Russell Nelson, nationally acclaimed scientist and Chief Scientist for The Billfish Foundation died of an apparent heart attack on Saturday, Oct. 5 at his home in Fort Lauderdale. Nelson was 65.
Nelson led the former Florida Marine Fisheries Commission through a pivotal period, serving as executive director from 1987 to 2000.
Following his tenure with the Florida MFC he moved from Tallahassee to South Florida, where he started his own consulting firm, advising sport fishing conservation organizations and federal agencies on ocean fisheries management and protection.
“Russ was an enormous asset to the Marine Fisheries Commission and was a phenomenal contributor to the safety and conservation of many fisheries in the United States,” said R.Z. Safley, a former Florida legislator and one-time member (1986-1988) of the Marine Fisheries Commission. “He was a good scientist and a hard-nosed advocate for (marine conservation). He was important to the science of fishery management for decades.”
Nelson earned degrees from the University of North Carolina, before taking a Ph.D. in zoology, fisheries ecology and statistics from North Carolina State University.
The Florida Marine Fisheries Commission was created in 1983 to oversee the increased fishing pressures along the Florida coast. In 1999, the agency was merged into the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, becoming the Division of Marine Fisheries.
As director of Florida’s marine fisheries, Nelson was responsible for many of the sometimes-controversial size- and bag-limits on ocean fish, such as red snapper, grouper, kingfish and red drum. He guided Florida’s contentious transition after passage of the 1994 net ban, which imposed limits on the nets used by commercial fishermen. He was the author of numerous scientific papers about fish populations in the U.S. and abroad.
“He was well-educated; he was one of those guys, like Einstein, who had pathways through the brain the rest of us didn’t have,” said Roy Williams, former assistant executive director of the Marine Fisheries. “He was a good scientist but he also had pretty good political insight. Most of the issues we dealt with were tough, because you had to say ‘No,’ to somebody. Russ was good because he could balance the science and the politics.”
Nelson is survived by his second wife, Ellen Peel, two adult daughters, Rebecca and Kate, his mother and several siblings. A celebration of Nelson's life will be held Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the International Game Fish Association headquarters in Dania Beach, Florida.