Ricker: A Passion for Science

Meet Dr. Bill Ricker, a pioneer in fish stock assessment who taught himself Russian to aid his research and developed the "Ricker Curve," a mathematical model of fish population dynamics.
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Well, he is a remarkable fellow, he really is.  He is universally respected.

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I haven't known people like this, not many, maybe two or three in my lifetime.  The beauty of knowing persons like this is that knowing them enriches yourself.

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I know this is many years after the renaissance, but I think it is fair to say that Bill Ricker is our renaissance man in fisheries, no question about it.

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Dr. Bill Ricker is in his late 80s now and officially retired, but unofficially he comes here most days to the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo to continue his work. In every field of aquatic science he has worked in, he has excelled.  He has been showered with honours, degrees, medals and citations.  He even has this research vessel named after him.  But he will tell you the thing that has meant most to him over his long career is the satisfaction that comes from scientific discovery.  This is his story.

Bill Ricker was born far from the sea in Waterdown, Ontario.  He spent his boyhood in North Bay, where his father was a science master at a teacher's college.  North Bay was a railroad town then.

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Actually, I wanted to be a railway engineer.  Even at the age of 3, whenever a train whistled I would run outside to watch it.  My mother had established a particular crack in the sidewalk beyond which I was not to approach the monsters.

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But as he grew older and became an avid reader, his ambitions changed.

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A book I read many times as a boy, and occasionally since, is "Two Little Savages" by Ernest Thompson Seton.  I still think it is the best book written by a Canadian, an adventure and with the background of an Irish Canadian settlement in the old Ontario frontier.

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The book captivate young Ricker as he followed the adventures of two boys who go into the woods and explore the wonders of the natural world. Like the boys in the book, he went exploring himself and became a keen bird‑watcher.  A whole new world opened up.

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When Ricker graduated from high school with two scholarships to the University of Toronto, his course was set on a remarkable scientific journey.

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In those days most Canadian universities would give a person a degree in biology, period.  It was a combination of some botany and some zoology and a little bit of physics and a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of mathematics, but the first thing was to make you a scientist and then the second thing was to make you either a biologist, a chemist or a physicist or a mathematician. That kind of broad education that we got in Canadian universities in those days was just a marvellous, marvellous way of getting started so that you could adapt to anything.

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This comprehensive approach to biology would pay off in the decades to come, because graduates working in various parts of the world were trained to observe and record any animal or plant life they came across. Ricker would be no exception.  He would catalogue an array of previously unrecorded life forms, especially aquatic insects, including 80 species of stone flies.  He is still regarded as a world authority on the subject.

Campus life at university in the 1920s was not all study and hard work.  There was time for other things.  Bill was able to indulge his love of music by singing in the Hart House Glee Club and in the chorus of three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He also joined the Brody Club, an informal group of amateur and expert naturalists who met regularly to compare notes and to go out on excursions. With the kind of training Bill was getting at the University of Toronto, he could go into any area of biological research.  But fate played a hand, when after his first year he landed a summer job with the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory, assisting in surveys of fish and aquatic life in various parts of Ontario.

In that first summer he worked as a general handyman, helping professors and graduates with studies on Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.  He loved the work, and when he returned to work for the next two summers he was given the freedom to carry out his own research on trout streams and lakes in the escarpment region of southern Ontario and later in Algonquin Park. When he graduated with his MA in 1931, his thesis was based on a year‑round study of the Mad River near Georgian Bay.

By now the Great Depression was setting in and the prospects of employment looked grim, but fate played a hand again, when Ricker was offered a job by the Biological Board of Canada as Scientific Assistant here at Cultis Lake in British Columbia. Ricker was assigned this small cabin by his supervisor, Dr. Earl Forrester, an he settled down to a bachelor existence and the routine of work at the lake. One of his tasks was to assist Forrester in completing a 12‑year study on the effectiveness of the sockeye hatchery there.  This meant painstakingly counting large numbers of juvenile sockeye leaving the lake in the spring and then counting them again when they returned from the ocean as adults three years later in the fall.

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At this site here there was a fence across the river which we used in the spring to catch the little sockeye and count them on their way down to the ocean.  When they came back three years later, they were counted at another fence down there by the bridge.  These were the two big events in the course of the year as far as the sockeye were concerned.

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This time‑consuming task was only a small part of Ricker's work at Cultis Lake.  His main job, and the reason he had been hired, was to do a thorough limnological study of the lake itself. Limnology is the science of inland waters, as oceanography is the science of the sea.  A limnological study of a lake is the examination of its make‑up, its geology, its physical features, its chemical make‑up, it biology.  In a lake like Cultis, microscopic plants feed tiny crustaceans, and they in turn feed the young sockeye.  Understanding this food web is essential in understanding how many healthy fish the lake can support.

