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AFSC Historical Corner:  John N. Cobb,  Establishing a Rich Legacy

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
The Albatross, 1882
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John N. Cobb
The John N. Cobb, FWS 1601.  Auke Bay Laboratories photo.

Vessel Details
Year built: 1950
Location built: Tacoma, WA
Builder: Western Boatbuilding Co.
Designer: W. C. Nickum & Sons
Other names/id: FWS 1601 (FWS), R 552 (NOAA)
Length: 93.5'
Breadth: 26'
Draft: 11'
Tonnage (tons): 185-250 gross
Original engine: 345 hp, 6 cyl., 2-cycle
Fairbanks Morse diesel
Average speed: 9 knots
Cruising range: 4,800 miles
Fisheries service: 1950-2008
Disposition: decommissioned 2008

Built in 1950, the John N. Cobb provided valuable service in Alaskan waters for over half a century until her career came to an end in 2008. Based on a West Coast purse-seiner design by W. C. Nickum and sons, she was constructed for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at Tacoma, Washington. Funding was made available from the $150,000 sale of the Washington, a FWS boat which failed to prove herself suitable for an exploratory fishing project in 1948.

The 93-foot vessel was named after John Nathan Cobb (1868-1930), an author, stenographer, clerk, magazine editor, conservationist, naturalist, canneryman, and founding director (1919-30) and later dean of the University of Washington's College of Fisheries. From 1895-1912, he had worked primarily as a field agent for both the Fish Commission and Bureau of Fisheries.

After her launch on a snowy 16 January 1950 and commissioning a month later on 18 February, the Cobb was ready for duty. Specifically designed for exploratory fishing and gear development, the vessel was capable of trawling, long lining, gill netting and oceanographic sampling. On board was modern navigational equipment, which included radar, a LORAN navigation system, depth-finders, and an electro-mechanical steering system. The ship was initially assigned to her new home port at the FWS Exploratory Fishing & Gear Research (EF&GR) unit's Seattle base at the Montlake Laboratory.

  John N. Cobb
The Cobb ready for launching in 1950.  FWS photo.

The Cobb's first cruise in March and April of 1950 was to Alaska looking for commercial shellfish (shrimp) populations. During that summer, from June to September, the vessel was cruising in the ocean waters off Washington, Oregon and Alaska during a search for albacore tuna. In August she was approximately 270 miles off Washington's coast when her crew discovered the Cobb Seamount — an underwater mountain rising nearly 9600 feet from the ocean floor to within 132 feet of the surface.

During the 1950s, the FWS took full advantage of their new boat. In 1953, the Cobb was at the Aleutian Islands being used for preliminary salmon explorations, primarily to develop fishing techniques with gill nets on the high seas. Later that year, exploratory herring fishing was conducted aboard the boat in Prince William Sound, Alaska, to determine the availability of the species.

In the spring of 1955, the vessel was in the eastern North Pacific Ocean conducting the first surveys of salmon distribution in that area. This work, involving the Cobb and other chartered halibut schooners, continued through 1961, at which time the general distribution of salmon in the North Pacific and Bering Sea was substantially established. Also that year, the boat was used to tag petrale sole in the submarine canyon "Esteban Deep" off the west coast of Vancouver Island, B.C.

In 1956, the new Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF) was formed under the reorganized U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Cobb then became a part of the BCF fleet and at the end of her first decade she was being used by the EF&GR in 1959 when it obtained its first SCUBA dive team. "In August 1959, the Cobb was involved in 'Chariot Project' with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to assess the feasibility of using nuclear explosives off the northwest coast of Alaska to excavate harbors or canals. Fortunately this project never materialized." (Orsi & Heard, 2008 *).

John N. Cobb
The NOAA ship John N. Cobb, R 552.  Dave Withrow (AFSC), photographer.
Masters and Commanding Officers
1950-56 Sheldon W. Johnson
1956-57 Jose Franco
1957-59 Shelden Johnson
1959-81 Robert "Pete" Larsen
1981-90 Thomas Dunatov
1990 LCDR James D. Sarb
1990-91 LCDR David C. McConaghy
1991-93 LCDR John C. Bortniak
1993-94 LCDR Edward R. Cassano
1994-96 LCDR Frank A. Wood
1996-98 LCDR Kenneth W. Barton
1998-99 LCDR Michael S. Devany
LCDR Philip S. Hill

Some examples of her work in the 1960s include: refining exploratory techniques in combination with a high-resolution research model echo sounder used to locate dragging areas off Washington that contained commercial quantities of desired fish (1960); cooperation with the Atomic Energy Commission to study deepwater marine resources off Washington and Oregon (1961); and experimental trawling for salmon in Alaska with the BCF ship, George B. Kelez (1963).

