A Century of Fish Conservation (1871 - 1971)

[NOTE: This article was written in 1971, by Ben Schley, to celebrate an anniversary. It is now outdated, of course, but still an interesting perspective on the origins and history of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.]

When bearded, cigar smoking President Grant signed the U. S. Fish Commission into existence on a bleak February day in 1871, he couldn't have been completely aware of the long term importance of his action. Now, one hundred years later as the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife of the Department of the Interior ... one of two successors to the Fish Commission ... recognizes its centennial year, it seems appropriate to look back and review some of the events which led to the Bureau's many programs and responsibilities of today.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, a former college professor from Pennsylvania and at that time, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was a logical choice to head the newly created agency and Grant apparently had few reservations when he chose him for the job. Designating Baird "Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries," the President directed him to study "the decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and the lakes of the United States and to suggest remedial measures."

Baird was not only a naturalist of considerable reputation but a qualified scientist in the broad sense and represented the beginnings of a new trend toward professionalism in American science. He was a man with sufficient background to measure up to European scientific standards of that day. In addition, Baird was an energetic and personable individual with & unique ability to win and hold friends and to inspire confidence and loyalty in those with whom he was associated. In fact, the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA credits Baird with being "perhaps the most representative general man of science in America" in his day.

Though continuing to hold his position at the Smithsonian Institution, Baird apparently had no hesitancy in accepting new responsibilities as the Nation's first Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, even without an increase in salary.

The resolution establishing the U. S. Fish Commission... the first official Government action involving conservation of renewable natural resources... had a rocky time of it in Congress, surviving five day's of heated House discussion and opposition by several political leaders of the day. But after passage, the President acted speedily in getting the fledgeling agency into operation. Headquarters were soon established at Woods Hole on Cap Cod in Massachusetts and there Baird and his small staff began studies of striped bass, bluefish, and other sport and commercial fish species in the area. By the end of the year, the first of a continuing series of Commissioner's reports was issued ... 255 pages relating to this country's fish resources.

With research and study carried on largely through the warmer months of the year and often severely hampered by lack of funds, Baird succeeded in persuading many noted scientists to work for the Commission at little or no cost during their summer vacation period. Among the distinguished scientists who participated in the summer programs were: A. E. Verrill of Yale, Alexander Agassin and W. G. Farlow of Harvard, and W. 0. Atwater of Wesleyan. Each year a different area was selected for study. All were located along the coast of New England ... Eastport and Portland, Maine; Noank, Connecticut; Salem, Gloucester and Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island. At these summer stations research programs were carried out and thousands of specimens of marine life were collected and identified. Later, in 1885 under Baird1s direction, the first Federal fishery research laboratory was built at Woods Hole. Modernized in 1960, it remains a monument to fishery research.

When Baird took office in 1871, the artificial propagation of trout and other fishes was in its infancy but had already captured the imagination of a growing population intent on improving the stocks of available sport and food fish. The introduction of vast numbers of native and exotic species of fish to new waters appeared to the uninformed to be an easy way to increase fishing opportunities for everyone.

At the urging of the American Fish Cultural Association ... predecessor to today's prestigious American Fisheries Society and the country's oldest natural resource conservation organization ... Congress appropriated $15,000 for the propagation of food fishes. Picked for the job of setting up the first Federal fresh water fish hatchery was Livingston Stone, one of the most experienced trout culturists of the day. Sporting flowing "dundrearies," man's most fashionable hirsute adornment of the day, Stone and several assistants were instructed to travel to California, find the location of salmon spawning grounds, and there establish a salmon hatchery where eggs could be incubated and shipped to suitable rivers in an attempt to make these giant fish available to people in all parts of the Nation.

Arriving on the west coast, Stone contacted the State Fish and Game Commissioners but they could provide little current information regarding the location of salmon spawning areas. Further inquiry turned up an employee of the railroad who reported seeing Indians spearing salmon in the McCloud River just above the mouth of the Pit River.

In those days the McCloud River was still in a virtually unspoiled state with few white settlers on its banks. Stone in his report to Commissioner Baird in 1874 said: "...The McCloud River presents an instance of what is becoming increasingly rare, at least in the more accessible parts of the country, namely a region which is just as it was before the white man found it, and with a race of aborigines whose simple habits have not been corrupted by the aggressive influence of communication with the whites."

Eventually Stone and his small party located the salmon spawning areas of the McCloud River, though so late in the season, that they were able to collect and incubate only a small number of chinook salmon eggs. Despite the lateness of the season, and problems with Indians and flood waters, some 30 thousand eyed eggs were shipped by train to Eastern waters after completion of the first season's operations.

Operation of the hatchery on the McCloud River (later called the "Baird Hatchery") continued for a number of years, and more than 50 million eyed salmon eggs were shipped from there to all parts of the world without any real evidence of success except for the establishment of runs in several rivers in New Zealand. Today, the site of the old hatchery lies beneath the placid waters of Lake Shasta.

Turning from salmon operations, Livingston Stone soon located another hatchery a few miles upstream from the Baird station near the mouth of Green Creek. Here rainbow trout were spawned and their eggs shipped to the East and suitable locations in many foreign lands. Introduction of McCloud River trout met with success in many places. In addition to successful introductions over a wide area in the United States, rainbow trout were transplanted to the waters of all continents, in many of which they did as well or better than in their native range.

The Baird Hatchery was the first in the National Fish Hatchery System, now the largest hatchery complex in the world, containing nearly 100 hatcheries devoted to the rearing of more than 50 species of fish and the operation of a number of fish cultural development centers and hatchery biologist stations.

Another fish management first was established in 1871 when Seth Green, at that time an employee of the California Fish Commission successfully transported some 10,000 shad fry from the east coast's Hudson River to the Sacramento River in California. Transported overload with tender loving care by train in giant wooden barrels and constantly aerated in transit, the fragile little fish arrived at their destination in excellent shape with little more than a 10% loss. The silvery strangers thrived in the alien waters and today provide an excellent sport and commercial fishery for west coast citizens. This was the first recorded successful introduction of a new species of fish in the United States.

Later, in 1879, Livingston Stone under the direction of Baird, captured 133 striped bass from the Navesink River in New Jersey, and after a long overland trip, managed to plant most of them in the Pacific Ocean near Martinez, California. Three years later another successful striper transplant was made into west coast waters. From this small beginning a splendid sport and food fish was added to the list of Pacific coast inhabitants, a fish which still provides angling thrills for thousands of anglers.

Attempts to introduce Atlantic salmon and shad into the Mississippi River system and other areas in the Middle West and South met with little or no success and were soon abandoned. But Baird was not discouraged and efforts to transplant other species continued.

Perhaps the Commission's greatest success, though now an unpopular and controversial one, was the introduction of carp. A popular food fish over a great part of Europe, it was introduced because of Baird's desire to provide a cheap source of high quality food for rural dwellers in the South and Midwest. In an effort to provide wide distribution of the fish, Baird even had rearing ponds constructed on the grounds of the Washington Monument and other nearby locations. Enthusiasm for the program soon developed and the fish was introduced into every imaginable stream or body of water. But before long, public acceptance waned and criticism by fishery professionals and the public at large developed. To this day, the introduction of the now, largely unwanted species stands as a monument to inadequate study prior to the introduction of exotic animals.

After Baird's death in 1887, prime emphasis in the U. S. Fish Commission was placed on the propagation and reclamation of various species of game and food fish. Numerous hatcheries were constructed and attempts were made to increase fish populations in some areas by the addition of numerous small hatchery-produced fish. Attempts were continued to increase the range of whitefish, trout, and other species. Much progress was made in fish culture methods, the control of disease, and in transportation of live fish. Many exotic species were transplanted to new waters.

In 1903, the Fish Commission was transferred to the newly authorized Department of Commerce and Labor and was renamed the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries. The same legislation fixed responsibility for supervision and control of the fur seal, salmon, and other Alaskan fisheries in the new Bureau. The Department of Commerce and Labor split into two separate departments in 1913 with the Bureau of Fisheries remaining in Commerce.

In 1939 and 1940, the Bureau of Fisheries was joined by the Bureau of Biological Survey, formerly with the Department of Agriculture; the resulting agency was called the Fish and Wildlife Service and placed in the Department of the Interior. Though continuing its fish conservation activities, conservation programs concerning many other forms of wildlife also became the responsibility of the agency.

Sixteen years later in 1956, the name of the Service was changed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it was split into two separate agencies, each with equal status as a Federal Bureau but with different responsibilities...the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries.

In 1970, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was renamed National Marine Fisheries Service and placed under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce. It retained its programs related to management and research of saltwater commercial species and accepted new responsibilities regarding marine sport fish.

The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife remains in the Department of the Interior with continuing responsibility for fresh water fish and wildlife conservation and related research. Nearly one hundred National Fish Hatcheries, fish cultural development centers, and fish hatchery biological stations now produce various species of sport and food fishes, test and develop new hatchery equipment and techniques, and control and study fish diseases.

In cooperation with State agencies, the Bureau manages fish and wildlife populations on Federal lands, and in areas where the Federal Government has responsibility. It also performs related research. It is responsible for the preservation of many endangered species of wildlife and operates a series of National Wildlife Refuges. It studies and controls animal populations which may threaten man's well being. The Bureau also administers funds obtained from excise taxes on fishing tackle and firearms and acquires and improves land for waterfowl habitat. It provides educational and training opportunities for fish and wildlife professionals and operates environmental education centers and aquariums.

Though President Grant and others of his day could have had little idea of what the future would bring to the U.S. Fish Commission in the first one hundred years of its existence, they did recognize the importance of our fish and wildlife resources and created a firm base for the two agencies which carry on his trust to this day...The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife of the Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce.