduated from the College of Fisheries in Seattle in1948 while still working for Oregon State, collecting data on the Pacific ocean perch (POP) for his Master’s thesis.  The timing was right for a thesis on an unknown resource, and Oregon trawlers had discovered a new resource of POP.

Jergen was in the first wave of veterans returning from the war and knew Lee Alverson and Don Powell, who were also returning veterans.  These two individuals were involved with the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle, Washington.  He got to know Lee well since he worked for him during the summer of 1949, but didn’t remember much about Don Powell although they were in the same class in the College of Fisheries.  Later Don became the director of a new group called Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research, which was formed around a dedicated research vessel, the John N. Cobb.  I told Jergen that he should have been a natural for that job and must have heard about it, especially since the vessel was launched and commissioned in 1950.

He told me that he remembers a little about it, but that he was happy where he was, all was going well in Oregon and the future was bright.  In those days Oregon was for fisheries as West Point was for an Army career.  Jergen got involved with the salmon research on the Columbia River and got a permit job.  As the top people were retiring he became director of research while working on his thesis, which he completed in 1958, close to the date of no return.

Around 1960 Keith Ketchen from Canada appeared out of the blue.  He was looking for a person who could put Canada on the map regarding world fisheries, particularly on the west coast.  They were building the R/V G.B. Reed and it was to be an east coast side trawler, sister ship to the newly built Canadian R/V Caiman, which was developed from a proven Norwegian research vessel.  Coming up with a new design, the new concept of a stern trawler, problems could often arise as the Canadians knew well.  They had had difficulties with the development of two or three new oceanographic ships when they were built.  Keith told Jergen “You can have the ship and you can do anything you want to do with it, as long as you can get Canada onto the world stage regarding fisheries.”  It was one of those chances a person gets in a lifetime, to work on his beloved rockfish.  So in 1962 he and his family moved to Nanaimo, Canada with a cut in pay.  He took his first trip on the G.B. Reed in January 1963.

Before Jergen moved north he hired a part-time employee to go through all the drags the John N. Cobb had done in her bottom fish explorations and had them plotted onto navigation charts.  By the time he had the ship he was prepared, although the Russians were about two years ahead of him on POP research.

Pacific Ocean Perch from Orr’s publication

Pacific Ocean Perch from Orr’s publication

He found that POP dominated the Gulf of Alaska west from Cape Spencer, a huge resource and all of it composed of one year class that hatched in 1953.  He believed that some oceanographic phenomenon had occurred which had transported the larva and young fish to the Gulf of Alaska, where they remained to be harvested by the Soviet fleets which found this vast resource.  However the 1953 year class was actually 10 years old when the Japanese and Russians hit it. 

Some of the POP were more golden than red when they came out of the water.  Sig had an 8-man deck crew on the Reed so he could sample the catch by placing individual species into tubs, weighing each tub and measuring individual fish, and in this process he discovered a new species of rockfish, which he named Sebastodes reedi, the yellowmouth rockfish, after their R/V G. B. Reed. (1)  It is very similar to POP and in the attached pictures of the two taken from Orr’s Guide to Rockfishes (2) you can see the differences in the color of each fish and the distinguishing characteristics which separate them.  In his home office there was a framed picture of Sebastes reedi of which he was very proud.  (Note:  The generic name was changed from Sebastodes to Sebastes in 1971)

Jergen had set out with the R/V G. B. Reed as Ketchen wanted him to do, getting Canada onto the world stage, which he did, and the new species “Sebastes reedi” is a tribute to Jergen’s work on the POP population, to Canada and the R/V G. B. Reed.

(1) Westrheim, S. J. and H. Tsuyuki 1967, Sebastodes reedi, a new Scorpaenia Fish in the Northeast Pacific Ocean.  J. Fish. Res. Bd. Canada 24 (9), 1967, pp. 1945-1954.

(2) Orr, James Wilder, Michael A. Brown, and David C. Baker, 1998, Guide to Rockfishes (Scorpanenidae) of the Genera Sebastes, Sebastolobus, and Adelosebastes of the Northeast Pacific Ocean.  U.S. Detent of Commerce, NOAA, NMFS, AFSC, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-95


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Environmental History, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet fishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s