Leading Coastal Ecologist, UNC Professor, and 1994 Pew Marine Fellow Dies

Charles ‘Pete’ Peterson had a passion for science, conservation, and teaching

Leading Coastal Ecologist, UNC Professor, and 1994 Pew Marine Fellow Dies
Charles H. “Pete” Peterson
Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill

Thanks to Charles H. “Pete” Peterson, a generation of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students in North Carolina—along with untold numbers of citizens around the U.S.—have a better understanding of coastal science and how it relates to the broader field of conservation.  

Peterson, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences and a 1994 Pew marine fellow, passed away on Oct. 24 at age 74.

During a career that spanned four decades, Peterson worked tirelessly to improve his students’ and the public’s understanding of coastal zone ecosystems in his adopted home state of North Carolina and well beyond. He combined meticulous research with a dedication to education and skillful communication to bring science to the public. This included working with resource managers and environmental policymakers, striving to ensure they had the data and information they needed to bring about positive change.

Peterson’s passion for communicating extended into the classroom and field. Over the years, he trained dozens of graduate and postdoctoral students and mentored undergraduate students, junior faculty members, and others with an interest in conservation and coastal science. 

“Respect and trust are paramount qualities in this business. Everyone I know respected and trusted Pete. He was a force on so many fronts,” said Jim Estes, a professor with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz and a 1999 Pew marine fellow.  

Peterson’s Pew-supported research aided the development of preservation measures for seagrass beds and oyster reefs in North Carolina, both critical estuarine habitats in the region. During his time as a fellow, he played a role in crafting North Carolina’s first protections for riparian buffers and in advancing efforts to reduce nutrient loading to the Neuse River. He also initiated measures that supported oyster restoration along the state’s coast—work that continues today.

Peterson was a leading voice in conducting integrated assessments of the impacts of oil spills on coastal and marine ecosystems. He spent more than two decades advising the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council on the effectiveness of restoration efforts in the Gulf of Alaska, following that 1989 disaster. His knowledge and ability to lead cross-disciplinary studies were called upon once again following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which released more oil into the marine environment than any previous U.S. oil spill.

“Pete was an exceptional resource and a great guy whose intellect and interests had aligned to make such an important contribution,” recalls Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, the director of marine conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a 2003 Pew marine fellow. “I knew and worked with Pete on the Exxon Valdez oil spill aftermath and again during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. He brought extraordinary knowledge and energy, and we depended on him during those difficult times.”

Peterson’s life’s work improved society’s understanding of the complex coastal zone ecosystems and shaped environmental policies. Even as the Pew marine fellows community mourns his passing, Peterson’s legacy is a reminder of the importance of supporting researchers as they advance humanity’s understanding of—and deep connections to—our ocean.

Polita Glynn oversees The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation.