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4-7-10: Steve Fitzwater, 1952-2010

April 7, 2010 - 8:00am - 9:00am

Steve and Toni

Steve Fitzwater, 1952-2010

MBARI Oceanographer Steve Fitzwater passed away on Monday due to complications following a routine medical procedure.  His death was completely unexpected.  He leaves a wife, Toni Fitzwater and an extended family. 

Steve was also an alumni and long time researcher at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.  His is an important story to remember.  Most students go to school to change their lives.  Steve came to Moss Landing Marine Laboratories via Sacramento State University, in 1976 and changed, not only his life, but an institution and the direction of marine science.  Steve enrolled in graduate school before finishing his undergraduate degree and navigated all the graduate courses with acuity and purpose.   Tugged in many different directions, graduate school became a scientific playground at a time when oceanography was beginning to flourish. 

Applying his considerable technical skills, and central valley practicality, Steve rapidly became indispensable.  As a graduate student he worked with the dynamic team of John Martin and George Knauer, both of whom inspired others to act creatively and fearlessly at a time when there were no boxes, outside of which to think.  Steve engaged himself in many projects and participated in many oceanographic expeditions before settling on a thesis project of his own.  His study of the toxic effects of copper on the measurements of phytoplankton production changed an entire field of study.  The publication of his thesis resulted in one of the most widely cited articles in marine science, a record that stood for decades.  His results ultimately led to a new assessment of global primary production and carbon cycling. 

Another major challenge he undertook was to develop a high temperature catalytic combustion method for the determination of dissolved organic carbon in seawater.  This work helped to define the science.  Almost single handedly, Steve challenged some international giants in this field and brought about the retraction of some prominent papers that Steve showed, claimed false and irreproducible results.  Paradigm busting became a contact sport and Steve was a champ. 

Working closely with John Martin and colleague Mike Gordon, Sara Tanner and Craig Hunter, Steve was instrumental in executing some of the first bottle enrichment experiments in the subarctic Pacific.  These experiments formed the basis of the “Iron Hypothesis” one of the most prominent discoveries in oceanography of the twentieth century, and led to the development of some novel open ocean mesoscale experiments.  But the intellectual development of these experiments was almost lost with the untimely death of Dr. Martin.  With Steve’s faithful determination to see his mentor’s experiment to completion, Steve and his colleagues rallied international participation, tons of new equipment (much of which he built) and executed some of the most complex and logistically challenging series of open ocean experiments ever attempted in the equatorial Pacific and Southern Ocean. 

Moving with Ken Johnson to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in 1998, Steve continued to ply his skills at the cutting edge of marine science and under Ken’s guidance, helped to develop and maintain a series of buoys and coastal observational technologies that have become internationally recognized as the state of the art in ocean instrumentation. 

Steve leaves a legacy of over 50 peer reviewed publications, a record that many Ph.D. academics would envy.   More importantly, Steve’s welcoming, unpretentious and mischievous attitude helped to advance marine science, not just for the sport of paradigm busting, but for the love of the natural world and his dearest colleagues, who will miss him very much.


A memorial will take place on April 17, 2010 at 2:00pm at the Fitzwater's home.

It will be a potluck and Miller Genuine Draft beer style.  There's no sign-up sheet for the potluck, so anything is encouraged. MGD was Steve's favorite and highly appropriate for the occasion.  There will be a bon fire to follow.

To RSVP and receive details, please call 831-771-4400 or email frontdesk [at] mlml [dot] calstate [dot] edu