The First Years: 1871-1896
When the U.S. Fish Commission began, America's primary fishing areas were situated off the east coast and in parts of the Great Lakes. The great fisheries of the Pacific coast states and the Territory of Alaska were virtually unmapped and untapped, and most major U.S. southeast and Gulf of Mexico fisheries were awaiting exploration and study by Fish Commission scientists.
Baird quickly organized the Commission's work into three categories:
Systematic studies of U.S. waters and fishes and their biological and physical problems,
Studies of past and present fishing methods and compilation of fish catch and trade statistics, and
The introduction and propagation of "useful food-fishes" throughout the Nation.
The first part comprised the Commission's pioneering biological, ecological, and oceanographic studies. First pursued off New England and in the Great Lakes, they would later expand to the Southeast, the Pacific coast, and across the Pacific into Asian waters.
Studies of fishing methods had more practical aspects. As George Brown Goode put it in 1880, "Fishery methods and apparatus must be examined and compared with those of other lands, that the use of those which threaten the destruction of useful fishes may be discouraged, and that those which are inefficient may be replaced by others more serviceable." Similar research today is producing better fishing nets and techniques to harvest only the species wanted and to exclude and protect creatures like sea turtles and marine mammals.
Likewise, the fish catch and trade statistics generated by Baird had practical applicationsparticularly for Congressional reviews of international treaties or in the imposition of tariffs, and also as marketing guides for the fishing industry and for educating consumers.
But it was the third element, fish culture and introductions, that quickly assumed prominence. Congress' initial 1872 fish culture appropriation was $15,000, three times the amount allotted for the New England and Great Lakes studies. In addition, its scope was nationwide, and it fostered corollary research into fish physiology, embryology, diseases, and more.
To cope with the lack of Atlantic salmon eggs, Baird sent prominent fish culturist Livingston Stone to California in 1872 to search for a source of eggs of the "quinnat" or chinook salmon which was renowned for its great size and abundance. Stone soon built the first Federal fish cultural station on California's McCloud River from which salmon eggs were sent not only to the east and Gulf coasts but also around the world.
By 1880, the Commission's fish culture work was famous worldwide. At the International Exhibition in Berlin that year, the first-honor prize, a gold medal from the Emperor of Germany, was awarded to Baird partly to commend the Commission's exhibit but also to honor him as "the first [premier] fish culturist in the world."
Thus, the Commission's first few years set a research agenda which, with few modifications, served it well for over a century. In fact, many of the types of work started in the Commission's first decade are still fruitfully pursued in the protection and restoration of the Nation's fisheries.
Woods Hole Lab, 1880's
For the first few years, the Commission conducted marine studies from a series of summer stations, the first set up by Baird at Woods Hole, Mass. Later summer stations were set up at Eastport and Portland, Maine; Noank, Conn.; Salem and Gloucester, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; and other east coast and Great Lakes sites.
Growth and change for the Commission accelerated in the 1880s. To pursue the Nations high-seas fishery and oceanographic studies, Baird also needed a large, specialized research vessel. Thus, he inaugurated construction of the Albatross, a new state-of-the-art research vessel, launched in 1882, whose pioneering studies over the coming decades would open up new fisheries on both coasts and truly globalize U.S. biological and oceanographic research.
Further growth in the Commissions work also required a permanent research facility. Thus, the Fish Commission's new Woods Hole Laboratory, completed in 1885, became the first U.S. marine science station and the second such in the world after Anton Dohrn's famous research station at Naples, Italy. Initially, the Woods Hole Laboratory was a combination research station and cod hatchery.
Finally, in 1887, a great era in American science came to an end when Commissioner Baird died at the Woods Hole Laboratory on August 19th. He was succeeded temporarily by his assistant, George Brown Goode, and a few months later, permanently by noted fish culturist Marshall McDonald, the first full-time, salaried U.S. Fish Commissioner.
As interest grew in Pacific coast fisheries, the Albatross was dispatched in 1888 to conduct research from California to Alaska, along the South American coast, and into Asian waters as well. In addition, the Albatross was indispensable for patrolling and protecting fur seal herds in the North Pacific.
An immense and pioneering work on the nutritional values of fishanother field in which the Commission and its successor agencies became deeply involvedwas published in 1888 by W. O. Atwater. Also that year, the Fish Commission was fully separated from the Smithsonian Institution. G. B. Goode had set up four formal divisions: Administration, Scientific Inquiry, Fish Culture, and Statistical Inquiry, and the latter was soon renamed the Division of Fisheries, working on fishery methods and, later, on fish technology and marketing. Still, the agency's overall administrative framework would last almost unchanged for nearly 60 years, adding only an Alaska Division in 1911 and a Law Enforcement Division in 1930.
Much early Commission work was devoted to exploring the Nation's virtually untapped fisheries. This ranged from experimental fishing to helping develop new or improved fishing gear and techniques, perfecting new ways of preserving, packaging, and marketing fishery products, and developing new fish cooking techniquesparticularly for the new species being brought to market. Meanwhile, researchers studied various pollution problems. This ranged from helping fish processors properly dispose of fish wastes to studying the effects of industrial wastes and pesticides on aquatic organisms, and more.
In the 1890's, Livingston Stone, who had ranged the Pacific coast seeking the best sites for salmon culture, grew disillusioned about the prospects for the yet abundant Pacific salmon. Fearing they would go the way of the buffalo, he had proposed in 1889 a "National Salmon Park" for Alaska, and, on the basis of his recommendation, part of Alaska's Afognak Island was set aside as a "Forest and Fish Cultural Reserve" in 1892. Later, in 1896, Congress moved to regulate Alaska salmon fishing with net restrictions, closed seasons, spawning escapement requirements, etc.
Concerns also mounted in the 1890's for the future of the northern fur seal. In 1893, the Fish Commission was given responsibility for fur seal research, and the Albatross patrolled the Pribilofs and the high seas to ward off poachers.
Unfortunately, the Albatross was just one vessel in a vast northern sea, and law enforcement remained a problem.