Kabata: Evolution of a Scientist

Meet Dr. Bob Kabata, Polish resistance fighter, British deckhand and Canadian scientist, who showed how parasites could be used to track fish populations, and who challenges the next generation to study the ocean as one huge interacting ecosystem.

Transcript of Video:

1. "Surrounded by Uniforms"

At last it was over and thousands of Allied soldiers were coming home, but for 22-year old Zbigniew Kabata and these other Polish combat veterans there would be no homecoming.  Their country was now under the heel of the Soviets and their future was a question mark.  But for Kabata this lay far ahead:  international recognition as an outstanding fishery scientist.  This is the remarkable story of his evolution from soldier to scientist.

Born in Yoramachi, Eastern Poland, in 1924, young Zbigniew Kabata grew up surrounded by uniforms, his father, a decorated officer in the Polish army.

So it is not at all surprising that in my case I never thought of anything else except of being a person in the Armed Forces.

At the age of 13 Kabata followed the family tradition and entered the elite military academy at Lebeouf in Eastern Poland.  When the Germans unleashed their crushing blitzkrieg on Poland in 1939 Kabata along with most of the 84 other boys in his class joined the struggle against the Nazis.  One-third of them would die before the war was over.

Young Kabata spent most of the Occupation here in the dense forests of Central Poland where he and other partisans fought a vicious, clandestine war against the Nazis.  The unit he served in became legendary in Central Poland.  On two occasions in 1943 Kabata was cited for bravery when he and a small assault group dressed in captured German uniforms shot their way into two Gestapo jails, freeing hundreds of fellow partisans.

With the defeat of the Germans the Russians ruthlessly took over.  Somehow Kabata pulled off a hair-raising escape to Italy and joined the free Polish forces fighting with the British 8th Army.

In 1946 he was evacuated to England and attended a fishing school in Aberdeen, run by the British armies' Polish Resettlement Corps.  The school was set up to help fill the post-war manpower shortage in the rapidly expanding British trawler fleet.

After a six-month course at the fisheries school, Bob, as everyone now called him, went to sea where he was not only seasick, he found work on deck low paid and dangerous.  On a second trip out he caught his leg in a trawler and broke it badly but after a slow recovery returned once more to sea.

Even though he was now far from home he never forgot the young men and women who had fought with him in the Resistance that lay buried all over Poland.  He carried this as a permanent reminder of his closest friend Deville who in 1943 along with a young girl had been gunned down and then hurriedly buried by the Germans.

They were buried there on the spot on German orders.  They were buried in the ground in an open field and as soon as it got dark we returned and dug them out.  On that occasion I took off his finger his stainless steel ring which I carry till this day.

Bob often met with other Polish veterans who shared the same passionate desire to return to their homeland and an army of liberation.  But as time passed they realized this was not to be.

2. "New Passions"

But then fate played a hand that led him to a new passion, a passion for scientific discovery.  It began when Kabata found himself becoming increasingly fascinated by the wide variety of marine life he saw dumped on the deck with each trawl from the sea.  This eventually led him here to the marine laboratory library in Aberdeen to learn more.

But marine biology was not Kabata's only interest at this time.  He had met and fallen in love with Mary Montgomery, a beautiful young Irish physician.  It was Mary who convinced Bob to pursue his fascination with marine biology at Aberdeen University.  He eventually applied, was accepted and proved to be a brilliant student, even winning the class prize at the end of the first year.  The following year Mary and Bob were married.  Two years later they had a daughter and a year after that a son.

While he was a student in Aberdeen, Bob wrote some short stories and poems, and one of these poems, which pays homage to the Underground Army, found its way into Occupied Poland where it was secretly passed from hand to hand.  After the fall of Communism this poem would make him famous in his newly-liberated homeland, but that lay far ahead.

Upon graduation from Aberdeen University Kabata joined the scientific staff at the marine laboratory of the Scottish Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Aberdeen.  It was a time when the commercial fishery on the North Sea was continuing to expand enormously.  This left fishery scientists at the laboratory scrambling to obtain as much information as possible about the commercial fish species being harvested so they could get enough data to regulate the fishery on a scientific basis.  But to get this information they had to know the movements of the fish population they were studying.  This was especially true of the haddock, the commercial species most heavily exploited in the North Sea at the time.  Scientists knew that if they could somehow chart the haddock's roots of migration they could better regulate the haddocks fishery, but how to do it?

