Actually, the roots of the U.S. Fish Commission lie deep in the Nation's
history. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson discussed the Federal interest in
fisheries in 1791, noting how fishermen had been devastated during the
Revolutionary War and reviewing their importance in trade and as a
nursery for forming seamen.
Jefferson was not the only Founding Father or President interested in
fisheries. Benjamin Franklin had made early observations of marine life, and
his charting of the Gulf Stream allowed mariners to greatly cut travel time to
and from Europe. And later, in 1822, John Quincy Adams collected and published
a volume on "The Duplicate Letters, the Fisheries and the Mississippi" for the
treaty negotiations at Ghent where protection of U.S. fishing rights had been
of prime importance.
By the time that Spencer Baird was named Assistant Secretary of the
Smithsonian Institution in 1850, interest was also stirring in the European
rediscovery of trout and salmon culture. Many believed that fish culture would
help repopulate New England waters with Atlantic salmon, trout, shad, and other
depleted species. And by the middle 1860s, a handful of New England
states had set up small state "fish commissions" to explore the possibility of
Baird began his own marine studies at Woods Hole, Mass., in 1863, and his
later coastal excursions made him acutely aware of the fishermen's concerns
about fish declines. In 1870, he persuaded Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry
to allot $100 for his summer marine study with a 30-foot sloop borrowed from
the Treasury Department. Later that winter, Baird drew up a plan for a Federal
inquiry into New England's fishery problems, which led to the creation of the
new U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, at first a Commission of
oneBaird in an unsalaried position and operating out of his own home.
Congress' first charge to the Fish Commission in 1871 was to study the reasons
for the decline of several New England and lake fishes and recommend solutions.
But just a year later Congress gave it a new taskfish cultureand
$15,000 to study and promote it.
By then, interest in fish culture had been growing for 20 years, and it was
widely seen as a panacea for decimated New England Atlantic salmon and shad
runs. Much of the Commissions efforts to promote fish culture were
rooted in the concept as expressed by Bairds assistant, George Brown
Goode, that it was far better to make fish abundant and cheap so they could be
fished with fewer restrictions than to just pass stricter laws to protect fewer
and fewer fish.
A related drive, fish "acclimatization," introducing new fishes to new waters,
was also growing, and the new U.S. Fish Commission would play a major
international role in both enterprises. In fact, fish culture would command
the lions share of the Fish Commission's program for nearly a century.
The new U.S. Fish Commission not only gave American fish culture a strong
boost, it also spurred the establishment of state fish commissions. In 1871
there were only 11 small state fish commissions, but just 6 years later 26
state fish commissions were operating. In large part, this growth was due to
Baird's advocacy of state commissions for more effective fish cultural work.
In addition, Baird and the U.S. Fish Commission became a hub of fish culture
information and a major source of fish and fish eggs for distribution not only
in America and Europe, but as far away as Australia and New Zealand. In a very
real sense, then, part of Baird's legacy lives on in todays spectacularly
successful fish farms for trout, salmon, crayfish, shrimp, catfish, and many
other speciesa fast-growing multi-million dollar international