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AFSC Historical Corner:  Oregon,  RFC Exploratory Fishing Fleet Vessel

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The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) Boats – in response to a 1945 suggestion by the War Food Administration, four exploratory fishing vessels were constructed to help determine the potential for harvesting new marine resources. The goal was to overcome the wartime shortage of meat protein and expand the knowledge of the crab and fish resources identified by the 1940-41 Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Alaska king crab explorations conducted with chartered boats.

The new 100-foot steel-seiners, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and California were designed by naval architect H. C. Hanson and built – averaging $250,000 each – for the RFC, an independent government corporation. In addition, conversions were made to the 410-foot, Pacific Explorer, to serve as a cargo/factory mother ship. All work ($4,750,000) was funded by the RFC and managed by the Pacific Exploration Company (PEC). After completion, the PEC leased and operated the fleet from the RFC for $50,000 per year and 55% of the profit. As part of the agreement, FWS agents were accommodated aboard the boats during cruises to observe operations and conduct research.

It wasn't long before the Oregon, Washington and Alaska were acquired by the FWS. Little is known about the California, other than hearing that she was used in the early 1970s as a tuna seiner out of San Pedro, California -- then later towed to Seattle in the early 1990s and resold.

The Oregon, 1949, 1969-80  (Alaska service)

As one of the four RFC exploratory fishing boats, the Oregon was constructed in Oregon in 1946. The hulls for both her and the Washington were built by Gunderson Brothers at Portland. The boats then moved to Astoria to have the work finished by the Astoria Marine Construction Company. Both were designed as single-masted West Coast combination seiner-draggers, each with a raised deck and full molded round bottom hull with bilge keels.

The research vessel Oregon, FWS 1600.  Auke Bay Laboratories photo.

Vessel Details
Year built: 1946
Locations built: Portland, OR (hull), then
moved to Astoria, OR
Builders: Gunderson Bros. (hull)
and Astoria Marine
Construction Co.
Designer: H. C. Hanson
Other names/id: FWS 1600  (FWS)
FRV 51  (NOAA)
R 551  (NOAA)
#251138  (USCG ID)
Length: 100'
Breadth: 26'
Draft: 14'
Tonnage: 219 tons gross
Original engine: 600 hp Enterprise
Average speed: 9 knots
Cruising range: 4,800 miles
Known skipper: Wendell Schneider (1969-73)
Federal service: 1949  (AK, Pac. NW coast)
1950-68  (Gulf of Mexico)
1969-80  (Alaska)
Disposition: decommissioned in 1980

Outfitted for live-bait fishing, the Oregon set out in 1948 to search for untouched resources of (albacore) tuna in the north, central and south Pacific Ocean. This cruise also provided the opportunity to test new gear types. She was joined by her sister ship, the RFC's purse-seiner Alaska.

Reports from the initial trips made off the Washington/Oregon coasts were outstanding. From August to October the Oregon was at the Hawaiian Islands before sailing south to the Line Islands, then west to the Marshall Islands and other U.S. Pacific Trust Territory islands.

Through special legislation and appropriations, the Oregon was obtained by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1949 – for a reported $300,000. On 8 August, she sailed from Seattle, Washington, to continue prospecting for albacore tuna off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Experimental trawls were made both to study tuna distribution and range and to possibly identify a commercial tuna fishery. The extensive use of LORAN on the trip marked the first time a FWS vessel used the long-range navigational aid for assessing fishing conditions. Whenever a sizeable school of tuna was located, the Oregon would alert the local fishing fleet by radio as to their location. Later that year, the vessel moved to Southeast Alaska to perform the same work of locating tuna and reporting to fishermen in the area.

In 1950, the Oregon was relocated to the FWS's new Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research (EF&GR) base at Pascagoula, Mississippi, arriving at her new home port on 5 January after 27 days of sailing from Seattle.

Based on a recommendation by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, she began explorations that April focusing on shrimp, red snapper, tuna, menhaden and shark. The Oregon would spend the next 16 years in the region supporting the Agency's EF&GR program by searching for various commercial marine populations, to include bottomfish and other potential species. These activities took the vessel on numerous cruises in the Gulf of Mexico, western Atlantic Ocean and off the coast of South America as far south as French Guiana, in shallow waters north of the Amazon River.

NOAA research vessel Oregon, FRV 51, at Seattle.  NOAA Photo Library.

In 1964, as part of the International Cooperative Investigations of the Tropical Atlantic (ICITA) program, the Oregon was used to collect hydrographic and biological data and to study surface schooling fish while at South America. From the fall of 1964 to 1966, the vessel made four important exploratory fishing trips in the Lesser Antilles area of the Caribbean Sea in connection with the United Nations (UN) Special Fund Carribbean project. During the cruises, longline, trolling, trawls, and dredges were made which resulted in catches of tuna, swordfish, dwarf herring, silversides, several varieties of shark, shrimp, scarlet prawns and lobsterettes. The UN observers and trainees who accompanied the Oregon gained knowledge of the offshore marine resources and fishing gear/techniques which would influence any future commerical fisheries established in the Caribbean.

A contract to begin contruction of the Oregon's replacement was made in 1965. As a result, The new 170-foot Oregon II was built at Pascagoula at a cost of $1,990,000 and launched in February 1967. She took over the fishery and living marine resource studies in the area, continuing the work for over 40 years with the Agency. The original Oregon remained in the Gulf for the next two years, continuing her operations, based at St. Simons Island, Georgia.

NOAA research vessel Oregon, R 551, at Seattle.  NOAA Photo Library.

In 1969, the Oregon returned to Seattle where extensive renovations were made. She then went to her temporary base at Juneau, Alaska, replacing the BCF's research vessel John R. Manning. The Oregon resumed the familiar gear research work and exploratory fishing – this time for bottom fish, shrimp and crabs in the eastern Bering Sea and lower Bristol Bay.

When the Juneau EF&GR laboratory moved to Kodiak, Alaska, in 1970, the Oregon followed. For five years she performed annual offshore surveys of the Alaska continental shelf for the Groundfish Assessment Program, under the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In 1973, the vessel was officially incorporated into the NOAA fleet. Three years later, she began operating in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska for NMFS' Resource Assessment Program.

After a long service with the Agency, the Oregon was decomissioned in 1980 and soon transferred to the State of South Carolina on 20 October. She was sold by the state wildlife department in the late 1980s for $6,000.

In April 1991, Jon Franklin purchased the Oregon and spent nearly a year completely overhauling the boat to her original configuration. He left South Carolina in February 1992 with the vessel, arriving about six weeks later in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Franklin (Oregon Seafoods, Lopez Island, WA.) has used the Oregon to include bait-fishing and trolling for herring and salmon in Alaska, 1997-98 winter tuna fishing at Fiji in the South Pacific, and albacore fishing off the Washington coast in the fall of 2001. He still owned and operated the boat as of early 2014.

Oregon photos in the AFSC Multimedia Gallery.

Additional reading:

Exploratory fishing (posted 6-27-14), with photos of the Oregon at the Government Locks in Seattle. Carmel Finley website.
Springer, S., and H. R. Bullis. 1954. Exploratory Shrimp Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, Summary Report for 1952-54, p.1-16, 26-28. In Commercial Fisheries Review, 16:10 [Oct. 1954]. FWS, U.S. Dep. Inter., Wash. D.C., 95 p.  (online at Internet Archive)

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