Rainer: Shep leaves a lasting legacy in marine fisheries
When I think of more than 30 years of covering outdoor events in Alabama, many people who have influenced and contributed to my writing come to mind. And no one on this list is more famous than Dr. Bob Shipp, who died last week at the age of 81.
“It’s going to take some getting used to not being able to pick up the phone to ask Bob a question or send a fish to identify it,” said Dr. Sean Powers, director of the Stokes College of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Stokes University. University of South Alabama (USA). “Rarely does a day go by without someone coming up to me and asking about Dr. Bob and telling the story of the impact of the class they took from him, his role as a mentor, and the conversation he had with him about fish or another accolade. His impact on students, colleagues and the community is truly inspiring.”
Like Powers, I have always looked to Dr. Bob as a source of information to simplify complex fisheries management issues in Alabama and Gulf of Mexico waters, both during my time as outside editor of the Mobile Press-Register and currently. As an outdoors writer for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).
Shipp is originally from New Orleans and earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Florida State University before joining the Department of Biology at South Alabama in 1972. He spent 40 years in the USA and was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus shortly after his retirement in 2013 as Chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences, which He helped found it. Shipp also served 27 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, five years on the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, and taught at the Dauphin Island Marine Laboratory, where he was part of numerous research projects.
“Bob built the marine science program from scratch,” Powers said. “Obviously he had help from a lot of talented people, but Bob founded the Department of Marine Science at South Alabama. For a very long time, South Alabama was known for the College of Medicine and Marine Science. I still say those are the two outstanding things they’re known for. It all goes back to Bob’s vision to focus on marine sciences in 1992. He convinced then-President (Fred) Weedon that we should have a Ph.D. program.
“It paid huge dividends. We went from a department to a school of marine and environmental sciences. A lot of that was the legacy I inherited from Bob.”
Shipp’s contributions were on the U.S. side, and his contributions to fisheries science and management were equally influential, Powers said. ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship summed it up best, he said.
“Ship was dedicated to fisheries science and how that science could best be used in fisheries management,” said Commissioner Blankenship, who also served as director of the Alabama Department of Marine Resources during Shipp’s tenure. His three decades of service on the Gulf Council were legendary. His common-sense approach to complex management issues set the standard we use today to manage our marine fisheries resources.
“Bob would be at a meeting with federal scientists, and they would throw at you all these complicated models,” Powers added. “Bob was able to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t make sense. I don’t care what the math says. I don’t care what the models say, it doesn’t make sense.'” That carried over to procedures. Management. They’ll propose these crazy administrative measures. Bob will say again, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Why choose such a complicated path when you can do something much simpler?
USA President Joe Boehner said Shipp has the ability to explain complex questions in a way everyone can understand.
“Bob literally wrote the book on bringing the importance of marine and environmental science to the people fortunate enough to call the Gulf Coast home,” said Chairman Boehner, who represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2003 to 2013. “He was highly respected as a man.” An academic 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 them.
“He has also earned universal respect from his students and colleagues, as well as scholars and peers across the country and around the world. He has certainly put the University of South Alabama on the map in this important field of study.”
As head rodeo judge, Shep weighs another of Alabama’s signature fish, the red snapper. (Photo by David Rayner)
Shipp’s extensive research on Alabama’s iconic fish species, the red snapper, continues to contribute to the health of snappers in Alabama’s coastal waters and the nation’s largest artificial reef system, Powers said.
“There are some things about red snapper specifically that Bob discovered before anyone else,” Powers said. “He’s 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 that aren’t being sampled. It’s something we call ambiguous biomass. They kicked Bob out of control and said it was a fairy tale. Fast forward For 20 years with $10 million and a large red snapper population, and guess what? The reason there are more red snapper is because there is a mysterious biomass in the deep waters. They are never sampled and fishermen never target them. That means we have this amazing buffer In population.
“I tried to harp on that, but I don’t think Bob gets enough credit for it. Bob had all these anecdotal reports from anglers, and his claim that the stocks would quickly rebuild was absolutely true. This was just one example of how Bob A lot of observation and a lot of talking with fishermen. None of the scientists actually talked to fishermen. Now, it’s second nature. We all do it now. And as the models get more complex, Bob’s message has always been to keep it simple because if the fishermen don’t understand it, “They won’t buy into the regulations. I don’t think that’s the message that the National Marine Fisheries Service has gotten yet. In order to expect fishermen to comply, you have to be able to give them simple explanations.”
Shipp also served as the Chairman Judge of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR) on Dauphin Island for over 35 years. Dr. Bob’s interaction with the hunters at the rodeo and the Roy Martin Young Anglers Championship was something to behold, said Powers, who took over as head rodeo judge after Ship retired.
“Bob’s other legacy is that he really enjoyed talking to hunters,” Powers said. “That was the best thing about the rodeo, seeing Bob interact with the fishermen. People even wanted to take a picture of their kids with Bob. This might be the first fish the kid had ever caught, and taking a picture with Dr. Bob made it even more special. Bob didn’t say no.” Never any request. He always made time. Not only would he identify the fish, but he would sometimes tell you the entire life history of the species. It just shows his knowledge and his truly unique personality.
“The other thing about Bob is he had no ego, at all, at least what I saw. It was never about Bob. He got all these accolades, and he was involved in everything at the university. People don’t understand how rare that is, especially In academics.
Every photo taken of Sheep at the ADSFR or Youth Angler Championship is the same, Powers said.
“He’s always smiling and always having fun,” he said. “As much as the rodeo did for the university, Bob brought a level of recognition to the rodeo and his idea of partnership in science. That’s Bob’s legacy as well. He brought people (scientists and researchers) to the rodeo from all over the world. We have specimens from the rodeo Cows at the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History This was all Bob gave people the opportunity to taste the fish species at the rodeo.
“What was very important to us as rodeo scientists was that we were not able to get into the water enough to sample these really large specimens of a wide range of fish species. Bob related that to the rodeo.
Powers said Shipp’s knowledge of Gulf of Mexico fish was mind-boggling, especially with species rarely seen in tournament fishing.
“Even at the rodeo last year, we had three fish that we had to send to Bob to identify just to be sure,” he said. “We can identify most things but sometimes we have to look in our books. Bob just looked at it. All the graduate students will be trying to find the ID of the fish that Bob got wrong. No. He never got it wrong.”
Shepp even wrote “Dr. Bob Shepp’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico” to help people learn about the Gulf’s countless fish species. Powers said the book was not written with the scientific community in mind; it was written for use by anglers and the general public. CCA Alabama (www.ccaalabama.org/) has several of Shipp’s books available.
“It’s really written for hunters,” Powers said. “It’s the book that anglers turn to to learn about fish. It also has recipes and all kinds of information. Bob wrote it for anglers to learn more about fish. Unlike a scientific guide, people sit down and read Bob’s guide as a book.”
Although Shipp is known for his pioneering work with red snapper, the different species that inhabit Alabama’s surf were special to him.
“Bob loved to sit in his lawn chair and fish for his pompano,” Powers said. “On our snapper research trips, Bob rarely picked up a pole offshore. He wanted everyone to try it, but I think he loved pompano fishing.”
Dr. Bob has received numerous tributes since his death, including one from Alabama Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon.
“I had the honor of working with Dr. Shipp — who preferred to be called Bob — on the Gulf Council and as a member of the Saltwater State Fish Registry Commission,” Bannon said. “I have always appreciated his humble, direct guidance. He has been a blessing to the state of Alabama and to the Gulf Coast.”
“Bob was a tremendous man and deserved all the credit he could get,” Powers agreed.
Shipp was one of the lead researchers studying reef fish in Alabama’s large-scale artificial reef system. (Photo by David Rayner)