Scientists who work for her at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle had gathered data on coastal "rockfish," several varieties of those spiny, big-eyed denizens sold in seafood markets as "red snapper." Rockfish populations were dwindling, they warned, and Varanasi agreed to meet with leaders in Oregon's coastal fishing fleet to talk about it.
So it was that the petite chemist from India, draped in elegant, tailored silk, her straight black hair tied tightly behind her head, stepped into a room full of burly fishermen spoiling for a fight.
"They were very angry at the scientists," she says. "My English vocabulary expanded quite a bit with all the names they used for us."
Fishermen remember that meeting as the beginning of an economic disaster. "She was charming," grumbles one. "And that's all I'll say about that."
In its effort to preserve coastal fish, the federal government has clamped down on Oregon's fleet. Since 1996, the harvest has been cut by more than half, says Joe Easley, director of the Astoria-based association that represents the fleet.
The conflict is hardly surprising. Fishermen and scientists are forever carping at each other. Scientists see fishermen as greedy hunters who, given the opportunity, would happily yank the last fish from the sea. Fishermen grouse that scientists draw conclusions from faulty data and issue edicts from isolated offices.
Still, the flap is instructive. Because ordinary people in Seattle and much of the Pacific Northwest may be stumbling toward their own encounter with Varanasi and her team of some 315 biologists, geneticists and technicians.
"With endangered salmon, we are undertaking one of the greatest ecological challenges of the century," Varanasi says.
And potentially one of the most costly to taxpayers, farmers, homeowners and more.
To date, that broad inquiry has proceeded rather quietly in and around the offices and labs of the fisheries center, a four-story complex tucked behind the Seattle Yacht Club on the east end of Portage Bay.
How this sweeping mission, with all its political and potentially drastic economic consequences, was entrusted to Usha Varanasi and her scientists offers a glimpse into the modern complexities of managing natural resources in an ocean of competing interests.
Varanasi seems ever on the move. She pops on and off jets, winging to Washington, D.C., to meet with higher-ups at the National Marine Fisheries Service or fishermen who've got a beef. She's a regular at local schools, mentoring aspiring scientists especially young women. "I admire trailblazers," she says. "My interest is in exciting students. If we do really good science, we can make a difference."
Varanasi's own trailblazing began in Bombay, India, where she was reared in a prosperous family and an ancient society that, as she puts it, "didn't really know what to do with a girl."
When she decided to study in the United States, her father told her, "Only if you get a scholarship." At age 17, she applied to five American universities and landed a chemistry scholarship to Cal Tech in Pasadena, Calif.
In 1964, she applied for work at the fisheries center. It was an agency dominated by biologists, but they needed a chemist for an unusual research job studying the chemistry of porpoises.
"To be honest, I had no idea what a porpoise was!" Varanasi recalls. "I had pictured something like a porcupine. But it sounded interesting."
Her task was to analyze the unusual, transparent oil in the head of the porpoise and to determine its function. Over years of work, she determined that the oil focuses sound waves and serves a function similar to sonar, helping the porpoise navigate.
"I enjoyed the science," she says, "the chance to work with living things."
So she stayed with the agency never imagining that, a quarter century later, she would lead it into a new millennium.
THE INSTITUTIONAL genetics of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center go back more than a century, when the federal government began to pay attention to its rich fishing grounds, including the Northwest salmon runs, which even then, showed signs of stress.
In the 1960s, its scientists set out to explore the coast of Alaska and discovered a watery gold mine of fish that were being harvested by Russian and Japanese ships, or not at all.
That research spawned one of the world's richest fisheries, a Seattle-based industry that continues to harvest some 2 million tons of seafood each year. As harvests grew, so did worries about over-exploitation. In the 1970s Congress passed sweeping environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, which mandated that the government take extraordinary steps to save listed species. This was driven in part by construction of the Alaska oil pipeline, and the agency created a new division of "environmental conservation."
Varanasi and others went to work, trying to anticipate the biological consequences of a future oil spill in Alaska. She incorporated the findings into a book on the science of oil spills, which was published in the spring of 1989 just days after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's coastal waters. "Suddenly our book was in very great demand."
"I never felt any need to adopt Western dress," she says. "Scientists don't really care how their colleagues dress; I think they're mostly oblivious. I don't even own a pair of jeans. I tried once, but it was not a successful experiment." Her biggest handicap was neither gender nor ethnicity, Varanasi says. It was professional. Many scientists are ill-suited for management. "We are intellectually very independent, preferring to work by ourselves. An administrator needs many social skills that scientists don't often possess."
Varanasi, however, has no shortage of such skills. She moves comfortably in social settings, whether with scientists, politicians or even fishermen. She enjoys mentoring young people, especially young women who aspire to careers in science. She takes great pride in being a role model.
"I'm surprised how many women send me e-mails saying: 'Seeing you in this position makes a difference.' Visibility changes the way people think."
She would need all the help she could get. Even before she took the top job, several Northwest salmon runs had been listed as endangered, and these listings posed daunting issues: How to preserve a species that is harvested by thousands of impassioned fishermen and that migrates thousands of miles through cities and suburbs?
The task fell largely to the Montlake labs. In barely a decade, the agency's mission had shifted profoundly. Instead of working with fishermen, the center had allied itself with the fish.
Everybody agreed that salmon runs were in decline, but there was less agreement as to why. Was it dams? Pollution? Water temperatures? Lack of food? Genetic problems? To find out, federal scientists would have to analyze the life cycle of endangered fish.
So, while much of the federal government was supposed to be downsizing, Varanasi was upsizing. In a few short years, the staff doubled and the budget increased five-fold, to $50 million.
More important, she lured the best and brightest of scientists, says Peter Kareiva, a highly respected zoologist who worked three years at the center until moving to the private, nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
Varanasi tried to do both. She recruited top-notch university scientists such as geneticist Robin Waples, biologist Mary Ruckelshaus, and Kareiva himself.
With their influence, the center proposed a bold conservation strategy, employing state-of-the-art genetics to identify salmon strains that are unique to a particular area and therefore worthy of special attention. And they focused on an ecosystem approach to rescue the fish, they would restore its habitat.
More recently, she's brought on an economist Mark Plummer, who has co-authored a book that attacks the economics of the Endangered Species Act. "Our science touches the lives of people in many ways," she explains. "People are part of the ecosystem."
AS THE CENTER has grown and changed, it has become more difficult to manage. So perhaps it's not surprising that Varanasi's administration has drawn criticism from inside and outside. Her task is made more difficult by rivalries between the senior staffers who may resist change and the new wave who brought with them an unfamiliar mission.
"All this top-notch science, and nothing happens with it," he says. "It's a failure of leadership. The center is good at hiring people, but way too timid in the policy arena."
Public-affairs consultant Tom Cashman, who left the agency last year, sees an institution fraught with internecine management struggles, handcuffed by the essential nature of its work. The federal government is willing to do the research, but not to forge it into public policy "because they would risk offending large constituencies," he says.
The center also takes shots from the other side. Walter Pereyra, who left his job as the center's biologist to run his own trawler company nearly 20 years ago, says the center has become antagonistic toward the fishing industry it's supposed to serve.
Varanasi finds herself in a crossfire between those who would use science to justify drastic action to save fish runs, and those who say such actions go far beyond the center's mission.
That conflict even flared in the agency's attempt to rewrite its official mission statement, a process that took months and left staffers exhausted, even cynical. "There's a constant fear of how what we're doing will be viewed from above," says one.
It's aggravated by a recent court decision that demands a tougher approach to fish conservation, and by a Bush administration hostile to environmental laws.
Now an odd twist of fate has added still another complexity: Even as environmentalists decry salmon declines, Mother Nature has provided two consecutive years of healthy spawning runs. Politically, how can Varanasi recommend heroic conservation measures when Northwest rivers seem to be teeming with salmon, when the regional economy is struggling and when her ultimate boss is unlikely to support those measures?
To date, the administration has not intervened, Varanasi says. "Nobody has told me to do anything different." But this does not diminish the task of translating a complex, evolving scientific process into public policy that will meet the requirements of federal law.
Making or enforcing laws is not her job, she emphasizes.
"Scientists cannot tell you what to do. All we can tell you is: This is what we have learned. Somebody else has to take that knowledge and apply it."
In that sense, most scientists are innately conservative, she says, because they understand that the scientific process is never complete. She uses the example of studies of wine consumption; one study concludes that wine-drinkers live longer than non-drinkers, then another study suggests the opposite. Salmon studies are bound to reach equally contradictory results, she says.
"The hardest part of my job is dealing with people who believe that everything we learn is final. But science constantly evolves. You can make small changes when you are uncertain, and perhaps larger decisions when you are less uncertain."
You do the science "three times over," she says. Do the experiment, compile the results, then go back and replicate it to see if you get the same result. And then you hand that information over to the politicians and bureaucrats to decide what to do about it.
"There are some very brilliant scientists out there who believe in advocacy," she says. "I am not one of them. Science is objective. That may seem dull, but it has to be that way."
Ross Anderson is a Seattle free-lance writer who recently worked on a federal contract to compile an oral history of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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