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A Century of Conservation: A Brief History of NOAA Fisheries

The formation of the Fisheries had a hard time passing Congress in 1871. The following is a brief history of how the agency we now know as NOAA Fisheries came into being and evolved.

Part of the History of NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast

By John A. Guinan and Ralph E. Curtis

NOAA 1(2): 40-44, April 1971

The National Marine Fisheries Service has existed only since October 3, 1970, but the federal fishery agency celebrated its "de facto" centennial on February 9, 1971, and will continue the observance throughout the calendar year.

On February 9, 1871, President Grant signed a bill recognizing a national interest in fisheries conservation by creating the independent Office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, also sometimes known as the Fish Commission. The bill authorized the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint a Commissioner from among the civil officers or employees of the Government. The Commissioner would receive no additional salary, but the sum of $5,000 was appropriated for a study of "the decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and lakes of the United States, and to suggest remedial measures." Because fish were an important source of food, the fisheries were the first renewable resource to receive public attention in our nation.


Spencer F. Baird portrait, circa 1867

Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to Congress in January 1871, calling attention to the problem of depletion of food fish of the seacoasts and lakes of the United States and offering suggestions for remedial measures.

A Joint Resolution proposing a study of the problem had a difficult time in the House. according to debate reported in the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record. Committee Chairman Henry Laurens Dawes, Republican of Massachusetts, described the terms of the Resolution, but Rep. Farnsworth, Republican of Illinois, sought to kill it with ridicule. The Congressional Globe for January 18, 1871, reports: "The Resolution was read and the opposition reserved all points of order whereupon Chairman Dawes read the letter from Mr. Baird and added his own testimony to the need for scientific investigation. " The record, as reported in the Congressional Globe, indicated that other scientists involved also would serve without additional salary, and would be recruited from among personnel of the Smithsonian.

Following the presentation by Chairman Dawes, there was the following dialogue:

Mr. Farnsworth: Add to your resolution a direction to inquire in reference to grasshoppers and potato-bugs.

Mr. Dawes: My friend from Illinois may think this is a subject of no importance whatever; but I assure him that along the coasts of New Jersey and New York, and all up our coast to the British possessions, this is a matter of vital importance.

Mr. Farnsworth: So is the inquiry in reference to the potato bug.

After further discussion, Mr. Farnsworth stated that he objected to the matter. And so the Resolution was deferred. Five days later, on January 23. Chairman Dawes again asked for unanimous consent to introduce the same resolution for immediate action. This time it was opposed by Congressman Benjamin of Missouri, who is listed in the Biographical Directory of the American Congress as a "Radical Republican."

After considerable discussion in which Mr. Farnsworth again joined, a vote was taken and it was decided in the affirmative — yea's 137, nay's 47, not voting 54. This was the beginning of what we now know as the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Shortly after the affirmative vote, the President appointed Professor Baird as the first Commissioner. Headquarters were promptly established at Woods Hole, Mass., where he soon began studies of striped bass, blue fish, and other species. In the century that followed, the little village on Cape Cod became a world-famous oceanographic and marine research center.

Commissioner Baird supervised construction of the first federal fishery research laboratory at Woods Hole in 1885. The old building was replaced with a modern structure in 1960, and it is now one of the most modern biological research laboratories operated by NMFS.

Although the new Commissioner's primary interest was in biological research, his horizons in fisheries were surprisingly broad for the period. In 1872, with support from the American Fish Culturists Association, he established a marine hatchery at Woods Hole for artificial propagation of fish. When the cod fishermen of New England were unable to obtain herring for bait, he introduced Norwegian cod gillnets and taught the use of net preservatives. With Baird's encouragement, one of his associates was the first to identify the adverse effects of bacterial action on salt cod and to develop control procedures for bacterial discoloration. In 1879, Baird arranged for his staff to work with the Census Office on the first comprehensive statistical survey of the U.S. fishing industry.

After Commissioner Baird's death in 1887, his multidiscipline approach to fisheries was largely discarded. For many years thereafter, fish culture was foremost in the federal fishery program, although time demonstrated that this was an oversimplified solution to the complex problem of maintaining high fishery yields. The original act establishing the office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, was amended on January 20, 1888, to authorize a salary of $5,000 per year for the Commissioner. The amendment required that he not hold any other office or employment.


First Woods Hole Lab, 1891.

