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Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Birthplace of NOAA Fisheries

February 09, 2021

NOAA Fisheries' first leader was a shoo-in for the job. But how did a tiny New England village become home for the nation’s first marine science boom?

View of Woods Hole from 1880.

When the U.S. Fish Commission was established in 1871, there was not much question as to who should lead the special investigation into a serious food fish decline off southern New England.

Spencer Baird ticked a number of boxes—prominent scientist, already in the government, willing to work in the job without additional pay—and he knew just about everyone in the field. He also  had a demonstrated track record for attracting Congressional interest and funding for his work. Much has been written about Baird’s subsequent accomplishments in the job. But what led to the decision to site the first permanent federal fisheries laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts?

Why Woods Hole for the First Decade?

On a June day in 1871, a large, well-dressed, distinguished man in his fifties stepped briskly from the coach that brought the passengers of the Old Colony Railroad from Monument Beach to Woods Hole… The event seemed to be trivial… It marked, however, the beginning of a new era for Woods Hole; for his arrival initiated a long series of events which changed the destiny of a small New England fishing settlement into an internationally famous center of research in marine sciences and oceanic fisheries.— An account of Spencer Baird's arrival in Woods Hole as Fish Commissioner, from The Story of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory Woods Hole, Massachusetts.


For the initial work of the U.S. Fish Commission, Baird settled on Woods Hole as a base. Up to this point, the village was mostly a tourist location. People fished and farmed; whaling was nearly a thing of the past. The largest employer was a fertilizer factory that relied on guano shipped from Pacific islands.  

4 men in a dory being pushed to sea by Baird.
A collecting expedition out of Woods Hole in the 1870s. Baird, bearded, is pushing the stern. Photo: Woods Hole Historical Museum

But there were some practical reasons for Baird’s choice: 

  • He was already familiar with Woods Hole, having visited and collected specimens for the Smithsonian there since the 1860s.
  • There was a building he could borrow for the base of his operations.
  • A train line would soon connect  Woods Hole to the train routes connecting Washington D.C, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. These were cities where he and most of his likely colleagues in the investigation were located.
  • There were federal resources he could draw on in Boston, New Bedford, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as Newport, Rhode Island. 
  • Critically, the federal Custom Houses, Coastal Survey, and U.S. Naval stations in or near these towns could lend boats and commit to routine data collection on fish, fisheries, and water temperatures.

Further, the initial investigation he was charged with revolved around a fishing dispute among Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. It sprang from a significant fish stock decline in the nearshore waters. Woods Hole was located in the center of the study area, which ranged from the Gulf of Maine to southern New England.

Throughout the first decade, the Fish Commission established a series of summer biological stations that usually included Woods Hole. It also ranged as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and as far south as Noank, Connecticut. For fish propagation studies, the net was cast even more widely.

Deciding on the First Permanent Lab Location

By the early 1880s, Baird and his colleagues had so expanded the scope and influence of their work that Congress was ready to invest in a permanent marine fisheries laboratory. By this time the work included:

  • A large fish propagation effort with locations in Maine, Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C., Michigan, and California
  • Biological studies of commercial fish species
  • Natural histories for a range of marine animals
  • Systematic collection of fishery statistics
  • Mapping fishing grounds and seeking new ones
  • Improving fishing vessels and fishing practices
  • Finding better methods for preserving fish for sale

To select a location, Baird went about his usual method of collecting and analyzing data, then basing his recommendation on the results. 

Steamer Fish Hawk with dory on starboard side.
The Fish Commission's steamer Fish Hawk, an ocean-going fish hatchery. Photo NOAA Fisheries

Baird’s Analyses

The Fish Commission had a new sea-going research ship, the Fish Hawk, with the Albatross I, an even larger research ship, already a distinct possibility. The need to berth these vessels eliminated some locations. Lack of permanent available waterfront land eliminated others. The last options standing were Newport, Rhode Island, and Woods Hole. 

Local citizens and businesses in each location offered land, buildings, and other forms of enticement. These were important, but Baird was also looking at the best location to support the work of a lab. In those days, it all came down to water quality, species diversity, and appropriate temperatures to ensure the longest possible field seasons. 

Woods Hole is a natural deep-water port, with strong currents that keep local waters clean, free of contamination, and full of marine species for study. Regular train service now connected Woods Hole to Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and points west. These factors made Woods Hole the perfect place for a new marine research station.  

By 1885 when the new permanent laboratory was completed, Baird could support a year-round operation. A pier and boat refuge had been added. The Albatross I was now a reality. This 234-foot ocean-going research vessel was the first in the world constructed exclusively for marine research.

When Science Came to Stay in Woods Hole

By 1889, the other major enterprises situated in Woods Hole—a fertilizer plant and whaling—were gone, and science became the biggest game in town. 

Baird was already attracting scientists from around the world to Woods Hole. Soon, other scientific organizations were established in the village, notably the Marine Biological Laboratory in 1888 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930. 

Today, Woods Hole is an international center for marine, biomedical and environmental science. It is home to six marine and environmental science organizations and many related educational organizations and marine technology companies.

Ariel view of Woods Hole from 2015.
Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 2015. The Fisheries original lab was sited on the harbor seen at the bottom, center. The current day lab and aquarium are at the end of Water Street, which runs parallel to the pond at right. The original campuses of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Chicago/Marine Biological Laboratory are also on Water Street.

Contact: Shelley Dawicki