Gene Helfman, professor emeritus in the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology, delivered the 2010 Smith Memorial Lecture at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown, South Africa. Entitled “Fish, pain, and the ethics of sportfishing,” Helfman’s lecture explored the question of whether fish feel pain, and what effect, if any, that knowledge would have on one’s decision to engage in sportfishing.
The Smith Memorial Lecture honors J.L.B. and Margaret Smith. J.L.B. Smith gained renown in 1938 for the identification of the Coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago and is related to the fishes that emerged onto land and eventually became amphibians, reptiles, and us. Margaret, his wife and partner in research, was the founder of the SAIAB’s precursor organization, the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The SAIAB is part of the National Research Foundation, the South African equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Helfman was honored to give the Smith Memorial Lecture. “My first real fish book was J.L.B. Smith’s Sea Fishes of South Africa, which I bought in a used bookstore in Berkeley when I was an undergraduate, back in 1966,” he said. “J.L.B. has always been regarded as a major pioneer in ichthyological circles, not just for his discovery and naming of the Coelacanth, but for his and Margaret’s many major contributions to 20th Century ichthyology and zoology. It’s ironic that in my retirement I got to give a presentation celebrating J.L.B. but also critiquing one of his favorite pastimes, sportishing, at his home institution.”
Helfman’s distinguished teaching and research career have focused on conservation of fishes, effects of land use on fishes, invasive species, and behavioral and ecological interactions and their impact on fish conservation. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Fish Conservation, published by Island Press in 2007, and the textbook The Diversity of Fishes, with co-authors Bruce Collette, Douglas Facey, and Brian Bowen, which is in its second edition. He has served on the National Research Council’s Klamath Basin Study Committee, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Sustainable Fisheries Assessment Team, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of American Rivers, a National Marine Fisheries Service Salmon Recovery Committee, two Fish Specialist Groups for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Committee. He currently lives on Lopez Island, Washington, where he is involved in local research and education efforts relating to salmon and marine conservation.
Gene Helfman poses next to the famous second Coelacanth, captured off the Comore Islands near Madagascar in 1952. J.L.B. Smith hunted for 14 years to find a live animal after the first Coelacanth was trawled up off South Africa in 1938. Coelacanths are now known to occur along the eastern coast of Africa, with a second species recently discovered in Indonesia. They are classified as Critically Endangered and protected from commercial fishing by a number of international agreements. Photo by Judy Meyer.