For most people on Grays Harbor, the passion and life’s work of Steve Harbell goes unseen and largely unknown. But for anyone in the county who makes their living in the fishing or aquaculture industries or even people who are passionate about the region’s aquatic life, Harbell’s handiwork is everywhere.
“It’s not one of those jobs that has a lot of fanfare, but I think of him being a household word among people in his field,” said Washington State University Extension colleague Don Tapio, 64.
For the past 35 years, Harbell, 62, has worked in various capacities at WSU, starting off as a researcher and eventually retiring recently as the county director and marine resources agent for WSU Extension in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. The position puts him at the intersection of scientific research and commerce. He has worked directly with the people who make their living from aquatic resources, encouraging best practices from a scientific and economic point of view.
During his time with WSU, among other things, Harbell found ways to address diseases that kill “farmed” fish, helped dramatically expand the production of shellfish in the region, battled burrowing shrimp, fought off invasive aquatic weeds and led safety efforts for Washington state’s commercial fishing industry — traditionally one of the most dangerous places to work in the country.
His work, and that of his colleagues, expanded the economic base of the area and led to the development of industries at a time when many other industries on the Harbor were falling prey to new economic realities. Although his work was done with the quiet humility that characterizes Harbell, most everyone in the community feels its effects. Today Harbell continues to pursue his passion for science by working part time as a marine field specialist senior for University of Washington’s Sea Grant program.
Early years in California
Harbell was born in 1950 in Berkeley, Calif., into what could be best described as an academic family. His father held a doctorate in economics and taught at the University of California at Berkeley when the percentage of people at the time who held bachelor’s degrees was less than 10 percent. At the early age of 2, Harbell and his family packed up and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, so Harbell’s father could teach economics at American University in Beirut, one of the Middle East’s most prestigious universities. In the ’50s, long before the country’s civil war, Beirut was an international city called “The Switzerland of the Middle East.” The cultures of the West and the East coexisted peacefully and Harbell got his first taste of the natural sciences in Beirut at AUB. His father was friendly with some of the faculty in the entomology department, who let him look at samples of insects collected from all over the world.
“The American University in Beirut had an entomology department and my dad would take me over there and they would have this big display of insects and butterflies and I got interested in that,” Harbell said.
The Harbell family only stayed in Beirut for three years, returning to the San Francisco area in 1955. By the time Harbell was 13, it was time for him to go overseas again, this time to Jordan. Harbell’s father had taken a post with the United States Agency for International Development, commonly known as USAID. He was responsible for analyzing development projects in the country, specifically a dam. Compared to Lebanon, he remembers Jordan as a much different experience, insular and shrouded with the political tensions between Jordan and neighboring Israel.
“At that time, the West Bank was still in Jordan. Jerusalem was a divided city and we couldn’t go into Israel,” Harbell said. “There were checkpoints in Jordan and demarcation lines in the city.”
Eventually, because there was no high school in Jordan comparable to those in the United States, Harbell’s parents sent him to a boarding school in Switzerland. He spent his freshman year there before returning, once again to the Berkeley area in 1965, where he attended Miramonte High School. Harbell said that he was pretty much a normal kid. He liked playing sports and doing just about any kind of outdoor activity. His parents provided strong, but loving guidance. And his love for academics and the natural sciences grew.
“I had a great group of friends and we did all kinds of sports stuff, and hiking, bike trips and hung out doing everything,” Harbell said.
When it came time for college, Harbell decided to attend the University of California at Davis. He thought about attending UC Berkeley, “But Berkeley was just a little too close to home,” Harbell said adding, “and Berkeley was in a big turmoil.”
UC Davis is where Harbell discovered two of the most important loves of his life. During his freshman year, he met his future wife, Anna, and sometime during his junior year he discovered his love of aquatic animals, eventually earning a bachelor’s in fisheries biology.
“I finally took a fish class and I really got interested in it. Part of the reason fish are so interesting is you are studying something you can’t see that easily,” he said.
By his senior year, he and Anna were married, and sometime the same year, Harbell was accepted to a master’s program to study fish, specifically salmon, at the University of Washington. He found the experience exhilarating.
“I was like a kid in a candy store. I came up from a program where we had maybe 10 people, maybe less than that. And there were 150 graduate students at the College of Fisheries at University of Washington. It was huge. It had all these fisheries courses, ties to Alaska, ties to the Northwest fishing industry, the Alaska fishing industry — all these different agencies. It was wonderful,” he said.
Harbell threw himself into his studies, eventually earning a master’s degree in the pathology of vibriosis in coho salmon, or basically how a bacterium causes a disease that kills salmon. While Harbell was studying all things salmon at UW, he befriended a man who had worked in the Peace Corps. After a series of conversations, Harbell decided he wanted to join the Peace Corps and live in the Philippines to conduct research on the various species of fish found in the islands’ freshwater fisheries. His wife went with him, and eventually wound up teaching chemistry at a university.
Things didn’t go so well in the Philippines. Funding promised by the government of the Philippines never materialized. Eventually the Harbells had to return before his commitment had ended. Still, he said, the experience was a good one.
They decided to return to Washington state and upon seeing an advertisement for a state position researching freshwater fish in Kitsap County for the state government, Harbell applied and was hired. About a year later he transferred to a position on the coast that focused on salmon. Because the extension office covers so much subject matter, Harbell had to expand his scientific repertoire. He not only helped aquaculture business owners, but regular farmers and others raising livestock.
During his 34 years on the Harbor and in Pacific County, Harbell said he saw a lot of changes in aquaculture businesses, specifically salmon and shellfish fisheries.
“For a long time, salmon was the dominant fishery,” he said. “But now Dungeness crab is the most valuable fishery here.”
Over the years, the volume of Dungeness crab harvested in Grays Harbor area has skyrocketed. Approximately $15 million worth of Dungeness crab are now harvested each year in the county. By comparison, in 1982, a little more than $2 million worth of Dungeness crab was harvested.
One of the things Harbell said he is proud of are his efforts to train fishermen in safety techniques, including cold weather survival training. On the small fishing boats where deckhands are moving quickly over wet metal surfaces, often at night, one slight misstep can land a fisherman in water cold enough to cause death within minutes.
“So much of his work actually saved lives,” Tapio. “When you’re in a position to save lives that’s pretty good.”
Will Morris, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3930, or by email: email@example.com.