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David Rainer: Dr. Bob leaves lasting legacy in Marine Fisheries

When I reflect on my 30-plus years of covering the outdoors in Alabama, several people who influenced and contributed to my writing come to mind. No one on that list is more prominent than Dr. Bob Shipp, who died last week at age 81.

“It’s going to take a while to get used to not being able to pick up the phone to ask Bob a question or send him a fish to identify,” said Dr. Sean Powers, Director of the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA). “It is rare that a day goes by when someone doesn’t come up to me and ask about Dr. Bob and relay a story of the impact of a class they took from him, his role as a mentor, a conversation they had with him about fish or another accolade. His impact on students, colleagues and the community is truly inspiring.”

Like Powers, I’ve always looked to Dr. Bob as my source for information to simplify the complex fisheries management issues in Alabama waters and the Gulf of Mexico, both during my time as the Outdoors Editor at the Mobile Press-Register newspaper and currently as the outdoor writer with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).

Shipp hailed from New Orleans and received a Ph.D. in biology from Florida State University before joining the Department of Biology at South Alabama in 1972. He spent 40 years at USA and received Professor Emeritus status soon after he retired in 2013 as chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, which he helped found. Shipp also served 27 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, five years on the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board and taught at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, where he was part of numerous research projects.

“Bob built the Marine Sciences program from scratch,” Powers said. “Obviously he had help from a lot of talented people, but Bob built Marine Sciences at South Alabama. For an awful long time, South Alabama was known for its medical school and Marine Sciences. I would still say those are the two prominent features we’re known for. That all traces back to Bob’s vision of focusing on marine sciences in 1992. He convinced then President (Fred) Whiddon that we should have a Ph.D. program.

“That has paid tremendous dividends. We have moved from a department to a school of marine and environmental sciences. A lot of that was the legacy I inherited from Bob.”

Powers said those contributions by Shipp were on the USA side, and his contributions on fisheries science and management were just as impactful. He said ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship summed it up best.

“Dr. Shipp was dedicated to fisheries science and how that science could best be used for fisheries management,” said Commissioner Blankenship, who also served as the Alabama Marine Resources Division Director during Shipp’s tenure. “His almost three decades of service on the Gulf Council was legendary. His common-sense approach to complex management issues set the standard we use today to manage our marine fishery resources.”

Powers added, “Bob would get into a meeting with federal scientists, and they would be throwing all these complicated models at you. Bob was able to say, ‘Well, that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t care what the math says. I don’t care what the models say, that just doesn’t make sense.’ That moved on to management actions. They would propose these crazy management actions. Bob, again, would say, ‘That makes no sense. Why are you choosing such a complicated route when you can do something much simpler?’”

USA President Jo Bonner said Shipp had the ability to explain complex questions in a way that everyone could understand.

“Dr. Bob literally wrote the book on introducing the importance of marine and environmental science to the people who are fortunate enough to call the Gulf Coast their home,” said President Bonner, who represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2003-2013. “He was highly respected as a scholarly man who could explain his work to members of Congress, the media and the general public in a way that made everyone feel like he was talking to them, not lecturing at them.

“He also commanded universal respect from his students and colleagues, as well as scientists and peers throughout the country and around the world. He certainly put the University of South Alabama on the map in this important field of study.”

Powers said Shipp’s extensive research of Alabama’s iconic fish species, red snapper, still contributes to the health of the snapper population in Alabama’s coastal waters and the nation’s largest artificial reef system.

“There are some things with red snapper specifically that Bob figured out before anybody else,” Powers said. “He had been telling the feds for a long time that the red snapper stock assessments are wrong, that there are a lot of big red snapper deep that are not being sampled. It’s something we call cryptic biomass. They dismissed Bob out of hand and said it was a fairytale. Fast forward 20 years with $10 million and the Great Red Snapper Count and guess what? The reason we have more red snapper is because of cryptic biomass in deep waters. They are never sampled and never targeted by fishermen. That means we have this incredible buffer in the population.

“I tried to harp on it, but I don’t think Bob gets enough credit for that. Bob had all these anecdotal reports from fishermen, and his contention that stocks would rebuild quickly was absolutely correct. That was just one example of how Bob used a lot of observation and a lot of talk with fishermen. None of the scientists actually talked to the fishermen. Now, it’s second nature. We all do that now. As the models got more complex, Bob’s message was always to keep it simple because if fishermen didn’t understand it, they weren’t going to buy into the regulations. I don’t think that is a message the National Marine Fisheries Service has gotten yet. To expect fishermen to be compliant, you’ve got to be able to give them simple explanations.”

Shipp also served as head judge of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR) on Dauphin Island for more than 35 years. Powers, who assumed the role of the rodeo’s head judge after Shipp’s retirement, said Dr. Bob’s interaction with the anglers at the rodeo and the Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament was something to behold.

“Bob’s other legacy is that he really enjoyed speaking with fishermen,” Powers said. “That was the best thing about the rodeo, seeing Bob interact with the fishermen. People even wanted to get their kids’ picture taken with Bob. That might be the first fish the kid had ever caught, and to get a picture with Dr. Bob made it more special. Bob never turned down a request. He would always make time. And not only would he identify a fish, he would also sometimes tell you the whole life history of the species. It just shows his knowledge and really unique personality.

“The other thing about Bob is that he had no ego, none whatsoever, at least what I saw. It was never about Bob. He had all these accolades, and he shared everything at the university. People don’t understand how rare that is, especially in academics.”

Powers said every picture taken of Shipp at the ADSFR or young anglers’ tournament is the same.

“He’s always smiling and always enjoying himself,” he said. “As much as the rodeo has done for the university, Bob brought a level of recognition to the rodeo and his idea of partnership in science. That’s Bob’s legacy too. He brought people (scientists and researchers) to the rodeo from all over the world. We have specimens from the rodeo in the London Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. That was all Bob introducing people to the opportunity to sample fish species at the rodeo.

“What was so important for us as scientists at the rodeo is we aren’t able to get on the water enough to sample these really big specimens of a wide variety of fish species. Bob connected that with the rodeo.”

Powers said Shipp’s knowledge of the fish of the Gulf of Mexico was mind-boggling, especially with the species rarely seen at a fishing tournament.

“Even at this past year’s rodeo, we had three fish we had to send to Bob for identification just to make sure,” he said. “We can ID most everything but sometimes we have to look through our books. Bob just looked at it. All these graduate students would try to find a fish ID that Bob got wrong. Nope. He never got it wrong.”

Shipp even wrote “Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico” to help people identify the myriad fish species in the Gulf. Powers said the book wasn’t written with the scientific community in mind; it was written for anglers and the general public to use. CCA Alabama (www.ccaalabama.org/) has several of Shipp’s books available.

“It is really written for fishermen,” Powers said. “It’s the go-to book for fishermen to identify a fish. It also has recipes and all kinds of information. Bob wrote it for fishermen to learn more about the fish. And unlike a scientific guide, people sit down and read through Bob’s guide as a book.”

Although Shipp was recognized for his pioneering work with red snapper, a different species that inhabits the Alabama surf was special to him.

“Bob liked to sit in his lawn chair and fish for his pompano,” Powers said. “On the snapper research trips, Bob rarely picked up a pole offshore. He wanted everybody else to experience it, but I think he just loved his pompano fishing.”

Dr. Bob has received many tributes since his death, including one from Alabama Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon.

“I had the privilege of working with Dr. Shipp – he preferred to be called Bob – on the Gulf Council and as a member of the Saltwater State Record Fish Committee,” Bannon said. “I always appreciated his humble and direct guidance. He was a blessing to the State of Alabama and to the Gulf Coast.”

Powers agreed, “Bob was a tremendous man and deserves all the recognition he can get.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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