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Of course our lake work, our limnological work went on all year round.  Every two weeks we would take the boat out in the middle where we had a buoy anchored and take samples of temperature and water samples for oxygen content, nitrates and other chemical analyses. Sometimes we had a dredge which we lowered down and got up samples of the mud which was full of larval insects and snails and plants, and that sort of thing, just to get a general idea of what the life of the lake consisted of.

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Ricker grew to love Cultis Lake.  He climbed its surrounding mountains and explored its unlogged forests. But the lake was not always so serene and tranquil.  Sometimes the wind blew and the snow and the ice came.  On one occasion, Bill was snowed in for a month, but through it all the work continued. Eventually the long study of the effectiveness of the Lake's hatchery came to an end, with the conclusion that it was not cost‑effective and it was closed.  In time, all the sockeye hatcheries in British Columbia were shut down. Things were changing, and they were changing for Bill too. 

In the summer of 1934 he met Marion Cardwell, a Chilliwack public health nurse.  Marion was very different from Bill.  Where Bill was low key and retiring, Marion was vivacious and outgoing.  But they had one very important thing in common, a love of nature and the outdoors.  That autumn they spent much of their time together hiking and mountain climbing.

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I have no idea what criterion Marion was using when she decided that she could put up with me for the rest of her life.  But she did fall in love, and so did I, and in the spring of 1935 we were married.

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Late in the summer they drove to Ontario, where Ricker completed his Ph.D. work at the University of Toronto.  His thesis was based on the limnology of Cultis Lake.  With this out of the way, Bill and Marion pooled their savings and embarked on a tour of Europe.

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We sailed from Montreal to Glasgow to meet Marion's relatives there, then on to London, where I made notes and drawings of American stone flies in the Natural History Museum. But soon we were off again, sailing to Bergen, Norway and a tour of Scandinavia.  There we visited biological stations in the universities and, of course, we did a lot of sightseeing.

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Later Ricker went on to visit scientific centres and natural history museums in France, Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and Moscow. It was an uneasy time in Europe.  Hitler's storm troopers were marching and Secret Police cast their shadow over both Germany and Russia.  But that did not deter Bill Ricker.  He had come to talk to fellow scientists in the universal language of science.  He firmly believed the sharing of research information from every nation in the world, no matter where, was imperative if science was to advance.

After returning to Canada, Ricker spent 18 months at Cultis Lake finishing his limnological study.  Then he accepted a position with the International Pacific Salmon Commission on a tagging program at Hell's Gate in the Fraser canyon. A year later he came here, to the University of Indiana, where he had accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Zoology.  The job was perfect for Bill.  Not only would he be able to teach, something he enjoyed, he would also be able to continue his limnological research during the summers without interference.  This kind of freedom to pursue his own research in his own way would always be very important to Ricker. Bloomington, Indiana was a small university town when Bill, Marion and their two boys first arrived.  But that would change.

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Intellectual liberty and common decency are threatened by our enemies, but proud to serve under the flag of freedom in a war for freedom, Indiana University accepts the challenge.

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With America's entrance into the war Indiana University became a major training centre for military doctors and many other personnel.  This increased the teaching load of the faculty, but Ricker not only pulled his weight with the extra work, he still found time to advance his limnological work in the summers in spite of wartime shortages and a scarcity of student research assistance.

It would prove to be a turning point in his career, because what Ricker was able to do in these small Indiana lakes was to successfully come to grips with the age‑old problem of assessing the vital statistics of fish populations.  Statistics like:  How many fish are there of each species?  How many are taken by fishermen?  How many die of natural causes?  How many harvestable fish are being added to the population each year. Scientists knew that if they could get this information they could understand and regulate the fishery much more effectively, but these statistics are difficult to obtain.

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After all, they live in an element which is totally alien to us.  We can't go and count them.  We have to go under water.  We have to deal with it on their terms, and we can't do it.  So we are forced to depend on roundabout ways of dealing with it.  We can't do it directly.

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Ricker knew researchers in various parts of the world over many years had worked on ways of getting these vital statistics, so he began gathering their scientific papers, analyzing them and putting them into a single compendium along with his own findings.  He would eventually add two more compendiums and these became known as the green books.

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Everybody associates Ricker with those pioneer efforts and with his book that summarizes all the techniques that you use when you are doing the calculations.  A wonderful contribution.  He is very modest about it, but no doubt about it there are only one or two other people in the world who many anything like that contribution to fisheries management.

