Our Origin Story
Every superhero has an origin story. NOAA Fisheries is no exception.
Superman is from Krypton; Batman, from Gotham; Thor, from Asgard. NOAA Fisheries was born in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where our very first laboratory was sited.
A President and a Famous Scientist Walk into a Village
On February 9, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law that created the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, known as the Fish Commission. It was the nation’s first federal conservation and environmental research agency. At the time, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were trying to address a serious decline in marine fish catches. However, there was not a consistent approach or common understanding of the decline.
One way to work a problem among states is to provide some federal support to find a solution—that’s when Congress got involved and authorized the Fish Commission. It was charged with conducting an official inquiry into the apparent decline in fishery catches off Southern New England. For the most part this centered on commercial harvest operations using fish pounds and weirs, and subsistence fishermen and anglers using handlines. If there was indeed a decline, the commission was to study its causes and recommend ways to reverse it.
Finding the Right Top Scientist
President Grant appointed prominent scientist Spencer Fullerton Baird to lead the commission. Baird, an eminent zoologist and the first assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was an obvious choice. In fact, Baird laid much of the groundwork for this inquiry himself, using his many contacts in Congress. He more or less volunteered to take on the task.
He hit the ground running in his second, and unpaid, government job as Fish Commissioner. Within a few months, he established the first U.S. marine research station—just a shed in the early years—at Woods Hole. The agency now known as NOAA Fisheries grew from this little shed in Woods Hole.
Baird was handed a tall order, as marine fisheries science was in its infancy. Also, there was as yet little in the way of systematic data collection about marine fisheries and fish. He needed to gather information not only on fish numbers, but also on the general natural history of the waters supporting these fish, and on the businesses that depended on them.
Our Superpower: Science
Working with a few other hardy souls, mostly academic colleagues with an interest in marine life, Baird devised a wide-ranging research plan. It would be familiar to any fishery scientist today:
- Identify the fish and fisheries to investigate
- Quantify fish declines
- Investigate possible causes for declines
- Determine what these fish ate, and any changes in prey availability
- Look for evidence of distribution changes
- Search for indications of disease
- Check records for temperature anomalies or extremes
- Evaluate predation on the fishery species that were the focus of the investigation
- Estimate the “agency of man,” influences that he defined as pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing methods
After two exhaustive field seasons, Baird credibly discounted most of the possible causes. He and his team settled on two: predation by bluefish on the fish in question, and intensive fishing for too long and at the time of year when fish were spawning. Since there was little to be done about bluefish that didn’t involve killing off one food fish to save others, the commission proposed a simple remedy. They settled on “occasional intermission during the six weeks when most of these fish deposit their eggs, of sufficient length of time to allow a certain percentage to pass through to their breeding ground.”
Baird then started on what would be his final scientific quest: establishing permanent federal capability to understand the nation’s marine resources. Upon his death in 1887, Congress reorganized the commission into a permanent government agency. It had a paid, full-time commissioner and a renewed focus on a broad array of basic and applied research in marine and environmental sciences.
Celebrating 150 Years
Over 150 years, the agency has seen seven reorganizations, four name changes, and cascading Congressional revision of authorities and remits. Baird’s work continues to this day in the National Marine Fisheries Service, more commonly known as NOAA Fisheries, a direct successor of the Fish Commission.
This year the Northeast Fisheries Science Center celebrates our role in 150 years of science, service, and stewardship of our nation’s marine life and their habitats. Throughout 2021 we will be highlighting our history and legacy, current work, and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Each of our laboratories has a story to tell. Over this anniversary year, we’ll be featuring each of them, our foundational contributions to science, and some of our greatest scientists (well-known and undeservedly obscure). We’ll also take an all-important look ahead to the next decade of discovery and stewardship for NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast.