Marine ecologist Michelle Ridgway, best known in the fisheries and environmental communities for her passion as an ocean conservationist, died in a Seattle hospital on Jan. 2 from injuries suffered in a vehicle accident near Juneau on New Year’s Eve.
Tributes pouring in to her work and spirit of adventure included one from Ketchikan’s fisheries artist Ray Troll, who wrote on Ridgway’s Facebook page “Michelle was a true warrior for the deep … a hero of mine and just flat-out brave as well.
“We talked many times about the wonders of the deep … and exploring the depths of the Bering Sea. I draw pictures of the deep … but damn … Michelle actually went there, deep down into the blackness in a tiny submarine. Bad ass in so many ways and utterly passionate about her work,” Troll said.
Among the many marine research accomplishments of the 54-year-old Ridgway was participating in a Greenpeace-sponsored expedition in 2007 into the giant Zhemchug Canyon, the largest submarine canyon in the world, in the middle of the Bering Sea.
For more than 25 years Ridgway, a lifelong Alaskan, pursued her passion in marine ecological research, consulting and education, including testimony on her work before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
“I respected Michelle above all in the fishing industry, politically and in science and oceanography,” said Shawn Dochtermann, of Kodiak, a veteran harvester of many years. “She set the bar for integrity. She was also a personal friend.”
Ridgway’s work also included teaching youngsters at St. George Island in the Pribilofs about marine ecology.
Beginning in 2005, Ridgway began collaborating with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, coastal Alaskan school districts and Alaska Native entities to develop customized “place-based” hands-on marine science adventure camps, which were subsequently held at Old Harbor in 2006, Juneau in 2007 and the Pribilof Islands at St. George in 2008.
“She was monumental,” said Dorothy Childers, a consultant and former executive director of AMCC, where Ridgway served on the board of directors and co-chaired the habitat committee.
Under Ridgway’s guidance, youngsters from grades five through 12 studied phytoplankton and mammals, benthic food webs and king crab ecology, and the stomach contents of halibut caught by local harvesters, and did survey work aboard the Coast Guard cutter Healy.
“Michelle was a key component of the science camp that we established at St. George, was an inspiration to the young people in that community, and did some amazing things with them,” said Larry Cotter, chief executive officer of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association in Juneau. “She would look back and say it was one of the most significant things (she had done) because of the positive impact she had on young people.
“This was a real tragedy and we’re all going to miss her,” he said.
“This wasn’t a bonfire and s’mores kind of camp,” Ridgway told journalist Victoria Barber, in an interview for The Dutch Harbor Fisherman in July of 2008. “We just went ahead and skipped biology 101 and went for the 600 level.”
Her goal, said Ridgway, was to get students out of the classroom and teach them how to use science to explore the marine environment of their communities. A highlight of the camp was students constructing and launching two remotely operated vehicles, a project granted to them from the Society of Naval Architects and Maritime Engineers, and a remarkable achievement by the students, Ridgway said.
Ridgway earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Evergreen State College, studied marine algal ecology and physiology at the University of Washington and earned a master’s degree in science in fisheries ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she also served as a research associate.
At the time of her death, Ridgway’s work through her company, Oceanus Alaska, was focused on seabed mapping, characterizing deep sea habitats, oceanography and food web processes in the waters of the Arctic and Subarctic.
Ridgway’s page on the website LinkedIn listed several current projects, from developing a three-dimensional biogeographical bathymetric database for Pribilof Domain shelf-slope-canyon marine ecosystem to being a team leader for the Alaska-Aloha Arctic submarine canyon expedition planning process.