Other Significant Events
"One of the most memorable times of the Cobb's remarkable career as a research vessel was after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound on 29 March 1989.

Before the spill the Cobb was in an inactive status but was quickly mobilized to play a key role in this major research response. In subsequent years the Cobb supported numerous studies evaluating lingering effects of this damaging oil spill to the Prince William Sound ecosystem.

The Cobb's career also included at least two high-profile rescue operations and one burial at sea. She came to the assistance of the purse seine vessel Karen Rae in Icy Strait in the mid 1990s and the Alaska State ferry Le Conte in 2004" which had run aground on 10 May about 30 miles north of Sitka. (Orsi & Heard, 2008 *).

"These accounts of the Cobb's service in the 1950s help to illustrate her value to the Bureau. Of her first 41 trips, 11 focused on experimenting with fishing methods and equipment, 7 involved midwater trawling, 2 for bottom and shrimp trawling, and 2 were for testing a fish pump device.

While the BCF became the National Marine Fisheries Service (under NOAA) in 1970 the 20-year old boat endured. "In the early 1980s, the Cobb collaborated on a coast-wide research project sampling juvenile salmon with small mesh purse seines off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

With the renewed focus on marine ecology of juvenile salmon and other epipelagic fishes, the Cobb helped pioneer using surface rope trawls from 1997 to 2007. Use of these trawls led to the Southeast Coastal Monitoring (SECM) Project and development of an important long-term data set on biophysical factors affecting fluctuations in interannual year-class strength of salmon populations." (Orsi & Heard, 2008 *).

  John N. Cobb
The Cobb in Alaska. D. Withrow (AFSC), photographer.

"The vessel primarily supported research projects in southeastern Alaska for the AFSC's Auke Bay and National Marine Mammal Laboratories. Research projects have included: juvenile salmon marine ecology and factors affecting year-class strength, marine mammal surveys (cetacean ecology, humpback whale prey investigations, harbor seal ecology near tidewater glaciers), coral and sponge benthic habitat studies, habitat mapping of near-shore estuaries, sablefish tagging and telemetry studies, juvenile rockfish habitat assessment, oceanographic sampling and long-term coastal monitoring, and support to various remote field camps and the Little Port Walter Marine Station." (Orsi & Heard, 2008 *).

Slated to sail until August 2008, the John N. Cobb was forced to become idle 2 months earlier when she broke the main crankshaft in her original 1931 Fairbanks-Morse locomotive engine. Considering the 4-6 months of repairs estimated at $245,000, it was decided to end her lengthy service. She was decommissioned on 13 August 2008 at the Sand Point facility in Seattle as the oldest existing wooden boat in the (NOAA) fleet. She was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places and moved to Salmon Bay in Seattle. As of 2013, the Cobb was owned by the Seattle Maritime Academy, a branch of Seattle Central Community College.

Printable Facts Sheet  (.pdf, 812 KB)

John N. Cobb photos in the AFSC Multimedia Gallery

Audio YouTube video of the 1950 Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine

Additional reading:

* Orsi, J., and B. Heard. 2008. The NOAA Ship John N. Cobb Leaves a Rich Legacy. AFSC Quarterly Report, Apr-June 2008.  (pdf, 344 KB)
John N. Cobb Sails Past Half Century Mark  (AFSC Quarterly Report, Oct-Dec 1999)
A Visit to the R/V John N. Cobb, 2013 (posted 6-20-14). Carmel Finley website.
NOAA's Oldest Ship, John N. Cobb, to be Retired. August 13, 2008.  (NOAA website, last accessed 2-23-12).
National Register of Historic Places designation request for the RV John N. Cobb.  Registration form, 2008/2009.
(.pdf, 1.78 MBcontains detailed vessel description).  Source:  U.S. National Park Service website,  last accessed 6-25-13).
McNeely, Richard L. 1963. Development of the John N. Cobb Pelagic Trawl -- a Progress Report, p.17-27. In Commercial Fisheries Review, July 1963, 25(7).  (.pdf, 59.4 MB,  available from the Internet Archive website,  last accessed 12-8-14).
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