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AFSC Historical Corner:  Montlake Laboratory

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Montlake  (Seattle)
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Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Montlake Laboratory
The original "west" building at the Montlake campus.  Northwest Fisheries Science Center photo.

On 22 May 1931, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) held an "Open House" for its new biological laboratory on Montlake Boulevard, located between Lake Washington and Lake Union in Seattle, Washington. The U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries reported that the lab "provides the much needed facilities for the Pacific Coast biological staff of the Bureau as well as for certain of its other personnel and the staff of the International Halibut Commission."

The new 3-story brick building was fireproof throughout and originally contained 29 offices – many of which could convert into working laboratories with gas, water, steam, air and vacuum connections. In addition, were storage areas, photography dark rooms, two chemical labs, a large library and heating plant. Outside was a dock capable of berthing the Bureau's numerous vessels.

Following the opening, the fisheries staff and equipment that had been located at the Stanford University field station were gradually reassigned to the Montlake facility; since most of the staff were involved with field work during the summer months. The Halibut Commission was transferred in July. Included in the move were all of the BOF's Pacific coast biological studies involving fishery issues, with the exception of shellfish and the cooperative work on California trout.

Other than a new group created to study sockeye salmon runs in Puget Sound, the six programs from Stanford that dealt with Alaska salmon and herring continued their work at Montlake. Another BOF program at the time was providing salmon-run information to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to assist them with the design of a new dam on the Columbia River, an area of major expansion in fisheries projects.

Many prominent figures in fisheries research and management studied at Montlake, such as Richard VanCleve, future Dean of the Univeristy of Washington's (UW) College of Fisheries; John Kask, who later headed several U.S. and Canada fishery agencies; and Lauren Donaldson, internationally known for his contributions in salmon and trout selective breeding research.

In 1938, government funding for the study of salmon runs in the Bristol Bay region led to the first significant growth in the Alaska fishery research taking place at Montlake. The oceanographic work, in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, was the first actual federal investigations of salmon ocean life history. The new Alaska field station built on Brooks River near the Brooks Lake outlet, proved an ideal study site for the spawning-related aspect of this research.

Montlake lab, east building
"East" building.  NOAA publication photo, 1965.

During World War II, much of the science done at the Montlake Laboratory was put on hold, after which an effort was made to revitalize research with different and exciting programs.

By the early 1950s, Alaska salmon studies were still being done, but at new locations, such as fertilization at Bare Lake on Kodiak Island, and intertidal spawning investigations at Sashin Creek near Little Port Walter. Open water salmon biology research in the North Pacific was started in connection with the 1952-53 treaty of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission. Other programs ensued which dealt with Alaska stocks of salmon, halibut, herring, and crab – very little being known about king crab in the eastern Bering Sea.

In the early 1960s, a huge searchable compilation of salmon research publications to date was attempted for the first time at Montlake. The lab expanded its oceanographic studies and continued to provide salmon related information to the USACE for their dam projects. Construction of an additional wing, which started in 1964, was completed early the following year. Located in the new 65,000-square-foot "east building" were a library, auditorium/conference room, and a state-of-the-art laboratory.

Following the 1970 formation of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Northwest Fisheries Center (NWC) was established at Montlake in 1971. Included as part of the NWC was the Auke Bay Laboratory (ABL) in Alaska. The NWC was later officially renamed the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center (NWAFC) on 1 October 1976.

Limited funding at this time affected vessel operations connected with the NWC – the Miller Freeman was deactivated for 5 years and the RV George B. Kelez was decommissioned. The Center also had to curtail certain projects and reduce staff. By the mid-1970s, recovery brought about renewed activities and a shift towards "management biology", which utilized the vast amount of research data accumulated over the years.

In 1984, the following groups from the overcrowded Montlake lab were relocated nearby to the newly built NOAA Western Regional Center at Sand Point.

  • Auke Bay Laboratory (ABL)
  • National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML)
  • Office of Fisheries Information Systems (OFIS)
  • Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division
  • Resource Ecology and Fisheries Management (REFM) Division

Because of its substantial laboratory facilities, Montlake retained the:

  • Utilization Research (UR) Division
  • Environmental Conservation (EC) Division
  • Coastal Zone & Estuarine Studies (CZES) Division

In 1990, the NWAFC was divided into two Seattle-based centers:

  • the Northwest Fisheries Science Center at Montlake (with UR, EC, and CZES Divisions)
  • the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) located at Sand Point (with ABL, NMML, OFIS, RACE, and REFM)

Initially, the restructuring emphasized continued division interaction. The RACE, REFM, and UR Divisions, and NMML supported the ecosystem, with program responsibilities that apply to both the Northwest and Alaska regions.

Moving into the new century, the Montlake Laboratory continued to conduct science that influences federal decisions on conservation and management of living marine resources in the Pacific Northwest – its research mandated by laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Additional reading:

  • Atkinson, C. E. 1988. The Montlake Laboratory of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and its Biological Research, 1931-81. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 19-46. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 2.77 MB).
  • NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. website  (last accessed 1-10-13).
  • Celebrating 70 years of Fisheries Research at Montlake. Northwest Fisheries Science Center brochure.  (.pdf, 5.4 MB).

Northwest Fisheries Science Center website

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