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AFSC Historical Corner:  Fisheries Management

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Species Research
Federal Hatcheries
Fisheries Management
Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
desk work at Little Port Walter
Desk work at the  Little Port Walter field station.
Photo provided by William Heard (AFSC, retired).
The following text was taken from sections of
Royce, W. F. 1985. The Historical Development of Fisheries Science and Management (Taken from a lecture given at the Fisheries Centennial Celebration (1985) by William F. Royce).  (NEFSC website).

"Basic [fishery] research began, in North America as well as in northern Europe, in the middle of the last century [1800s], and was stimulated by the age-old role of fisheries in society. The fisheries of eastern North America had been the magnet that attracted daring seamen from Scandinavia and southwestern Europe nearly a millenium ago and remained as one of the primary resources for the people of eastern North America until after the establishment of this laboratory. They were vital to the early settlers because they provided profitable employment and winter food before the settlers could be sustained by farming. This kind of role is not unlike the roles of the fisheries in many of the lesser developed countries in recent times.

By the middle of the nineteenth century some of the fishery resources had already declined by alarming amounts, as they had in the Northeast Atlantic, where the causes were hotly disputed. Trout culture had started as a business, both in Europe and North America, and it was suggested that declinine wild resources could be restored by stocking. But many people felt that more facts were needed, so Congress authorized creation of the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in 1871. Spencer F. Baird was appointed Commissioner, and he returned to Woods Hole annually, during the summers, to work in the area with which he had become familiar during earlier vacations.

His appointment set the course of fishery studies in the United States for many years. He was a zoologist and naturalist who pursued biological studies of the fishery animals with great zeal, and who encouraged many nongovernmental scientists (some from Europe and Canada) to use the U.S. and Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) facilities that had become available at Woods Hole. For about 50 years, this station was the summer center for marine biology in eastern North America. The beginnings of fishery research in the United States were part of the growing concern about the environment and the public support of research to achieve conservation. The American Fish Culturist's Association was formed in 1870, and it, significantly, named Baird as well as Samuel Wilmot (who later became the Superintendent of Fish Breeding in Canada in 1876) as honorary members in 1872. This Association broadened its mission in 1884 with a change of name to the American Fisheries Society.

More general support for conservation research came when, in 1873, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) urged application of research to forestry problems and the reformation of forest management policy. The AAAS also supported the formation of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879 and the U.S. Biological Survey of the Department of Agriculture in 1885, the same time the fishery build- ings were constructed here in Woods Hole, Mass. Soon after, in 1895, a major voice for conservation appeared, one of our leading sportsmen's magazines, Field and Stream...

   Alaska Fisheries Totals, 1906-39  (from Bureau of Fisheries annual reports)   

1906 12,357   $9,071,090 1923 25,246  $38,678,825 
1907 12,752   $10,160,183 1924 25,194  $40,289,273 
1908 13,337   $11,847,443 1925 27,685  $40,038,745 
1909 12,588   $11,181,388 1926 28,052  $54,669,882 
1910 15,620   $13,259,859 1927 28,872  $40,163,300 
1911 17,932   $16,863,728 1928 31,086  $54,545,588 
1912 24,263   $18,877,480 1929 29,283  $50,795,819 
1913 21,721   $15,739,068 1930 27,568  $37,679,049 
1914 21,200   $21,242,975 1931 22,577  $33,594,753 
1915 22,462   $20,999,343 1932 20,122  $25,028,920 
1916 23,904   $26,156,559 1933 21,695  $32,126,588 
1917 29,491   $51,466,980 1934 26,190  $41,963,293 
1918 31,213   $59,154,859 1935 22,620  $31,230,646 
1919 28,534   $50,282,064 1936 30,383  $50,455,272 
1920 27,482   $41,492,124 1937 30,331  $51,743,220 
1921 15,070   $24,086,867 1938 28,084  $42,869,726 

The scientists who came pursued their own specialities more or less in isolation while the Commission pursued descriptions of the fisheries...Few fishery laboratories were established before the 1920s. They emerged as the limnological and aquatic biological laboratories gradually incorporated fishery studies. In addition, a few laboratories began to study salmonid culture, notably the problems of nutrition and disease. Still later, fishery technological laboratories concerned with the handling of the products, were organized, mostly after World War II. All of this research, the basic research and the attempts to deal with the ongoing and urgent social, economic, and political problems of the fisheries had established a dichotomy between the researchers and the managers of the fisheries. The researchers had to approach the scientific problems one by one, whereas the managers faced the overall challenges of making decisions about a complex human activity with the help of a few facts about the fisheries. The researchers had time and isolation; the managers had deadlines for decisions in a political arena...

...1885 to about 1950, was a period of slowly increasing research, but the findings had very little effect on fishery management. Conservation was fundamentally a political issue (Smith, 1966). The freshwater regulations were based on common sense, avoiding waste, protecting young animals so they could grow, protecting breeding animals so they could reproduce, and spreading the catches through the prevention of any excessive ingenuity in the use of nets. When the fish became scarce, waters were stocked from hatcheries (as this station did for so many years). The marine fishery regulations, on the other hand, were very few, and there was little regulation of marine fisheries in this country, aside from inshore shellfisheries and perhaps the inshore herring fishery of New England, until recent years. What regulations there were, were largely designed to promote orderly marketing and orderly fishing, not really for the purpose of conservation in the usual sense that we think of it...

The profession of fishery science began to emerge in the l950s. The experience with the Halibut Commission and the confidence that had been gained helped, but still left this broad problem--how to get at the management...public acceptance of a science-based fishery management was very slow. It clearly intruded on established political and legislative prerogatives. An example of the difficult transition occurred in the management of the Alaskan salmon resources. There the salmon production reached a peak of about 200,000 metric tons annually in the middle 1930's and then steadily declined to about half that level by 1945. The Federal management had no acceptable explanation so the salmon industry asked the University of Washington and W. F. Thompson for help...The Federal government continued its basic research on salmon biology, with no at- tention to research on the management system, until after a radical reorganization of the Alaskan office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1955, but then it was too late. The residents of the Territory of Alaska voted overwhelmingly for statehood in 1958, many of them because of their perception of a failure of Federal fishery management. The new State of Alaska took over the regulation of the fishery in 1960, continued to refine its regulations (assisted by some favorable weather conditions), and production recently returned to its peak level of about 200,000 metric tons...

The failure of the one Federal fishery management program in Alaska and the new Federal responsibilities for fishery management under the numerous treaties after 1945 led to a major reorganization with the adoption of the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 that established the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Bureau brought the Federal research much closer to the management responsibilities...

The new fishery treaties and the new environmental laws that became effective during the 1950's and 1960's were enough to change greatly the practice of fishery science, but an even greater stimulus for change came in the 1970's....Perhaps it was a quirk of fate that at this same time, in the early 1970's, the expansion era of the world's fisheries ended..."

Event items:

  • Baseline survey in the eastern Bering Sea, 1975-76

    "In the summer of 1975 and the spring of 1976, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center (NWAFC) conducted multivessel surveys of the demersal fishes and commercially important invertebrates of the shelf and upper continental slope waters of the eastern Bering Sea. These surveys, carried out under NOAA's Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program (OCSEAP) and NMFS's Marine Resources Monitoring Assessment and Prediction (MARMAP) program by NOAA research vessels and chartered commercial fishing vessels, were the most extensive ever conducted in the Bering Sea in terms of area and habitat coverage and biological data collection.

    The study area, an important region for commercial fishing, may contain substantial petroleum reserves; sites are under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for leasing to allow the exploration and development of petroleum. NWAFC surveys had, as one of their objectives, to provide BLM with information on the distribution, abundance, and biological features of demersal resources of the eastern Bering Sea – which could be used to prepare an environmental impact statement, assessing the risks involved in development of the potential offshore petroleum reserves. The surveys, a part of the Center's involvement in the MARMAP program, also contributed a large body of scientific information to this program.

    The final results of the study are summarized below, including: (1) a brief review of the importance of the area to commercial fisheries; (2) the relative importance of species in the eastern Bering Sea; and (3) the distributions and current conditions of the principal commercial species.

    - Productivity and Commercial Utilization of Demersal Resources

    The eastern Bering Sea is a highly productive ocean region containing some of the largest marine mammal, fish, and crab populations in the world. Almost all major fish and shellfish resources of the region are under commercial exploitation, principally by the distant-water fisheries of Japan and the U.S.S.R. Since 1970, the annual catches of demersal fish and shellfish have exceeded 1.7 million metric tons (t); in the peak year of 1972, the catches reached almost 2.4 million t. Compared to other fishery regions of the Northern Hemisphere, catch per unit area in the eastern Bering Sea – 2.9 t per square kilometer – was exceeded only by that of the North Sea – 3.3 t per square kilometer. In 1974, landings of demersal fish and shellfish from the eastern Bering Sea were valued at over 400 million dollars.

    Japan was the first foreign nation to develop post-World War II fisheries in the Bering Sea, starting in 1954; the U.S.S.R. launched a fishery in 1959. During these years and through the early 1960s, the target species of these nations was yellowfin sole. Following the removal of 11.5 million t of yellowfin sole within a 3-year period (1960-62), the catch declined drastically as did the average size of fish. The stock remained in a depressed condition until the early 1970s, when the appearance of strong "Year -classes (spawned in the mid-1960s) resulted in an increase in the fishable population. Since 1969 the yellowfin sole fishery has operated in winter months (October to March) in shelf waters north of Unimak Island. Yellowfin sole catches in other areas are mainly incidental to walleye pollock landings.

    With the decline in the yellowfin sole population and development of techniques, of processing “surimi" (a semi-processed wet fish protein) at sea in 1964, walleye pollock became the target of the Japanese fishery. The Soviet Union also turned to walleye pollock as its principal target species but in somewhat later years. Since the mid-1960s, Pollock has formed by far the major part of foreign catches with average annual landings reaching 1.7 million t during 1971-74. Pollock catches come mainly from along the outer shelf and continental slope, extending from Unimak Pass to Cape Navarin. Largest catches come from just northwest of Unimak Pass and southwest of St. Matthews Island. Other commercially important fishes taken incidentally by the pollock and yellowfin sole fisheries (or by fisheries directed to these species) are flathead sole, rock sole, arrowtooth flounder, Greenland turbot, Pacific cod, sablefish, Pacific ocean perch, and Pacific herring.

    The current North American fishery for groundfish in the eastern Bering Sea is small in comparison to that of foreign countries, consisting of a Canadian and United States setline fishery for Pacific halibut. Catches of halibut by North American fishermen peaked in 1962 and 1963 at 4,400 and 4,900 t, but in 1970-74 catches ranged from only 143 to 685 t. This decline in catches resulted from a deterioration of the stock condition caused, at least in part, by incidental catches of halibut by foreign trawlers. The closure of certain areas in the southeastern Bering Sea to foreign trawling during part of the year has substantially reduced this incidental catch. Evidence of increased abundance of juvenile halibut, provided by surveys of the International Pacific Halibut Commission indicates that these closures may have reversed the downward trend in abundance of this species.

    Shellfish have also been targets of Japanese, U.S.S.R., as well as U.S. fishermen. U.S. crab fisheries in the eastern Bering Sea, which began in 1947, remained much smaller than those of Japan and the U.S.S.R. until the mid-1960s, but became dominant in the 1970s. The U.S.S.R. ended its participation in the king crab fishery in 1971, and Japan in 1974. The U.S. catch of king crab first exceeded that by Japan and the U.S.S.R. in 1971 (2.4 million crabs); in 1975 the U.S. catch reached 9.1 million crabs – an all-time record catch for this species.

