Dr John Gordon OBE – 17.12.1942 – 4.6.2021

Dr John Gordon

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Not every scientist gets to make the lasting impact that Dr John Gordon made during his time at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) – previously known as the Scottish Marine Biological Association.

On hearing of his death on June 4 this year, tributes came from far and wide, such was the international reputation of the deep-sea scientist, nearly 20 years after his retirement.

An expert on Atlantic fisheries, Dr Gordon became one of the world’s foremost researchers in deep-sea ecology and remained a SAMS Fellow until his death.

Born in Edinburgh, Dr Gordon lived in Easdale, Isle of Seil, and spent his whole research career at SAMS after completing a PhD at Edinburgh University.

Dr Gordon began his research in the shallow waters of the Firth of Lorn but, with the commissioning of the RRS Challenger in 1974, he moved into deeper waters (500 to 1,500 metres) to the west of Scotland’s continental slope, working on the biology of the bottom-living fish, which were later commercially fished.

His work over the next decade, in particular, contributed greatly to our knowledge of food chains in the deep sea and how commercial trawling affects fish populations in deeper water.

From 1975 to 1985 he comprehensively sampled the deep-sea demersal fish populations of the Rockall Tough and adjacent areas in the NE Atlantic before the onset of any commercial fishing activity. In so doing, John generously offered ship time on RRS Challenger to Nigel Merrett, then of the Institute of Oceanographic Services (IOS). This began an intense series of 11 joint sampling cruises over a six-year period, studying both the Rockall Trough and the adjacent Porcupine Seabight areas.

Dr Merrett said John’s warm and amicable leadership through fair weather and foul – mostly foul – typically knit together the small team involved and ensured the success of this fruitful collaboration well into the future.

This period of sampling led to Dr Gordon’s unique description of the distribution, abundance, age, growth, diet and reproduction of 70 species of fish in their pristine state before human exploitation. In no other fishing ground in the world, shallow or deep, are such pre-fishery baseline data available against which to measure impacts of man and climate change.

Commercial deep-sea fisheries began in the Rockall Trough in 1989 and by 1993, the most valuable fish species, the Orange Roughy, had been fished close to extinction and other species were being depleted. In 2003 Dr Gordon wrote that, ‘The Rockall Trough is probably one of the best studied deep-water ecosystems … is now being subjected to Unsustainable Fish Activity’.

Since then, Dr Gordon worked tirelessly contributing to reports, working groups, national and international bodies to implement effective regulation of deep-water fisheries. His early data have repeatedly been used in assessments of long-term changes in deep-water fish populations in the North-East Atlantic.

Former colleague Professor Monty Priede said: ‘John sampled in all seasons of the year including heroic mid-winter trawling when the small ship had to hide from storms behind Hebridean islands and head out to grab fishing opportunities in rough seas between weather fronts.  John seemed unperturbed by such working conditions, carefully measuring, counting, and sorting specimens as the ship tossed and turned around him.

‘He became a master of the art of scientific deep-water trawling obtaining consistent calibrated samples of numbers of fish per unit area of sea floor, techniques which he later passed on to new generations of fishery scientists.

‘John’s pre-1989 data set stands as a stark reminder of what we have lost in the uncontrolled rush to exploit the deep-sea. Now we have also lost John Gordon himself, the staunchest advocate for sound science-based fishery management.’

In 1994 Dr Gordon was named Buckland Professor, which involved giving public lectures on deep water fisheries at venues throughout the UK.

In 1995 he was appointed chairman of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Study Group on the Biology and Assessment of Deep-sea Fishery Resources, a post he held until 2000. He also provided advice and evidence to organisations such as the European Commission, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the Scottish Government and the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Dr Gordon retired in 2002 as Principal Scientific Officer at SAMS but remained an Honorary Research Fellow. On his retirement, his international reputation kept him busy as a keynote speaker and with several consultancies.

In 2016, his contribution to marine science was recognised with an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Dr Gordon spent considerable time outside the UK as a visiting scientist and consultant. During visits to Norway he contributed to significant discoveries of early life stages of deep-sea fish. He also spent considerable time in Mallorca, Spain, where he contributed to Mediterranean deep-sea fish studies.

Although devoted to his work, Dr Gordon’s achievements were not limited to his scientific endeavours. On the Isle of Seil where he lived for more than 50 years, he made a significant input to the life of his local community.

As a member, office bearer and later trustee of Seil Island Community Hall, he organised numerous community fundraising activities and helped to lead major development projects for the hall, including an extension in 1975, purchase of land for a sports field in 1985 and the building of a new Hall in 2005.

He was a founder member of the Isle of Seil Sports Club providing sporting and recreational activities for the children of Seil and surrounding areas, and organising the Seil Island Games.

A passionate advocate for local community, he served on the Seil and Easdale Community Council and had amassed an amazing archive and knowledge of the hall and the village of Ellenabeich, which has been and will continue to be an invaluable resource for the future.

His wise counsel, sense of fun and community spirit will be sadly missed.

Dr Gordon is survived by his wife, Kathleen and two sons, Hamish and Colin.