After attempts to follow the haddocks movement by manually tagging them inshore, then retrieving the tagged fish out at sea proved unsatisfactory, they decided to try a new method of tagging the migrating haddock by employing a parasite which the haddock pickup inshore, then carry on their migration out to sea as a natural or biological tag.  The parasite called Lernaeocera branchialis, a tiny copepod crustacean like this one, lived on the haddock's gills where it sustained itself by tapping into the haddock's bloodstream.  The idea was that by examining a parasite's stage of growth when the haddock were caught offshore they might be able to gauge the species' route and rate of migration.

As his first scientific assignment at the laboratory Bob was given the job of testing the theory.  Unfortunately, when he went out on the research ship Scotia to examine the migrating haddock offshore he discovered that they had picked up new parasitic copepods of the same species out at sea and this so confused his data that he had to abandon the project.  But there were three very positive outcomes from the failed project for Kabata.

First of all, he became fascinated by the parasitic copepods and eventually wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the subject.

Secondly, in spite of his initial failure he believed fish parasites might still be successfully utilized to track fish populations.

The third outcome from the failed project led him to the conclusion that fish populations should not be studied in isolation but in the context of the whole ecosystem they interacted with.  This view, shared by very few other researchers at the time, would have important ramifications later in his career.

3. "Eureka"

For his next assignment Bob was once again sent out on the Scotia, this time to survey and catalogue all the parasitic fauna he could find on the North Sea.  It proved to be a monumental task.  The work required methodical painstaking research, but six years into the survey it proved worthwhile when Kabata made a momentous discovery.  What he found was that a gallbladder parasite found in whiting in the southern region of the North Sea belonged to a different species from those carried by whiting in the northern region.

And I spoke to this distinction between my whiting and the southern whiting.  I said, "Hah, there is something that might be a biological tie.

The more Kabata examined the two gallbladder parasites the more excited he became.  Parasites could be used as tags as he first thought.

Looking at it for the first time it reminded me of Archimedes jumping out of the bathtub and shouting Eureka!  It was just about the same feeling.

He was able to prove that the whiting population in the North Sea was not one big homogenous population but two separate populations divided by the Dogger Bank, and this was vital information for fisheries managers because now they could regulate the two populations separately.

Kabata followed this by employing other parasites as biological tags to identify separate stocks of haddock off the Farrow Islands.  His success using parasites as biological tags to track fish populations gained international attention.

When Canadian parasitologist Leo Margolis read of Kabata's work he immediately began to correspond with him.  The two eventually met at the Congress of Parasitology in Rome in 1964.  It was here Margolis invited Bob to come to the Pacific Biological Station on Canada's west coast where they were trying to identify the location of British Columbia salmon populations in the high seas.

It was a critical time in Canada's west coast salmon fishery.  Returns of Pacific salmon to Canadian rivers were declining rapidly and it was believed that this was the result of overfishing by the Japanese high seas fishing fleet in international waters.  But to stop it Canadian negotiators asked scientists at Canada's Pacific Biological Station to provide indisputable proof to the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission that this was the case.  But Canadian scientists knew this would be difficult to prove because Pacific salmon spawned in North American, Russian or Asian rivers are virtually indistinguishable.  But Dr. Leo Margolis believed that by employing parasites unique to Canadian freshwater lakes and rivers as biological tags they might be able to clearly identify the Canadian salmon offshore.

Soon after Kabata arrived Margolis was able to report.

Dr. Leo Margolis:
We discovered indeed that there were some parasites that young salmon acquired while they were in freshwater before they left their freshwater rearing areas to take up their marine residence and that some of these parasites stayed with the salmon throughout their life, and because they stayed with the salmon throughout their life once you went out to sea and caught fish at sea if they carried particular parasites then you could identify where they had come from.

Faced with this evidence the Japanese high seas salmon fleet had to reduce their interception of Canadian salmon.  Kabata was delighted.

On his arrival in Nanaimo in 1966 Bob was extremely impressed with the work being carried out at the Pacific Biological Station.  Here was a world famous research institution run by eminent scientists on the Fisheries Research Board of Canada.

So when I arrived in Canada I found myself facing a situation in which research opportunities were unparalleled.