    The United States did not have a fishery specifically for snow (Tanner) crab prior to 1974, although some were taken by the king crab fishery. A purposeful U.S. snow crab fishery began in 1974 and has grown very rapidly with catches reaching 8.9 million crabs in 1976 – about equal to the Japanese catch of 9.2 million crabs in the same year. The U.S.S.R. has not participated in the snow crab fishery since 1971.

    Pink shrimp has also been a commercially important species. The main fishing area for this species is northwest of the Pribilof Islands with less important grounds off Cape Navarin and in the Gulf of Anadyr. Exploitation of shrimp stocks in the Pribilof Island area has been mainly by Japan; the U.S.S.R. also fished for eastern Bering Sea shrimp in 1963 and 1964 but has not reported the extent of their catches. Japanese catches reached a peak of 27,000 t in 1963 but, due to overfishing and adverse environmental conditions, declined to only 200 t or less in 1972-74. Shrimp are not considered to be a viable commercial fishery due to the poor condition of the resource, but the recent trawl survey indicated that the stock condition may be improving."  (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center Monthly Report, 1977, month unnknown).

  • Observers on foreign fishing vessels, 1977

    Progress continues on the training and placement of qualified observers on foreign fishing vessels, preparation of-computer programs for processing and listing observer data, and the plans for the integration of surveillance data on vessel disposition and foreign catch data into the information system.

    One observer initially placed aboard a Japanese stern trawler in the Bering Sea in February continued his observations in March after fishing was resumed following implementation of the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976. Data on catch rates and species composition were received for March 3-20.

    By mid-April seven additional observers were placed on foreign vessels: five were assigned to Japanese stern trawlers and two to USSR stern trawlers. On April 19 four observers flew to Tokyo to board two Japanese motherships leaving for the Bering Sea on April 22. These observers will serve for approximately two months. Some of the vessels to which the observers were assigned were scheduled to leave the fishing grounds before the end of the sampling period; replacement vessels will be sought.

    New computer programs were completed for listing observer data and for integrating the data into the information system. These include listings of catch rates and species composition by nation, area, and month categories, and incidence of certain selected species (Pacific halibut, crab, and salmon by the same categories."
    (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Apr. 1977).

  • First woman observer on a foreign fishing vessel in Alaska, 1978

    Jennifer Sassano became the first U.S. woman biologist to be placed as an observer on a foreign groundfish vessel fishing in Alaskan waters. Sassano will spend 2 months on the factor trawler Katangly I sampling the Soviet catch in the Gulf of Alaska.

    In 1977, one U.S. woman biologist had served as an observer aboard a Polish hake vessel operating off Washington, Oregon, California In 1978, Japanese, Polish and Soviet groundfish vessels agreed to have U.S. women observers aboard. As a result 10 trips have been scheduled for women observers this summer in the northeastern Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea."  (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Sept. 1978).

Additional reading:

  • Atkinson, C. E. 1988. Fisheries Management: an Historical Overview. Mar. Fish. Rev. 50(4):111-123.  (.pdf, 2.29 MB).
  • Fredin, R. A. 1987. History of Regulation of Alaskan Groundfish Fisheries. NWAFC Processed Rep. 87-07, 63 p. Northwest and Alaska Fish. Cent., Natl. Mar. Fish. Serv., NOAA.  (.pdf, 22 MB).
  • Witherell, D., and C. Pautzke. 1997. A Brief History of Bycatch Management Measures for Eastern Bering Sea Groundfish Fisheries. Mar. Fish. Rev. 59(4):15-22.  (.pdf, 4.7 MB).
  • Crutchfield, J. A. 1982. Future Fishery Utilization. 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. 207-215. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 765 KB)
  • Developing and Delivering the Promise of U.S. Fishery Management.  ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website)
  • Walsh, J. P. 2014. The Origins and Early Implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. Coastal Management. 42(5):409-425.
  • Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976).  ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website)

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