The Fish Commission and the Office of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries continued as an independent establishment of the federal government from its inception until July 1, 1903, when it was placed in the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. The same legislation transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Commerce and Labor, jurisdiction, supervision, and control over the fur seal, salmon, and other fisheries of the Territory of Alaska. The federal fishery agency was also renamed the Bureau of Fisheries.

The Act of March 4, 1913, split the Department of Commerce and Labor into two separate departments, and the Bureau of Fisheries remained in the Department of Commerce until July 1, 1939. Then the 1939 Reorganization Plan No. II transferred the Bureau of Fisheries to the Department of the Interior. The same Reorganization Plan transferred the Bureau of Biological Survey from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior.

Another reorganization followed shortly. On June 30, 1940, Reorganization Plan No. III consolidated the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey into a new agency to be known as the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior.

An organizational status quo was maintained for about 16 years. In 1956, the name was changed to United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The new organization consisted of two separate agencies, each with the status of a federal bureau—the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.

On July 9, 1970, President Nixon proposed Reorganization Plan No. IV which would transfer to the Department of Commerce from the Department of the Interior those functions administered through or primarily related to the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. Excepted from the proposed transfer were Great Lakes fishery research and activities related to the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, Missouri River Reservoir research, the Gulf Breeze, Fla., biological laboratory, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Investigations. These excepted functions remained in Interior with the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. The Reorganization also transferred to Commerce the functions related to the marine game fish programs which had been the responsibility of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. The former Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service and joined several other government units in Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when the plan became effective October 3, 1970, and a new era in marine fisheries began. History shows that Congress has had a continuing interest in our nation's fisheries. The concern actually predates 1871 because the very first Congress took action to assist the new nation's first industry.

Because the fishing industry was a heavy user of salt, Congress provided relief from the import duty of six cents a bushel on salt by authorizing a payment of five cents for each quintal.

The Second Congress was more direct in support of fisheries by repealing the provision of the five-cent payments and substituting a direct subsidy to both owners and fishermen. Depending on the tonnage of fishing vessels, a subsidy of up to $170 was paid annually, three-eighths to the owners and five-eighths to the fishermen. It is not generally known what $170 would buy in the days of the Second Congress, but we do know that the Secretary of the Treasury, who administered the program was paid less than $300 per month, and members of Congress received $6 per day.

Since 1871, Congress has given the federal fishery agency a broad mandate to study aquatic resources. Under specific statutes, the NMFS serves as the research agency for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the United States Section of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission. NMFS is heavily committed to management research in support of U.S. obligations and interests under nine international fishery commissions and a number of bilateral agreements. Not only has such research been essential for the wise use of the resources, but in many cases the data have served to protect our interest in, and our access to, the resources.

An example is evident in the research program of the United States under the International Convention for the High Seas Fisheries of the North Pacific Ocean, agreed to by the United States, Canada, and Japan in 1952.

Under the Convention, research in red salmon spawned in the streams and lakes of western Alaska has provided a broad base of scientific data for the North Pacific Convention area. The data include abundance and life history information, migration patterns of various year classes of salmon during their years at sea, and information on the areas and extent that salmon of North American origin and salmon of Asian origin intermingle at sea. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also has supplied essential elements of red salmon research. Because of the scientific data, and working within the framework of the 1952 Convention, the United States has achieved a high degree of protection for its Alaska red salmon resources. In most years the impact of high seas salmon fishing on Alaska red salmon has been minimized because of the willingness of the Convention signatories to limit fishing effort in critical areas.

Over the past 60 years, the U.S. catch has varied greatly in species composition, due in part to changes in abundance of the various stocks, to the discovery of new resources and processing techniques and to changes in consumer taste preferences. For example, in 1908 shad, sea trout, and carp were among the ten most valuable U.S. fishery products, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total catch value. In 1970, while still important. these fisheries combined contributed only about one percent of the total catch value. Conversely, in 1908, tuna barely showed in the industry statistics, and shrimp accounted for only about one percent of the total catch.

In more recent years, shrimp has accounted for more than a fifth of the total value of the U.S. fishery catch. In 1970, the preliminary data shows that the total shrimp catch of all species was worth about $130 million to the fishermen—about 23 percent of the total value of the entire U.S. catch. In 1970, tuna landings will show a slight increase over the 323 million pounds for 1969, when the catch was valued at $54 million at dockside. Salmon, oysters, lobsters, crabs, and, until recently, haddock have consistently ranked among our most valuable fisheries through the years since shortly after the turn of the century.

In 1970, according to preliminary information, the total U.S. catch was about 4.8 billion pounds, worth about $570 million to the fishermen. Both the value and volume were up sharply from 1969—in fact, the value was the highest ever paid U.S. fishermen for a one-year catch, and the total volume was the eighth largest on record and the highest since 1962. As recently as 1968, more than 75 percent of our total domestic supply of all fishery products came from imports. In 1969, the import figure dropped to 64 percent, and in 1970 it was about 57 percent. The pattern has developed because of sharply reduced imports of fishmeal.

The total supply of fishery products for human food increased from 5.6 billion pounds in 1969 to 6.3 billion pounds in 1970, reflecting increased demand for quality seafood items. A greater percentage of the total food fish supply was of domestic origin than in the previous two years, even though imports of edible products rose in 1970.

A fish unknown to most Americans accounts for the largest share of our landings. That fish is the menhaden, a herring-like species used primarily for manufacturing fishmeal, an important additive in poultry rations. Of the total U.S. catch of 4.8 billion pounds, nearly 2 billion pounds was menhaden caught along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

The frequent reorganizations and transfers of the federal fishery agency indicate constantly changing conditions, calling for changes in the federal approach to the changing problems. Change appears to be a dominant word in the history of our fisheries. After the old Bureau of Commercial Fisheries became the National Marine Fisheries Service, and other organizations with missions in the atmosphere and the oceans were united in NOAA, Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans issued the following statement:

"The establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce marks a significant consolidation of research, exploration, development, conservation, monitoring and educational activities as they relate to the oceans and atmosphere. The intelligent use of the oceans, which constitute three-fourths of the entire earth's surface, is vital if we are to strike a proper balance between development and conservation of its vast but surely not unlimited resources. In many respects we are more familiar with the surface of the moon than we are with the ocean depths of our own planet. Until now, in spite of sincere efforts, government has failed to organize itself to meet effectively the challenge and opportunities of operating in an ocean environment. Instead of 23 departments and agencies of government competing for various parts of the Federal mission in the ocean and the atmosphere, we will now have a single agency providing a unified national thrust in delivering on both the promise and potential of this last great frontier on earth."

The Secretary added:

"Among the fields in which NOAA will assume Federal civilian leadership will be the mapping and charting of the global oceans and the Great Lakes; ocean fish exploration and conservation; aquaculture development; marine biological research; fish technology and industry services; technology of the air and sea; the monitoring of such geophysical phenomena as pollution, seismicity, climate and geomagnetism; and scientific and technological data collection and dissemination."

The first Director of the new NMFS is Philip M. Roedel of California, who had served for a year as Director of BCF. Mr. Roedel joined the federal service after some 30 years as an internationally known scientist and administrator in the California Department of Fish and Game. His latest state assignment was as Director of the California Marine Fish Program, and he has served as a representative of both the state and federal government at dozens of international conferences and meetings. When NOAA was formed, he said:

"We feel that the creation of NOAA marks the birth of a new era for marine fisheries in the United States. As the National Marine Fisheries Service, our responsibilities are broader than they were as the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. We now have the responsibility for the total living marine resources including both commercial and recreational interests."

Mr. Roedel added:

"We have realigned our internal structure to include our broader responsibilities and to enable us to approach fishery problems in totality rather than on a piecemeal basis. We view NMFS as having a responsibility in two major areas: one dealing with problems relating to the living marine resources; the other with problems that arise after they are caught. It is our feeling that consideration of the resource must come first... because without the resource, there would be neither commercial nor recreational users."

Asked about the basic goal of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Mr. Roedel said that the basic goal is conservation—that is, the wise use of the resource. He said that a strong, sound, biological base is fundamental to the goal. On the occasion of the centennial, Director Roedel said that in years past it was the custom of the federal fishery agency to try to adapt to problems such as split jurisdiction over fisheries matters and institutional barriers placing unrealistic and sometimes prohibitive restrictions on commercial fishing. It is apparent, he said, that this premise has not produced viable solutions to the complex problems. "It is generally agreed that there is a need for strengthening and improving the management of our fisheries, and it is our intention to look at all possibilities of a new federal-state partnership under which we would manage the resource jointly in the best interests of all concerned."

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on May 09, 2023