After the war Canada had spared no expense in building a first class well-equipped research institution in Nainamo backed up by a small flotilla of ocean-going research vessels, the largest being the G.B. Reid.

Also, no expense was spared in hiring the best scientific minds from Canada and abroad to research and regulate the abundant salmon, ground fish and crustacean stocks being harvested in the rapidly-expanding west coast fishery.  Many of these scientists would gain international recognition for their work like Dr. Bill Ricker whose celebrated 1954 mathematical formula known as the Ricker Curve of Stock and Recruitment helped fishing nations plan their harvesting of many species, especially salmon.  And then there were others like Dr. Earl Forrester whose major work on the life history and dynamics of Pacific sockeye salmon gained international attention.  Then there was Dr. Ferris Neeve, whose remarkable text on pink salmon became a milestone in fisheries science.  Another was Dr. Keith Ketchen who pioneered the modern management of groundfish in the early 1960s.  He would see this fishery decades later surpass salmon as the most important economic catch on the west coast.  Others like Dan Quayle, Terry Butler and Neil Bourne laid the scientific groundwork for the region's extensive crustacean and shellfish fishery.

Also, a number of scientists at the station distinguished themselves in the field of oceanography, such as Nick Fofonoff, John Strickland, Jack Tully, Tim Parsons and Mike Waldchuk while scientists like Roly Brett fought the post-war rush to build hydroelectric dams on the Fraser River, eventually saving one of the most extensive Pacific salmon runs in the world.

Dr. John Davis:
Bob Kabata was hired at a time when there was a great expansion in science in Canada  and at the biological station.  A whole number of people came into the staff as a result of the recognition that we needed to do a lot of very important work in fisheries and biology.

Kabata added to this drive to understand the North Pacific commercial fish and other marine stocks by researching and publishing some groundbreaking studies on the region's parasites.  He not only discovered a number of previously unknown parasites but he was able to demonstrate to fisheries managers that some species of parasites contribute significantly to the natural mortality of several commercial fish populations.  And he continued to successfully employ parasites as biological tags to separate distinct populations of commercial fish species like black cod, ocean perch and hake that provided invaluable information to fisheries managers who were attempting to manage and regulate the stocks.

During his first decade at the station, in spite of his heavy workload, Kabata with the support of his family, at last found some hours in his spare time and holidays to organize and write a book on British parasitic copepods, a book he was unable to complete before leaving Aberdeen.

When it was published in London in 1979, "Parasitic Copepoda of British Fishes" immediately became a standard work for students of parasitology throughout the world.  The text contains over 2,000 illustrations Kabata painstakingly drew by hand over a microscope.

But this was not the only major work that Bob produced.  In the early 1980s after returning from a study he did in southeast Asia on a destructive parasitic copepod that was seriously damaging the extensive fish farming industry in Indonesia, it came to his attention that there was no text for students that described the fish parasites of the region.  So he wrote this book: "Parasites and Diseases of Fish Cultured in the Tropics".

This copy is in Malai.  He wrote the book in an incredible 14 months.

4. "Eureka" Continued

But important as all of his achievements are, perhaps his most lasting legacy is the effect he had on the Pacific biological station itself.  The task of overseeing the work of other researchers is often an unpopular and unglamorous position.  But when Bob was appointed by the director of the station, R.J. Beamish, to do so, he took on the job without complaint.  Again he would excel.

Dr. Beamish, who had been appointed director in 1980, was the youngest scientist in the history of the station to hold that position.  Beamish had excelled in science from the time of his Ph.D. studies at the University of Toronto when he discovered the problem of acid rain in North America and would continue his outstanding scientific work when he came to the station by perfecting methods of determining the age of many groundfish species, a very vital tool for fisheries managers.

When Beamish appointed Kabata to chair the Research Advisory Council, it was a time when the council oversaw the research projects of each scientist at the station, including a regular review of results and expenditures of the funds allotted to them, an unenviable task.

Beamish knew Bob appreciated the delicate necessity of working with the government bureaucracy; that he knew science and government is directed at problem-solving and in fisheries management these problems occur and re-occur annually.

However, in spite of this, Kabata realized it is important that government officials who fund scientific projects should not only be kept informed of what is being done and what needs to be done, but also to remind them that there are no quick fixes in science; that it is a long-term endeavour and should be funded accordingly.

