Ama Dablan summit

Anatomy of a fish ecologist: Gerry Allen

Hi Gerry, welcome to the lair. How are you?

Thanks Ebbs, it’s a pleasure to join. Thankfully, all is going well at the ripe age of 72 and I’m enthusiastic and active as ever.

Please give us an idea of where you grew up and your interest in fish before your career got underway.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a fairly remote, mountainous area of northern California – Trinity County. So I gained an early appreciation of the natural world. I was fascinated with all sorts of wild critters, including fishes, as a youngster. My parents gave me my first aquarium when I was seven and that was the start of a life-long love affair. I was a fish nerd as a young teenager, but my main interest soon shifted to American football and by the time I graduated from high school was offered a football scholarship to attend uni. Although this might seem a huge career distraction, I’m really thankful for my football days, as I may not have gone to uni if it were not for that.

After my playing days were over I went to Hawaii (home of some of my footy team mates) to finish my degree requirements. That’s where I discovered coral reef fishes and also met the other love of my life, wife Connie. Hawaii turned out to be a fantastic place to cultivate a rapidly growing interest in coral fishes and in 1966 I enrolled in grad school at the University. During those formative years I was greatly influenced by Dr. Bill Gosline and especially Dr. John (“Jack Randall”), who were instrumental in my becoming an ichthyologist. I was Dr. Randall’s assistant at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and did my first field trips under his tutelage (to the Marshall Islands and remote Easter Island). After graduation I worked a short stint as a fisheries officer at Palau and then migrated to Australia with Connie and our six year old son Tony aboard the El Torito, a fantastic “mini” research ship. I eventually got a job as Curator of Fishes at the Western Australian Museum, where I worked until 1998. During that period I travelled and dived extensively around the Pacific and Indian oceans, developing a strong interest in documenting the fish fauna of previously unknown (or at least unreported) areas. My real passion is publishing popular, well illustrated books, that enable the reader to become an “instant expert” of the fishes of a particular location. I left the WA Museum in 1998 to become a private consultant, mainly with Conservation International, but also occasional field survey jobs for The Nature Conservancy and WWF.

You were the fish curator at the Western Australian Museum for a fair chunk of time, and obviously discovered, catalogued and pondered over more than a few Australian freshwater fishes. Are there any particular Australian freshwater taxa that still hold your interest?

Although my early training and most of my career has been geared towards coral reef fish studies, I became interested in freshwater fishes as a result of my first field trip with the WA Museum in 1974. Although I didn’t know anything about FW fishes or how to catch them, I was “ordered “ to join a month-long expedition to the Kimberleys. This was a brilliant introduction to WA and a chance to experience some real wilderness, using helicopter access. I got lots of fishes and when I returned to the museum and began processing the collections I was amazed that several of the fishes, including a Melanotaenia rainbowfish (e.g. M. pygmaea) were new to science. That was the beginning of my freshwater studies, which continue to be a major interest. From the beginning I’ve been fascinated with rainbowfishes, which eventually took me to all sorts of remote destinations around the island of New Guinea, where I’m still actively working and finding new ones at an alarming rate. So, definitely rainbowfishes would be at the top of the list followed closely by Mogurnda.

And if you could have another lifetime after this current one, is there a group of freshwater fishes outside of Australia and New Guinea that might cajole your interest?

That’s an interesting question. I can’t really think of any other groups that I would choose to work on, but I think I could use another lifetime to come to grips with what is going on with Australian and New Guinea fishes now that we are using genetic analysis as an important taxonomic tool. If only I would have known what was coming around the corner with genetics. I would love to re-visit all those remote places I’ve been to for critical genetic samples. But who knows, there may be enough time still as one of my close associates in West Papua has just purchased a helicopter and is learning to fly it in New Guinea conditions. We’ve already drawn up a wish list of collecting destinations we hope to tick off once the chopper is operational.

I have always wanted to know, since you have seen so many different fishes in your lifetime, can you describe a few of the magic moments?  

There have been so many of those moments it’s difficult to pinpoint any that are particularly special. I get a huge buzz when I spot something, either diving on reefs or collecting in freshwater environments, that based on my experience I know immediately is a new species. The excitement factor is directly proportional to the beauty of the fish. In the marine realm there is no question about it – Flasherwrasses of the genus Paracheilinus take center stage. For freshwater fishes it would definitely be rainbows and blue-eyes. A few of the standout species I’ve had the good fortune to discover include Pseudomugil connieae, P. cyanodorsalis, Melanotaenia angfa, M. herbertaxelrodi, and Chilatherina bleheri.

