The Birth of Federal Fish Hatchery Operations
In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people and activities that helped build the foundation of fisheries and marine science. The Woods Hole Laboratory is central to the story of today’s federal fish hatcheries.
The first U.S. Fish Commissioner, Spencer Baird, had a mandate to start raising fish to help rebuild depleted natural stocks around the country. He started with successful transport of new fish species to new locations across the country by railroad. A floating hatchery aboard the R/V Fish Hawk followed. The Woods Hole fisheries laboratory soon had a hatchery in the new laboratory on Great Harbor, completed in 1885.
“The hatchery equipment consisted of a series of tanks containing floating frames, each frame having the bottom covered with cloth for holding fish eggs and batteries of McDonald hatching jars,“ wrote Paul Galtsoff in his 1962 publication The Story of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “The excellent supply of sea water and good equipment ensured successful hatching operations.”
Cod and other species were raised in the hatchery. “Technical progress in the design of various hatching jars, boxes, and other equipment made in the United States was so rapid that as early as 1881 the U. S. Fish Commission participated with great success in the Berlin Fishery Exhibition, showing the progress of fish culture in the United States. A considerable part of this exhibit was prepared at Woods Hole,” Galtsoff wrote.
Numerous papers describing the many technical improvements in the method of hatching eggs appeared in the annual reports of the commissioner of fisheries and in other publications.
The fish hatchery remained a major focus of operations at the Woods Hole Laboratory for more than 50 years, despite interruptions in operations during two world wars. Shortly after World War II, hatchery operations at the laboratory were discontinued and staff retired or transferred. However, fish hatchery operations started by the U.S. Fish Commission continue elsewhere to this day. They are run through the national fish hatchery system, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Transporting Fish by Rail
Fish culture was viewed by many as a possible way to rebuild depleted East Coast wild fish populations like Atlantic salmon and American shad. It was also a means to introduce new fishes to new waters, and soon became a major focus of the Fish Commission’s work.
But how would fish eggs or live young fish be transported for release a great distance away? Railroads provided a safe and inexpensive solution.
Fish Culture Afloat: The U.S.S. Fish Hawk, a steamer with a story
The focus on fish cultivation in the early days of NOAA Fisheries led to the idea of a floating hatchery as a practical way to spawn more fish. In 1879 the U.S. Fish Commission launched its first research vessel, the 156-foot coal-burning steamer R/V Fish Hawk.
Baird Station: The Original National Fish Hatchery
Once he became commissioner in 1871, Spencer Baird’s charge was to “ascertain whether any and what diminution in the number of food fishes of the coast and inland lakes has occurred.” The additional task of “supplementing declining native stocks of coastal and lake food fish through fish propagation” was added in 1872. That same year, Baird hired fish culturist Livingston Stone and sent him to California to find a good source for chinook salmon eggs. Stone accomplished far more.
- NOAA Fisheries 150th Anniversary Leadership Message