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In the course of gathering material for his green books, he unearthed a remarkable work written by a brilliant Russian scientist, Theodore Baronov in 1916.  But since Baronov's work was in Russian, Ricker came here to the University Language School and he learned sufficient Russian to translate it.  It was worth the effort.

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Baronov was the pioneer, but he was way ahead of his time.  Because he was from Russia, a lot of his work was not well‑known elsewhere in the world.  Bill picked it up, realized its importance, and that was the basis for his first green book which outlined a methodology very much like Baronov's for calculating what was the optimal age at which to harvest your fish. So Bill was really the person who picked up on Baronov's work, systematized it and really started a modern fish population dynamics, fisheries management techniques.

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What Ricker had succeeded in doing was to develop new quantitative methods to assess the impact of recreational fishing on lakes.  Armed with these vital statistics, conservation managers now had the information to effectively regulate the lakes sports fishery.  It was an impressive achievement. After a decade of success in Indiana, Bill Ricker returned to his native Canada and took on the job of Editor of the Fisheries Research Board Journal.  Again he would excel.

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Bill took over the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board when it was a fairly parochial publication, put it that way.  The material in it was good, and it was respected, but you certainly wouldn't call it a world‑class journal.  By the time he had finished his period of editorship, it was a well‑respected international journal.  Today it is still a top journal in its field in the world.

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The next 13 years he spent as editor of the Journal and the following 11 years, up to his retirement, proved to be the most productive of Bill's career, because apart from his work at the Journal, and later as Chief Scientist for the Fisheries Research Board, he continued to research and publish in every field of science he had specialized in over his career. In the field of fish population dynamics, his 1954 paper on stock and recruitment introduced the now famous Ricker curve.

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One of the things which probably is typical of a very bright mind is that it tends to reduce things to simple terms.

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This simple graph demonstrated the relation between the abundance of a fish stock and the adult progeny it produced.

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This curve played an important part in the history of thinking about fish populations, because obviously to plan that a population will be in existence for many generations you have to know the relationship between the number of parents and the number of children.

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Fishing nations began using this formula as a planning tool.

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That was a major contribution in fisheries and was immediately used in all fisheries, salmon particularly because you can easily measure the returning adult stock, and then later on with the fishery and the future returning stocks you can get the size of the progeny.

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It is still reverberating wherever you go to talk to fish managers or fish population people, everybody has to know it.  It is just impossible to progress without it.

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Apart from this research he continued to study Russian fisheries literature, translating nearly 100 papers, and eventually produced this, a Russian‑English Dictionary of fishery terms.  It is still extensively used in Russia and abroad.

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Dr. Ricker created very good dictionary.  Practically most of my colleagues have his dictionary under his hand in their daily work.  It is even to have contact with Dr. Ricker because he can speak Russian.

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It was Ricker's dictionary and his other translation work that led the Russians to invite him to tour their fisheries research centres in 1969, this in spite of the continuing chill of the Cold War. In the field of entomology he co‑authored a book on the distribution and evolution of stone flies with American entomologist Herb Ross. Despite all this work, Bill still found time for music, teaching himself to play the base viol so he could play in the Nanaimo Symphony with his three sons.

In 1963 he served as Interim Chairman of the Fisheries Research Board and throughout these years acted as advisor to Canadian delegations to international commissions that dealt with whaling, fur seals, tropical tuna, the North Pacific fisheries, and the exploration of the sea. Ricker had joined the prestigious American Fishery Society as a young man in 1933 and was especially delighted when in 1969 they granted him their first Award of Excellence.  Many other awards followed, including the Order of Canada in 1986. In the summer of 1991 Bill accompanied this Canadian delegation to the far eastern headquarters of the Russian Fisheries Research Network in Vladivostok where he presented an important paper on the sizes of salmon. Later he was invited to visit the wild and remote salmon spawning beds of Kuril Lake in Kamchatka. The trip culminated with the celebration of his 84th birthday.

Ricker officially retired in 1973, but he didn't stop working.  Even when his beloved Marion was diagnosed with a long‑term debilitating illness and he took on the full‑time job of caring for her until her death in 1991, he still found time to continue his scientific work.  It is his passion and keeps him young.

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You wonder sometimes what keeps him going.  It is true of a fair number of scientists that when they retire they only thing that changes is they go on a smaller salary.  I think this is because people who are really into doing research, are really scientists in the best sense of the word, it is almost like being in the priesthood.  It is a way of life.  It isn't a job, it is a way of life.