Kabata went on to succeed as Chairman of the Research Advisory Council because, as a world-class scientist, he had the respect of researchers who came before him.

Dr. Don Noakes: 
The purpose was to improve basically the overall quality of the science program here.  As I say, the two most important characteristics that Bob brought to that were his attention to detail and his honesty.  The scientists here respected him and it worked very well.

Dr. R.J. Beamish: 
People were well aware that when they would come before the panel and if they had made commitments last year, it was only a matter of time before Bob would ask them how they were doing with whatever they had said they would do.

Dr. John Davis: 
Also, he shows us I think a real model for working with other people, to be part of a team, to share information, to collectively address problem solving, and that is very important in terms of doing things.

Kabata's 11-year tenure as head of the Advisory Council was extremely demanding, but the results proved to be worth it.

Dr. Don Noakes: 
When Bob was chairing that committee the productivity of the branch increased substantially from times before, partly due to the review process and the encouragement of staff to write it up.

From the beginning of his career as a parasitologist observing the close relationship of one organism with another, Bob believed in studying fish populations not in isolation but as part of the whole ecosystem.  This view had not been the prevailing one in post war fisheries, science and management where the emphasis had been in studying individual commercial stocks as single entities, whether by employing a mathematical formula or by distilling the complex population dynamics of a single fish species into a graphic model.

Now the view that Kabata had always espoused is being adopted again by fishery scientist organizations internationally.

Dr. John Davis: 
That ecosystem is our challenge now in terms of the way that science is focusing: a movement away from single species management of aquatic resources into an ecosystem concept and trying to understand how all the parts are interrelated.

In fishery science we had to start with a faunistic survey.  We had to catalogue everything that lives in this alien environment from which we humans are physiologically barred.  First, the immediate environment and the way they related to it, and then technological progress allowed us to come closer to the problems, and our advice to the managers in fisheries gradually became more accurate.

But then we realized that one cannot take a single species in isolation.  One cannot deal with it.  One has to consider the entire assemblage of interacting species which form an ecological mix.  Now we are entering the next phase, what I would call a global dimension that looks at natural events occurring in the entire ocean, whose biological balance is affected by the events which occur all over the surface of the globe, like meteorological events that can occur half a world away and dramatically affect the condition of our fish stocks.  All this information must be digested by the fisheries science and brought to bear on the quality of advice we give to fisheries managers.  It is an exciting challenge: studying the planet's ocean as one whole living organism.

I believe that the science branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is quite capable of reaching that goal.

5. "An Overwhelming Surprise…"

Kabata's retirement in 1989 coincided with the fall of the Soviet regime in Poland and he was at last able to return and see his mother and sister after an absence of 47 years.

And I never forgot that moment because the last time my mother saw me, I was 21 years old.

To his surprise, when he arrived in Poland he was welcomed as a hero, not only for his work in science but for his remarkable war record as an underground fighter.  He was amazed to find his poem "Paying Tribute to the Underground Army" that he had written so long ago in Aberdeen was now engraved on church walls, on plaques and memorials throughout the nation.

Here the poem is sung by the Polish Army chorus, with a soldier dressed in the simple uniform of an underground army fighter reading part of the poem.

The wonderful reception he received on his return to his homeland came as an overwhelming surprise.

Now retired in Nanaimo he continues his scientific work, consulting with scientists from all over the world who send him specimens of parasites to identify.  He is also writing a new book.

In spite of all this work, he makes sure his door is always open to talk with students and other young researchers.

Dr. Jackie King: 
Dr. Kabata does have a passion for science, does have a passion for biology.  That passion doesn't end at age 65.  Even as a child, if you find walking through the woods and looking at bugs or watching fish in a stream interesting, if you enjoy biology or chemistry or ecology courses at high school or university, it is something that you find interesting.  So you should never deny it.

Dr. John Davis:
Even though Bob is retired, here he is every day coming into the station, very able and willing to interact with the young people who will be the scientists of the future and to continue to serve as that mentor and that example for all of us, as a person who really represents excellence in science and excellence for the future as a role model.

In 1996 Kabata was awarded Poland's highest decoration, Grand Commander of the Order of Polonia Restituta, presented by the Polish Ambassador in Vancouver.