Conservation & Science

Chuck Farwell: Tuna Scientist, Mentor, Fish Whisperer

No two days are the same in the life of Chuck Farwell, manager of the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Program. Some days he’s helping the husbandry team maintain our stock of Pacific bluefin tuna. Other days he’s on a boat at sea, surgically implanting electronic tracking tags into the bellies of fish. And some days he’s in Japan, advocating for the conservation and preservation of the Pacific bluefin tuna.

Chuck Farwell at the TRCC
Chuck Farwell at the TRCC

Chuck has been working with tuna since the 1960s, when he first surveyed albacore tuna ranges for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He joined the Aquarium before it opened in 1984, with a long-term vision of developing husbandry techniques to allow us to keep and maintain tuna. At the time, no aquarium outside Japan had ever kept tuna on permanent exhibit. In 1996, Monterey became the first, with displays of yellowfin and bluefin tuna.

Now, Chuck focuses on Pacific bluefin tuna, large predators that can migrate across ocean basins in a matter of weeks. They’re beautiful, lightning-fast and as majestic as they are delicious. The species is prized among seafood enthusiasts – primarily for the high-end sushi trade.

Dramatic population collapse

The growing appetite for bluefin is threatening their numbers. Because they take many years to reach sexual maturity, tuna are often caught before they get a chance to reproduce. In the Pacific, bluefin spawning stock is down to just four percent of historic levels, and could be considered for a CITES listing in the future that would restrict the international tuna trade.

Chuck hopes to reverse the downward trajectory – and he’s working on many fronts.

A tagged Pacific bluefin tuna is returned to the wild by the TRCC team. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.
A tagged Pacific bluefin tuna is returned to the wild by the TRCC team. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

He serves as U.S. delegate to the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the key bodies advancing science-base management of Pacific tunas. And he’s part of the team planning a global Bluefin Futures Symposium in January 2016 that will bring the world’s leading tuna experts to Monterey to map a sustainable future for the species.

He’s also actively involved in the science himself. By tagging bluefin tuna in the wild and learning more about their physiology in captivity, he and his Stanford University colleagues at the Tuna Research and  Conservation Center (TRCC) hope to find information that will lead to more sustainable fishing policies. Already their work has greatly advanced researchers’ understanding of the physiology and life cycle of bluefin tuna.

Collaborations in Japan

In the last three years, Chuck has been collaborating with tuna scientists in Japan as well, tagging bluefin in the Western Pacific. The “young of the year” bluefin there are only a few inches long, a fraction of their adult size of five feet or more. Bluefin spawn in Japanese waters, Chuck said, but migrate to the Eastern Pacific where they spend a few years before traveling back to Japan.

Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna for the study. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.
Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna for the study. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

He and his team have learned this through tagging the animals, which they do by surgically implanting tracking tags into the tunas’ bellies. Bluefin are especially powerful creatures, so researchers have to be careful to minimize any sudden thrashing the tuna may do while they’re aboard ship to be tagged. For this, Chuck has honed what he calls “fish sense.”

“I know how to put my hands on the abdomen of a fish,” Chuck said. “I can feel the muscles getting ready to explode. And I’ll tell the team, ‘Take the scalpel away, the fish is going to go ballistic on us.’”

Call him the ‘Fish Whisperer’

He’s so good at anticipating the fish’s movements that it’s earned him a nickname: “Fish Whisperer”. But Chuck said he wasn’t born with fish sense; he developed it during 50 years of working with fish. It is one of the many skills he wants to pass on to his many protégés at the TRCC, a partnership formed in 1994 between the Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University.

“The biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten is from Chuck saying that I have good fish sense,” says Alex Norton, a senior research aquarist with the TRCC.

Pacific bluefin tuna at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo © Monterey Bay Aquarium
Pacific bluefin tuna in the Open Sea exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Alex began working there a dozen years ago. He says that Chuck’s mentoring has helped him thrive in his job. At first, Chuck would walk him through his many responsibilities. But as Alex gained skill and confidence, Chuck began giving him more independence.

“When someone has faith in you, you’re more apt to go further,” Alex said.

Mentoring is very important to Chuck. Though senior aquarium staff are required to spend at least 30 minutes a week in one-on-one meetings with each of their subordinates, Chuck regularly spends an hour or more.

“I think I’m morally and duty-bound to teach people things that I know so they can take my place,” he says.

– Cynthia McKelvey

Learn more about our work to recover Pacific bluefin tuna.

4 thoughts on “Chuck Farwell: Tuna Scientist, Mentor, Fish Whisperer”

  1. Hooray, Chuck. You’ve been a star in my book for over 30 years. So good to see you and read about all the good work you’re still doing.

    Like

  2. We caught a very ALIEN looking bluefin tuna in the north atlantic outside boston. It had tentacle like protrusions around its face like whiskers and all along its sides, do u know what this may be?

    Like

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