Russell was Chairman and Chief Executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from 2007 until October 2018. He is a board member of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

He began diving on the Great Barrier Reef in 1968 and worked as a research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in the 1980s studying the ecology of coral reefs, particularly the crown-of-thorns starfish. He has a PhD in marine science and has served as CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Chairman of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, and as a member of Australia‚Äôs State of the Environment Committee. 

He has previously chaired the National Oceans Advisory Group, CSIRO's Wealth from Oceans Flagship Advisory Committee and Seafood Services Australia Ltd. He is an Adjunct Professor at James Cook University and the University of Queensland; and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (UK), and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.