John Hart was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on May 8, 1904. In his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, he was influenced first by Dr. W.A. Clemens, and later by Dr. J.R. Dymond, to pursue a career in fisheries biology, and from 1922 to 1925 he studied the life history of the whitefish, mainly in Lake Nipigon. During this early period, according to Dr. F.E.J. Fry, John Hart did “a fundamental and pioneering piece of work” in Shakespeare Island Lake in Lake Nipigon by producing “one of the early population estimates that was made of a population of fish”—work that was continued by Dr. W.E. Ricker. In recollection, John recently referred to this period, which involved all the vicissitudes of primitive outdoor living and crude scientific equipment, as “one of the very happy times of my life.”
In the late 1920s, he continued his studies on whitefish in the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario, and these formed the basis for his Ph.D. degree, which he received in 1930 from the University of Toronto.
After a brief period as lecturer in zoology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, he joined the Biological Board of Canada (later the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (FRBC)) in 1929 at the invitation of Dr. Clemens, who was then Director of the Board’s research station at Nanaimo, British Columbia. He remained with the Board for 38 years until his retirement in 1967.
His first assignment at Nanaimo was to investigate the Pacific pilchard (California sardine) stocks off British Columbia, which were the basis for an important reduction (oil and meal) fishery. From age and growth studies, he noted that only the larger and older fish were found off British Columbia. Through contacts with California scientists, including Dr. W.F. Thompson, he became convinced that pilchards spawned only in waters to the south of British Columbia. He postulated that only the large year classes, spawned off California and Mexico, reached the British Columbia coast in abundance. This classic study enabled him to forecast accurately the decline and collapse of the British Columbia pilchard fishery, as the new year classes became progressively less abundant through either natural causes or overfishing off California.
In the early 1930s, Dr. Hart also initiated studies on the Pacific herring, another pelagic species about which little was known. He recognized in those early years the urgent necessity of determining the size of fish stocks in order to advise on the permissible catch. He soon concluded that morphometric studies would not be adequate to delineate the intermingling races of Pacific herring, and, with the assistance of Dr. A.L. Tester, he launched an extensive tagging and recovery program, which formed the basis for definitive studies by Tester in later years.
In the early 1940s, John Hart's interests in marine fisheries changed in response to the urgent need for information on dogfish, lingcod, and other groundfish fisheries, which were expanding rapidly to offset wartime shortages of vitamin A and meal products. Sparse scientific data were available on the complex of fishes being caught by the fast-developing otter-trawl fishery, and little was known of the impact of this fishery on long-established hook-and-line fisheries for lingcod, sablefish, and halibut.
To provide answers to these difficult questions, John set up a groundfish investigation in 1943, which, through his wise leadership, made significant scientific advances in the years that followed.
His interest in the marine fauna was broad. During his years at Nanaimo, he studied, in addition to the species previously mentioned, fur seals, capelin, dogfish, butter sole, albacore, amphipods, smelt, and Pacific pompano. He strongly believed that research was not complete until the results were published, and findings from all of his own research are in print. This conviction was impressed upon his staff when he became a research administrator, along with his belief in the importance of making research results available to potential users. As late as 1963, he produced a publication entitled “Useful Publications for Oyster Farmers of the Maritimes.” In all, he published al-most 100 papers, including one in Norwegian.
When John Hart was appointed Director of the Nanaimo station of the FRBC in 1950, he initiated new or enlarged research programs in fish physiology, behavior, and parasites. In the early 1950s, he participated in the beginnings of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission, and a few years after moving to the directorship of the St. Andrews station in 1954 he became closely connected with developments in the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries. He felt strongly that ICNAF’s survival depended on instituting effective international controls on fishing. At St. Andrews, he was involved in the extensive Canada-U.S. Passamaquoddy Fisheries Investigations from 1956 to 1959. As director, he played an important role in opening up the vast Canadian Atlantic herring fishery, in promoting the exploitation of underutilized Atlantic species, and in initiating studies on the ecology of the coastal ocean bottom—an area that has considerable current importance.
John Hart was a clear thinker and a master of the English language. He always weighed his words before he spoke or wrote. One day in the early 1940s, he went into the office of a young scientist who was struggling to compose a difficult paragraph in his first paper. He suggested, “You haven’t thought out what you want to say. Think before you write, and after you’ve written think and write again. The fledgling scientist, who later became a journal editor, has often recalled that sound advice.
He was, above all, a man of principle and a gentleman, He was completely honest with his associates and with himself. He was decisive, and never went back on his word. At the same time, he was open-minded and was influenced by people whose opinions he trusted. He made friends cautiously, and sometimes seemed aloof and reserved on a first meeting. He had a broad sense of humor, which often was delightfully puckish in the company of friends.
In 1967, John retired as Director of the St. Andrews station. Soon he became restless and found a new career as a systematist of Pacific fishes, attacking the writing of a new book, “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” on the subject with great vigor. His broad interest in and research on the fish fauna of the British Columbia coast from the early 1930s gave him a sound basis for writing this book. Never complacent, John worried that in this endeavor he might be “an amateur playing in a professional league.” This concern proved unfounded, and in the last months of his life numerous favorable reviews of his book reached him from all over the world. It was the crowning of a highly-productive life.
John was active in many international scientific societies throughout his life, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada at an early age. He was also a Founding Fellow of the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Fisheries Society, and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. But being a humanist as well as a scientist, he found time to participate fully in the Rotary Club in Nanaimo and in the Kiwanis Club in St. Andrews. One of his keenest interests in later years was the establishment of the Passamaquoddy Lodge, a home for senior citizens in St. Andrews.
Dr. John Lawson Hart died on December 6, 1973, at his home in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, at the age of 69. With his passing, Canada lost a dedicated aquatic scientist and an able research administrator whose career spanned over half a century.
A new government research vessel, the J. L. Hart, was launched in 1974 on the Atlantic coast, working out of St. Andrews. Nothing could be more fitting in memory of a man who devoted himself to studies of life in Canada's lakes and oceans.