Oceanographer works for scale

by Lori Saldaña
r. Tim Baumgartner gets excited about sardines, and not because they're his favorite food.
For the past 15 years, he has collected and examined layers of ocean sediments that contain well-preserved fish scales, studying historic fluctuations in populations of sardines and other pelagic (i.e., mid-ocean) fish. And, like the fish he studies, he migrates, working in Mexico at the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y Educacion Superior de Ensenada and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
His research started as an extension of work pioneered by Andy Soutar and John Isaacs in the 1970s. He has helped establish proxy records dating back 2,000 years, providing valuable information about the relationships between global climate changes, fish populations and ocean ecology. This information is being used to help manage commercial fisheries more efficiently.

The path to Mexico

Tim didn't set out to become an international authority on the history of climate change and its impact on small fish. After receiving his Master's degree in marine geology from Oregon State University he headed south to Baja California, Mexico, to accept an invitation to help create a new department at a marine sciences school in Ensenada. He's been there since, even while earning his doctorate in Oceanography from Oregon State University (in 1987).
Looking back on this move, he recalls, "In countries like Mexico, there was a great need for people with higher education. I just felt like the impact I could make was going to be much greater."
Today, he is making an impact on both sides of the border. His 1992 paper, Reconstruction of the History of Pacific Sardine and Northern Anchovy Populations over the Past Two Millennia from Sediments of the Santa Barbara Basin, California (coauthored by Andy Soutar and Vicente Ferreira) was cited in a letter to the editors of the prestigious Science magazine. The letter's four authors - all directors of various fisheries and research programs - noted that "small pelagics fluctuate massively through time . . . [these] fisheries pose complex problems of prediction, - problems which Tim's work is helping them understand.
He knew almost no Spanish when he moved south. However, after living nearly 20 years in Baja California, he now is fluent. In August he gave a presentation in Spanish at a climate change conference in Uruguay, and another American participant asked him, "Exactly what is your native tongue?" For the first time, he began to feel that he really belonged south of the border.
"I wanted to learn more about Latin America since I had gone on a cruise to the South Pacific [in 1974], and had spent some time up in the Andes," he recalled recently. "I had become fascinated with the culture, and I wanted to get a job in Peru when I was told of this job in Mexico, teaching and developing the Department of Marine Geology at the School of Marine Science in Ensenada."

Looking ahead

Earlier this year he assembled a group of fisheries experts near Rosarito, Mexico, as part of a "Bi-National Workshop on Shared Pelagic Resources Across the U.S.- Mexican Border." The workshop went well, and he has been invited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to coordinate a meeting on climate change research in 1994.
As for what the future may hold - he just returned from southern Chile, where his proposal to look for sardine scales in the glacier fjords was met with enthusiasm by Chilean researchers. "I wish I could clone myself, or figure out some other way to continue doing my research for another 50 years," he says.

Lori Saldaña is a writer, public speaker, and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues.