Pioneers in Marine and Fisheries Research at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory 

Tom McIlwain

1940 - 2012

January 09, 2012

Tom McIlwain

This first contribution highlights prominent GCRL scientist, Tom McIlwain, whose career spans more than five decades of research and service in the marine fisheries sciences.  McIlwain fully retired from GCRL at the end of calendar year 2011.  Recently a series of discussions was undertaken with McIlwain and William Hawkins (Retired GCRL Director and Professor), Jeffrey Lotz (Interim Director, Professor and Chair), Chris Snyder (Director of the GCRL Marine Education Center), Jim Franks (Senior Fisheries Scientist) and Read Hendon (Assistant Director of the GCRL Center for Fisheries Research and Development).  The objectives of the discussions were to document the highlights of Tom’s career and the impact it has had on fisheries sciences and management on a regional and national scale and, more importantly, to capture his concerns about current issues relating to the health of marine fisheries locally and around the world.    

Thomas David McIlwain, Ph.D., was born on November 15, 1940, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and at an early age knew that he wanted to be a marine biologist.  He graduated from the Capitol Page School in Washington, DC, in 1958, having been sponsored by Mississippi Representative William Colmer.  Following graduation he enrolled briefly at Mississippi State University but that being too far from salt water transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi to major in biology.  He graduated from USM with a B.S. in Psychology/Biology in 1964 and an M.S. in zoology in 1966. He was awarded a doctorate in Zoology/Computer Science/Statistics from USM in 1978 completing his formal education. 

Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

Except for nine years (1994-2003) spent as a fishery administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Pascagoula, Tom was affiliated with GCRL his entire career.  In 1964, he began working as a fishery scientist under Gordon Gunter and then worked for J.Y. Christmas who was in charge of the GCRL fisheries program.  Christmas and Gunter obtained the first funded project for GCRL which was to examine the menhaden fishery in the Mississippi Sound.  From 1978-1989, Tom served as Assistant Director of Fisheries at GCRL and directed a staff of 38 scientific and technical personnel who collected and analyzed fisheries data which then were supplied to the Mississippi Marine Conservation Commission for making management decisions.  He served as the GCRL voting representative on the Mississippi Marine Commission on Marine Resources, the state agency that formulated and implemented the marine fishery regulations in Mississippi at that time. 

From 1989-1994, Tom served as the Director of GCRL.  In June 1988, the University of Southern Mississippi assumed administrative control of the two sites (Ocean Springs and Point Cadet, Biloxi) facility.  In July 1989 McIlwain was charged with managing the transition of GCRL from an independent marine laboratory to an integral academic unit within the university structure.  As Director he was responsible for both sites and administered a staff of 210 scientific, technical and support personnel, including a senior staff of 22 Ph.D.-level scientists.  He implemented a five-year strategic plan, streamlined the personnel department, reorganized all the scientific support personnel into contract employees and substantially transitioned the research facility into an academic facility.  During his tenure as Director the total budget for GCRL went from $5.5 million annually to over $8 million annually, of which $3 million came from State appropriations with the remainder from grants and contracts generated by GCRL scientists.  The Laboratory operated a $20 million physical plant that provided both research laboratory space to support a research program in marine science and fisheries as well as teaching classrooms and laboratories to support educational programs.  During his tenure as Director, the GCRL Summer Field Program expanded to 18 courses in diverse areas of the marine sciences in which 62 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. participated.  This period also marked the rapid development of marine education programs at Point Cadet.  These programs ranged from academic year marine education classes for grades K - 12 to summer classes offered to classroom teachers as well as public education programs aimed at fostering a better understanding and appreciation of the value of the marine environment.

National Marine Fisheries Service

In 1994, McIlwain resigned the directorship and left GCRL for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Pascagoula (MS) Laboratory.  As a fisheries administrator he coordinated and tracked the research activities of the NMFS Southeast Science Center in response to the needs of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.  He represented the NMFS Science Center Director on the Technical Coordinating Committee of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, providing guidance to the Commission on the direction of the operation of the State/Federal cooperative programs.  He also represented the Science Center on the National Aquaculture Task Force, and served as the regional aquaculture program coordinator.  He was Chairman of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture Shrimp Virus Workgroup and facilitated several shrimp virus workshops, stakeholder hearings, and risk assessments that have kept the shrimping industry involved and informed on the shrimp virus issue that has affected shrimp production and shrimp economics throughout the world.  After a stint as a legislative fellow in Washington, DC, he returned to his position at NMFS-Pascagoula until his retirement from federal service in 2003.

Return to GCRL

McIlwain returned to GCRL in 2003 to coordinate the expansion of facilities for the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center at the Cedar Point site, a 224-acre site located on Davis Bayou in Ocean Springs.  Those facilities, now mostly complete and operational, make the center one of the top venues for marine aquaculture research in the nation.   McIlwain oversaw the design and construction of several research laboratories including an Aquaculture Visitors Pavilion, a service/receiving building, three aquaculture growout buildings, an aquaculture demonstration laboratory, a red snapper culture building, a marine environmental research laboratory, a wet laboratory, an animal health building and a 25,500-sq. ft., two-story, office and laboratory building.  Concurrently he provided oversight of two infrastructure programs for the facility.  When completed, the Cedar Point projects will total about $50 million in construction and equipment including the Marine Education Center at Cedar Point that will replace the original education center that was lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Spanning his career at GCRL and NMFS, McIlwain had major impact in several areas of marine research, policy development and management.  Below we recount his roles in establishing a striped bass fishery along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the development of the MARFIN project to support marine fishery research nationally and the United States Marine Shrimp Farming Program, the major U.S. effort to develop a national program in shrimp aquaculture.

Tom McIlwain and the R/V Tom McIlwain following the the vessel's christening ceremony.

Tom McIlwain and the newly christened R/V Tom McIlwain


Anadromous Fish (Striped Bass) Project at GCRL

In 1967 not long after McIlwain was employed by GCRL, Gordon Gunter asked him to be manager of a project designed to reintroduce striped bass into local waters.  The project was funded through the Anadromous Fish Act of 1965 which was designed, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Interior ”… to conserve and enhance America’s fisheries for salmon, shad, striped bass and other anadromous fish that live in the sea or Great Lakes and migrate up streams to spawn.”  Striped bass were locally prevalent through much of the early 1900s but declined and then nearly disappeared around the middle of the century.  The coast of the northern Gulf of Mexico was near the end of the natural western range of the striped bass but several factors might have contributed to its demise including upland industrial pollution along with damming and rechanneling river systems eliminating water conditions that striped bass need to trigger spawning.  The project has continued since 1967 without interruption.  Although it has not known whether or not a breeding population has been established, a small recreational fishery for striped bass has been developed and sustained.  In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of the project facilities at the GCRL-East Beach location.  Now in cooperation with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources most of the fish for release are cultured at the department’s Lyman Fish Hatchery.

Fisheries Policy Involvement and the MARFIN Program

McIlwain ‘s interest in the political process began at an early age when he attended and graduated high school from the Capitol Page School in Washington, DC, and continued with two other extended assignments on Capitol Hill one as a GCRL and a second as a NMFS employee.  At the Capitol Page School he encountered many famous and soon to be famous politicians including Harry Truman, Averell Harriman, Adlai Stevenson, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson and Strom Thurmond.  Senator John Kennedy gave his commencement address which was followed by a reception in the White House hosted by Mamie Eisenhower.  During this period he learned his way around Washington and how the lobbying and legislative processes worked.

In 1983 with the support of GCRL and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, he returned to Washington as a legislative fellow in the office of Republican House Minority Whip Trent Lott, a childhood friend from Pascagoula.   There he learned more about legislative and political processes developing briefing documents for Lott.  During this time the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing marine fisheries management, came up for reauthorization and with Congressman Lott serving on the relevant committee in the House of Representatives an opportunity arose to better position marine fishery interests in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) region to garner more federal resources.  At that time the GOM provided more than forty percent of the nation’s fishery products (data that did not include Alaska) yet got only 10% of the available federal resources. 

McIlwain authored a position paper called "Research Needs For Information Leading To Full and Wise Use of Fishery Resources In The Gulf of Mexico,"  better known as the Lott/McIlwain white paper, to get more fisheries research resources to support the region’s fisheries.  Pursuant to that effort and funded by a grant from the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, McIlwain led a team that conducted workshops in the Gulf States bringing together commercial and recreational fishing interests, state and federal management agencies and representatives from academia to identify research needs that would describe a competitive fisheries research program.  That program became known as the Marine Fisheries Initiative or MARFIN and is administered by the Southeast Region of NMFS.  It remains today as one of the principal resources in support of marine fisheries research in the nation.

In 2000 as an employee of NMFS, Tom once again was assigned to go to Washington as a Legislative Fellow.  In this capacity he focused on facilitating the flow of information through liaison activities between NOAA and Capitol Hill mainly concerning NMFS and NOAA programs.  Multiple NOAA statutory authorities had expired (Endangered Species Act, Magnuson/Stevens Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Marine Mammals Protection Act), and draft re-authorization legislation was under consideration by Congress.  He worked closely with Congressional staff to improve awareness of the issues involved in re-authorization of these statutes and better communications with external NOAA constituencies. He also served as a liaison among the NOAA Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA), the NMFS Assistant Administrator (AA) and Deputy Assistant Administrator (DAA) providing information from the congressional offices to NOAA OLA and NMFA AA and DAA.  He provided advice and technical information on the development and passage of a number of oceans and fisheries authorization bills during the 106th Congress, second session.  Legislation included the National Marine Sanctuaries Amendments Act of 2000, Fisherman Protective Act Amendments of 1999, Yukon River Salmon Act of 1999, and the Fisheries Survey Vessel Authorization Act of 1999.  Additionally input was provided to the passage in the Senate of the Pribilof Island Transition Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 2000, Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Act of 2000, Shark Finning Prohibition Act, the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 and the Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Act of 1999.

From 1986-1992, McIlwain served on the NOAA Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC) that advises the Secretary of Commerce on marine resource issues under the jurisdiction of that federal department.   He also served on the scientific advisory committee for the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS), now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement- BOEMRE), the agency responsible for managing the nation’s offshore resources, including petroleum, in an environmentally and economically responsible manner.   BOMERE was at the forefront of criticism following the BP/Deep Water Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.  As a biologist on the MMS advisory committee that was dominated by oceanographers and engineers, McIlwain’s advice to that agency that it should pay more attention to the potential biological and environmental effects of offshore petroleum exploration and production went substantially unheeded, much to their regret.

In one of his most important positions dealing with fishery policies, McIlwain has served since 2006 as a voting member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council representing the State of Mississippi.  The Gulf Council is responsible for making recommendations for the management of the fishery resources within the Gulf of Mexico Exclusive Economic Zone to the Secretary of Commerce and as one of the regional management councils has tremendous impact on fisheries legislation nationwide.

U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program (USMSFP)

The United States presently imports more than 90% of the shrimp it consumes and at least half that amount comes from aquaculture, mainly from the Far East and Central and South America.  That was not the case in 1985 when the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program was conceived by McIlwain and colleagues at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii and eventually Texas A&M University, Tufts University, the University of Arizona and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.  The program had a 25-year history of funding through the USDA until 2010.

The rationale of the program was to develop shrimp aquaculture for domestic consumption in the United States.  Shrimp aquaculture exploded abroad but a U.S. industry has not developed mainly due to the high cost of coastal property in the U.S. as well as high labor costs and restrictive permitting.   Nevertheless, technologies developed by the USMSFP, especially protocols for biosecurity, the development of selectively bred stocks and the convergence to a single culture species, information published in the open scientific literature, played an integral role in the world-wide development of shrimp farming affording U.S. consumers a steady supply of high quality inexpensive shrimp.  Recently, the consortium has turned its attention to closed loop indoor systems that promise to be economically viable soon.

On a broader scale, worldwide aquaculture supplies 75% of the consumable seafood yet the aquaculture industry in the U.S. is miniscule, meaning that we depend on other nations to supply our seafood.  Much of this McIlwain attributes to the lack of commitment that NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service have shown to the development as well as the utility of marine aquaculture in reversing the trade balance in seafood products (about $10 billion per year) and to using hatchery reared fishes to supplement natural populations.  In spite of never having substantially funded marine aquaculture R&D, many agency scientists are not convinced it is a viable endeavor.  Also, possibly because of some early mistakes made in aquaculture development such as sacrificing mangrove forests for shrimp farms in Southeast Asia and the introduction of Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters to supply net pen operations, marine aquaculture has been an easy target for environmentally centered non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who, according to some scientists, misrepresent the impacts of aquaculture particularly on fish meal supply, environmental impacts and potential effects on native populations.  McIlwain expects that agency attitudes toward marine aquaculture will shift in time due to a combination of factors principally our dependency on foreign sources for our seafood supplies.  Furthermore, research conducted at facilities such as the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center will demonstrate sustainability as well as the biologic feasibility and economic viability of marine aquaculture, particularly for fin fishes. 

Tom McIlwain at the GCRL aquaculture facility

Marine Fisheries Management: Changes Over Time

The management of marine fisheries is one of the most complex and contentious of all natural resource issues.  Reasons are numerous and include a diverse stakeholder base, an extremely valuable resource and a profound lack of understanding of the dimensions of that resource.  McIlwain ‘s career has spanned more than five decades during which he has been unwaveringly involved in fishery management ranging from conducting restocking programs to drafting fisheries legislation and developing federal programs to support fishery science to serving on major fisheries management bodies.   Over his career, McIlwain has noted several trends that are changing the way we approach the conservation and exploitation of our fisheries.  Application of new technologies, especially new gestalt tools, now allow us to track individual fishing vessels with GPS instruments to better understand where and how much fishing is taking place.  Also, gestalt modeling tools applied to stock assessment efforts are yielding more and better information as to the location and extent of fish stocks.  Recognizing that even our best efforts to understand the nature of fish stocks falls short, the increasing reliance on science to tilt management decisions is refreshing and is in the best interest for managing the resource. 

A long-standing concern of McIlwain has been the often fractious relationship between commercial and recreational fishing interests.   At various times, both communities have been evasive about their fishing impacts and heavy handed in their efforts to garner political influence.  The fact remains, however, that the recreational fishers are having an increasing impact on fish stocks but that impact is very difficult to quantify.  The growth of recreational fishing, particularly offshore fishing, and the subsequent pressures it puts on fish stocks, is relatively recent and probably at least in part a result of a combination of the availability of reliable, safe, efficient and relatively inexpensive offshore fishing vessels, the application of hi-tech instruments for finding and visualizing fish habitat and schools of fishes and an increase in leisure time.  Assessment of recreational fishing impacts on fish stocks is further hindered by the large number of vessels catching relatively small numbers of fish each. 

Current Issues

With regard to the Northern Gulf of Mexico, McIlwain is concerned about several issues.  Recent declines in shrimp, crab and oysters, the ‘seafood trinity’ for the region, and turtle and dolphin deaths that might not be the result of natural cycles but possibly have more specific etiologies.  There is little doubt that coastal and estuarine water quality and habitats have been degraded in recent decades and this trend might continue if upland development negatively affecting the watershed takes place at the rate predicted after Hurricane Katrina but suspended due to the economic downturn.  The coastline of Mississippi is undeveloped, especially compared with Alabama and Florida, and any development that takes place should be done with a strong understanding of the environmental effects. 

The long-term effects of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill are not known at this time but the event points out the profound lack of knowledge we have of the Gulf of Mexico and its living marine resources.  McIlwain is optimistic, however, that close communication and cooperation among the states bordering the GOM will help insure that subsequent events like the spill will be better understood and managed.  Marine laboratories like the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory are excellently positioned to help better understand those consequences.

McIlwain has graciously consented to establishing the “Tom McIlwain Gulf Coast Research Laboratory Fisheries Endowment,” in the Division of Coastal Sciences.  Funds from the endowment will assist the selected recipient in building a competitive and sustainable program in marine fisheries research at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.  To donate to this fund, please contact the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory or the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation.

fax 601.266.5735

Selected Publications by Thomas David McIlwain

Compiled by:
William E. Hawkins
Director and Professor (Retired)
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

Special thanks go to Donna Brown, Gulf Hills Hotel, for providing us the use of the hotel’s Executive Suite to conduct some of the interviews.