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Baird's Legacy

portrait of Spencer Baird 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 1860’s, a handful of New England states had set up small state "fish commissions" to explore the possibility of fish culture.

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 one—Baird 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 task—fish culture—and $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 Commission’s efforts to promote fish culture were rooted in the concept as expressed by Baird’s 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 lion’s 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 today’s spectacularly successful fish farms for trout, salmon, crayfish, shrimp, catfish, and many other species—a fast-growing multi-million dollar international industry.

Legacy    1871-1896    1897-1921   1922-1946   1947-1971   1972-1996   Summary   Future

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Baird's Legacy: the History and Accomplishments of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, 1871-1996, by W.L. Hobart, Editor. December 1995, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-F/SPO-18.

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