Ken Able Ends 33-Year Tenure at Rutgers Marine Station

Photo by: Rutger Hagan FAREWELL: Ken Able, Rutgers Marine Field Station director and marine science professor, was given a retirement party by well-wishers, with gifts including a portrait by Victoria Ford of the station that was his home away from home for 33 years. Able is not one to sit back; he’ll be completing a new book about the Mullica River environs.

Tuckerton — Rutgers University Professor Emeritus Ken Able, ichthyologist and director of the Rutgers Marine Field Station at the end of Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor, is retiring after 42 years of teaching. On Friday, June 28, well wishers gathered at the refurbished Coast Guard Station, lovingly chronicled by Able in his book, From Lifesaving to Marine Research: Station 119 (Down The Shore Publishing, 2015).

Former students, colleagues, friends, interns and loved ones drove in or flew in from far and wide to celebrate the end (not really end) of Able’s career. The jovial atmosphere and estuarine scenery were uplifting; the east breeze kept greenhead flies at bay and the temperature comfortable for an outdoor affair.

At the party, everyone who wished Able a happy retirement added the caveat: “even though we know you’re not really retiring.”

As anyone lucky enough ever to have attended a potluck at the Field Station knows, there is just no beating a Hagan-hosted potluck. Lab researcher Roland Hagan was the main organizer of the retirement fête, which included tables upon tables of delicious homemade contributions and coolers upon coolers full of beer; an official opening at 3:18 p.m., followed by much merriment; and later, a formal presentation of gifts: a custom portrait of the field station, a hand-painted kayak paddle, and a loving “roast” timed with the sunset.

One invited guest who couldn’t attend, Jon Hare, science and research director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Massachusetts-based Northeast Fisheries Science Center, sent a typed-up recollection of his “favorite Ken story” from the days when Hare was a grad student. It involves beer.

During an “ichs and herps” meeting in a university courtyard, a police officer told them they couldn’t drink openly. Able pointed at a balcony 10 floors up where people were also drinking. When the officer looked up, Able chucked a beer bottle that landed and shattered nearby. See, Able said, those people are drinking and tossing bottles over the balcony! The officer rushed in and broke up the party, while Able and company went about their business.

“Ken has a keen sense for a weak argument; a willingness to take a contrarian view; and a slight tendency to question authority,” Hare wrote.

The Marine Field Station has been Able’s home away from home for more than 30 years. In that time as its leader, he has contributed greatly to the knowledge of the interplay of fish between ocean and marshland, the importance of cold, deep sea currents called “upwellers” to fish migration, and creation of the Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles program to chart ocean currents and effects of climate change on fish stocks.

Able was there when Rutgers decided to rescue the former Coast Guard building that had stood empty and vandalized. In September 1969, part of the building was destroyed by fire.

The United States Coast Guard started sinking the pilings for the wooden causeway to the building in 1937. By 1940 it was operating as a regular station. It was built in the typical Roosevelt style, with porches and a cupola – one of 30 built up and down the East Coast.

When Rutgers took over in 1972, the cupola and roof were gone and the building was open to the elements. The federal government sold the deteriorated building for a dollar to then Rutgers College, which immediately began renovations to turn it into a research station as part of the new Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. Able was appointed director of the field station in 1986. This new era of research undertaken by Rutgers centered first on the salt marsh environment. Rutgers students, led by Able, documented that the marsh provides an important fish nursery and that young fish spawned in the ocean come here as eggs and larvae and spend their first critical year in the marsh.

One of Able’s most dedicated services as an ichthyologist is the continuous record of the juvenile fish abundance in the marsh, logged by the station’s fisheries department since 1989. Once a month at spring tide, students collect fish off the last bridge of Great Bay Boulevard, take them to the lab and catalogue them. From this research, Rutgers Marine and Coastal Sciences Department has the longest continuous record of juvenile and larvae fish ingress on the East Coast.

Rutgers scientists under Able have also contributed to the knowledge of fish migration by tagging different types of fish with acoustic frequency tags, and then establishing hydrophone listening stations to track their migrations, not unlike the EZ pass system. Some striped bass have been tracked from Little Egg Inlet all the way to the Saco River in Maine and back again.

These research activities also answer questions on the impact of fisheries activity, the urbanization of estuaries and climate change.

The station also maintains meteorological instruments. The lowest barometric reading occurred during Superstorm Sandy when she came ashore at Little Egg Inlet on October 29, 2012. The eye of the storm passed right over the station.

Local residents look forward each year to the Open House at the Station, usually held in September, that attract up to 800 persons to the remote location. Able has often lectured on the latest research, answering questions on striped bass, flounder and crabs, the creatures most fished in the area.

During his years in research, Able has written two other books with M.P. Fahay: The First Year in the Life of Estuarine Fishes in the Middle Atlantic Bight (Rutgers University Press, 1986) and Ecology of Estuarine Fishes: Temperate Waters of the Western North Atlantic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

Able is at work on another book dealing with the underwater natural history of the Mullica Valley.

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