What's My Story: Marine Ecologist

James Morris is a marine ecologist for NOAA focused on protecting the ocean's fisheries from invasive species. He grew up around the docks of a small fishing village as a 6th generation fisherman. He loves fishing and wants to be sure there is a flourishing fishery for more generations of small communities along the coast.

When did you discover you wanted to be a marine ecologist?

James MorrisI was raised in the rural “Downeast” fishing communities of North Carolina in a tiny fishing town that doesn’t show up on most maps. It’s called Sea Level. I hung around the docks, fishing with my extended family including my grandfather, and aunts and uncles. My family has been in the commercial fishing business for six generations. You name it, I’ve probably caught it. I trawled for shrimp, set crab pots, raked clams, dredged oysters, and set gill nets for flounder. 

In my teen years, my father bought an old fishhouse and began buying and selling clams, fish, and shrimp. This provided a place where fishermen would bring their catch to be packaged in ice and sent to markets typically in the Northeast. During this time, my father became interested in aquaculture—growing clams and oysters. All of these experiences fueled my fascination with marine science.

What did you study in college?
I was fascinated by marine life, with the boats, with the gear. Fishing for me was easy. It was what I was good at and what I was most comfortable doing. My shrimp trawling paid for much of college. I started at the University of North Carolina Wilmington but then transferred to East Carolina University in Greenville. I majored in biology. At one point, I took a class in marine biology with Dr. Roger Rulifson. He saw this Downeast kid with lots of experience and asked me to do a senior project with him. We researched the catch and release mortality of blue crabs in shrimp trawls. That was my first foray into research and I loved it. 

Dr. Rulifson again, mentored my next research venture. He offered me a position in his laboratory studying the life history of striped bass. We studied questions pertaining to migration, duration of forays into the estuary and the coastal ocean, and when did it spawn. Turns out the ear bones of the fish, otoliths, could answer those questions. The otoliths form like tree rings, capturing location data at each stage in life history. Each of the habitats visited by the striped bass captures the signature concoction of trace metals that could be correlated with migration and life history. My master’s thesis provided insights into striped bass populations along the U.S. East Coast.

Where did your career take you?
Not that far by boat. I got a temporary job at NOAA in Beaufort immediately after graduate school. I worked in a temporary job as an ecologist for six years. During that time, I also began a doctorate in biology at NCSU. The Biology and Ecology of the Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish was the title of my dissertation. Since then, I’m a full time employee at NOAA where I lead research programs investigating marine invasive species and aquaculture.  

What do you like about your job?
One of the reasons that I enjoy working for NOAA is because of my background in commercial fishing. NOAA does science to conserve marine coastal resources—managing fisheries, and managing ecosystem services—so that all of these resources are there for the future. 

In my lab, we study lionfish so we can understand how they impact coastal resources, then what can we do about them. As a 6th generation fishermen, I want there to be more generations in Sea Level, North Carolina and other fishing communities of our coasts.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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