U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)

Commercial fishermen first raised the alarm:  The oceans were being overfished.  They knew it long before anyone else, because they were experiencing smaller catches from each haul of their nets, needed to travel to deeper and more dangerous waters to fill their holds, and caught smaller fish every year.

Commercial fishing fleet in Kodiak, Alaska (photo by James Brooks)

It took many years and much debate for science and government to agree with the fishermen.  Around 1850, government commissions began to look into the claims of fishermen. Some of the most learned men of the time, including Thomas Huxley, insisted the oceans were inexhaustible, based merely on their great size.  Others, using data, concluded the opposite.

The U.S. government decided to do something about it in 1871.  Congress passed and President Grant signed, on February 9 of that year, a law which created the U.S. Office of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.  Its role was to “prosecute investigations on the subject (of the diminution of valuable fishes) with the view to ascertaining whether any and what diminution in the number of the food-fishes of the coast and the lakes of the United States had taken place.”  The Fish Commission, as it became known, was also to make recommendations for repairing the fisheries.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, First leader of the U.S. Fish Commission

President Grant appointed Spencer Fullerton Baird as Commissioner.  At the time, Baird’s full-time job was as the original curator of the Smithsonian Institution, which had been established in 1850 (in 1878, Baird became the second Secretary of the Smithsonian) .  A well regarded naturalist, Baird took a broad approach to understanding and improving the country’s fisheries. He established headquarters at Woods Hole, Massachusetts (now one of the world’s leading centers for marine science) .  He began studies of major fisheries, including striped bass, cod and bluefish.  He invested in aquaculture, which was considered a promising method for growing marine fisheries populations (it later proved not to be particularly useful).  Baird directed the agency until his death in 1887, but by then the Fish Commission and its purpose were well established.

Over the past century, the U.S. Fish Commission has seen many re-organizations.  It began as an independent agency, then became part of the new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, switched to the Department of Interior in 1939 and returned to Commerce in 1970.  In that year it was placed inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, where it remains today) and named the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Today, NOAA Fisheries has enormous responsibilities.  It oversees regulations governing the catches of all marine fisheries, a $200 billion industry supplying 1.6 million jobs.  It implements the Endangered Species Act for 157 marine and anadromous species.  It conducts research on fisheries and marine biology through a network of 6 science centers and 20 laboratories.  Most importantly, it tracks the status of 474 stocks of fisheries organisms with the goal of assuring the sustainable yield from those stocks.

References:

Guinan, John A. and Ralph E. Curtis.  1971.  A Century of Conservation.  NOAA(12):40-44.  Available at:  https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/history/stories/century.html.  Accessed February 6, 2018.

Nielsen, Larry A.  1976.  The Evolution of Fisheries Management Philosophy.  Marine Fisheries Review December 1976:15-23.  Available at:  http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr3812/mfr38122.pdf.  Accessed February 6, 2018.

NOAA Fisheries.  About Us.  Available at:  https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/about-us.  Accessed February 6, 2018.

Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887.  Available at:  https://siarchives.si.edu/history/spencer-fullerton-baird.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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