At the ripe old age of twenty, I remember my supervisor Dave Bellwood encouraging me to ring you and ask you a question in 1993 when I was undertaking an honours project on blennies. I remember being scared out of my wits (despite not being a shy lad). And then getting 30 seconds into the phone conversation and instantly feeling at ease due to your amazingly calm and hospitable demeanour. Do you have any advice for the young postgraduates of today when it comes to seeking out the pioneers in their field and did you ever have such an occasion yourself?

That’s a good one Ebbs! Reminds me of my first personal encounter with the man who ended up being my PhD advisor at the University of Hawaii – the legendary Dr. Jack Randall. This fellow was my absolute idol, having already published volumes on reef fishes by the early 60s (and still going strong – he’ll be 90 this year!). I found out his daily routine from other students. He worked at Coconut Island research station, a 25 minute commute to the other side of Oahu from Honolulu. Anyway, I deliberately planned a “chance” meeting on the dock where small boats took out researchers to the station. Talk about nervous, while waiting for his arrival! But it worked. I had a quick conversation and managed to extract his home phone number. About three weeks later Jack offered me a job as his assistant at the Bishop Museum. So my advice is to always be bold and think of positive outcomes. It never hurts to put yourself out there and who knows – if the desire is strong enough dreams have a way of coming true.

Similarly can you give some advice to the big wigs with regard to interacting with the younger guard?

I know everyone is busy and wrapped up in their own world, but a number one priority should always be to offer maximum advice and encouragement to young students coming through the ranks. I really think it’s an obligation of senior scientists to show this courtesy. I only have to look back at my own career to realize how important this was to me when people like Jack Randall and Bill Gosline would drop whatever they were doing to answer my questions and offer advice. Dr. Gosline (the ichthyologist at the U. of Hawaii and expert on fish physiology and taxonomy of Hawaiian fishes) generously gave me a huge portion of his personal library when he retired and I still use some of these books almost daily.

Are there any freshwater fish ecologists in Australia that have surprised you with particular findings or their endeavours?

To be totally honest I’m a bit out of touch with the ecological scene, at least on a personal level, as most of my time these days is spent grinding out papers or books and doing field work. But I must say, I’m very impressed by both the level of science and quality of research, judging from the ever increasing amount of publications. I know that several universities have specialized fish ecology sections, something that did not exist until fairly recently. Thanks to my son’s involvement I’m most familiar with the brilliant work that is being carried out by David Morgan’s group at Murdoch University, here in Perth.

Mark, is active in the fish ecology arena, and like you is a humble and easy to like character. He was at Okinawa when you received a prestigious award mid last year. Can you comment on that experience and what it is like to have a family member sharing a professional career in fish science?

I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am that Mark is involved in ecological studies of fishes. It’s something we never really talked a lot about, but I could see from a very young age he loved the outdoors and the natural world. So it was not surprising that his career took off in that direction. It meant the world to me to have him there at Okinawa to see the old man receive that award. He’s always taken a big interest in my work and we have been very lucky to share special moments doing field work in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Hang in there Gerry, we are almost done. Can you take a risk or two and tell us what you think freshwater fish ecologists in Australia are doing well and what we could really be doing better?

I’m not just saying this to rack up points, I honestly believe that freshwater fish ecology is in the best shape it’s ever been. Lots of good people coming through and plenty of interesting projects to keep us occupied in the future. We are very lucky to live in country that has such an amazing ecology. Genetic results are showing us that the fish fauna is even more diverse than we ever imagined and therefore we need to expand ecological and taxonomic studies to validate what geneticists are telling us.

Earlier I asked you to supply one of your favourite photos. Care to talk us through what makes this shot so special to you?

I’ve actually supplied two. One shows Mark and myself collecting in a small creek in the upper Fly River system of PNG. This was a great trip for fishes and also a wonderful opportunity to work with my son. Suprisingly, I don’t have that many action shots of us together, so this one is special. The other captures an amazing moment on the summit of Ama Dablan, a spectacular Himalayan peak in the Everest region that I climbed with 4 others at the age of 65.

Fly River 2007

Gerry I would like to end with a comment, rather than a question. Your work and you as a person, have influenced my career. In this regard I am very confident that I am not the Lone Ranger. Please keep doing what you do, and thanks for making time for the interview.

I’m very humbled by your praise. Not sure I deserve this. Thank you very much for inviting me.