The Historical Development of Fisheries Science and Management

Taken from a lecture given at the Fisheries Centennial Celebration (1985) by William F. Royce

Part 1




Fisheries are human activities, and before discussing them I should note that I shall use the word fish to include all of the living aquatic resource organisms that are harvested by the fisheries. Also, I define fishery science as a public-service profession that includes management activities, and not just as the pursuit of scientific knowledge about the fisheries.

I propose to examine the history of fishery science and management with emphasis on the socioeconomic aspects, in addition to the biological or ecological aspects of the resources with which many of us are familiar. I do so especially because we have three kinds of fisheries, around which fishery science has developed, which differ radically in their social dimensions. These are 1) recreational fisheries, 2) commercial fisheries, and 3) fish farming.

In the first kind, when any resident of northern America goes angling in public waters, he or she usually buys a state license and pays a substantial Federal tax (10 percent) on the equipment used. The license fees for the rights to fish and the special taxes pay for most, if not all, of the public costs of management and enhancement.

Second, when any resident of northern America goes commercial fishing in public waters to catch perhaps a thousand times as many fish as the angler, he or she pays only modest "taxes" for license or landing fees on a per-fish basis, which pays very little of the public costs for research on and management of the commercial fishery resources. In addition, the commercial fishermen are heavily subsidized by both Canadian and U.S. governments, as well as much of the rest of the world, through low-cost loans, special advisory services, and unemployment insurance.

Third, when any farmer in northern America grows fish, he or she may have to obtain some special permits, but will usually operate in waters that are completely controlled by lease or ownership, and will have exclusive rights to the organisms. Fishery scientists serve all three kinds of fisheries with similar biological studies. However, these fisheries have very different socioeconomic situations which, I believe, deserve greater understanding and attention from fishery scientists.

The difference in public costs between recreational and commercial fisheries is surprising because 1) there are more than 200 times as many anglers in northern America as commercial fishermen, and 2) the overall economic value of the recreational fisheries, with all of their supporting activities, is much greater than the value of the commercial fisheries. One might expect that general revenues rather than special revenues would be used for an activity popular among about 20 percent of our people, and that special services to less than 1 percent of our people would require some special taxes on them. But no, the commercial activity of a few is deemed important enough to require continuing transfer payments from the rest of the people; whereas, the recreation for many largely pays its own way.

After recognition of these anomalies and the difficulties of managing a resource of the commons, it is perhaps less surprising that the research on and management of the recreational fisheries is a conservation, social, economic, and political success story; whereas, the research on and the management of the commercial fisheries just may be a conservation and a social success, but it is potentially, in many circumstances, an economic and political disaster.

This situation is not unique to northern America, even though the recreational fisheries are as well developed in few other countries. The commercial fisheries (in the developed countries of the world) are almost all in a similar situation, and the subsistence or commercial fisheries of the lesser developed countries, which have had such high hopes with the new Law of the Sea, are moving rapidly in the same disastrous direction. In fact, the subsistence and the small-scale commercial fisheries, which have sustained village people for centuries, are really endangered. To afflict them with our modern development practices is a prelude to social disaster. My assignment from the organizers of this Celebration is to review the development of fishery science and management. I shall try to do so with emphasis on the major steps that have resulted in the present situation, with the hope that we shall arrive at a clearer understanding of what lies ahead.

This would be an impossible task, had I not the benefit of several excellent histories, and I should first pay tribute to the authors and editors. They include Paul Galtsoff, who wrote the story of this laboratory (Galtsoff, 1962); Norman Benson, who edited the compen- dium on "A Century of Fisheries in North America" (Benson, 1970); Arthur Went, who prepared the history of the first 70 years of ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Went, 1972); Kenneth Johnstone, who wrote the history of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (Johnstone, 1977); and Albert Koers of the Nether- lands, who detailed the history of regional fishery organizations (Koers, 1973). They all deserve our thanks for their painstaking scholarship.

I shall not attempt a chronology of the long tug-of-war between fishery science and fishing experience; rather, I shall describe a series of epochs, five of them, that I think illustrate the successive steps in the application of science to management and the problems that have arisen. My interpretations will be based on my own biases, and I hope they will be more enlightening than controversial .



Epoch I--Basic Research: Through the 1940's

Basic research began, in North America as well as in northern Europe, in the middle of the last century, 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) facil- ities 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 Cul- turist'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.

The research that began here at Woods Hole under Baird's stimulus was mainly biology or oceanography. It provided an essential background of biololical and environmental understanding, but it was not nearly adequate for the public decisions required in fishery management. The authority that Baird received was of the broadest kind, "to prosecute investigations and inquiries . . .with the view of ascertaining whether any and what diminution in the number of food-fishes of the coast and lakes of the United States has taken place; and, if so to what causes the same is due; and also, whether any and what protective, prohibitory, or precautionary measures should be adopted . . ." (Galtsoff, 1962: 9). Baird began to describe the New England fisheries, the oceanography, and the organisms in the waters. He, his colleagues, and visiting scientists at the MBL, included oceanographic, biological, ecological, parasitological, and other studies in what was predominantly a descriptive approach.

The scientists who came pursued their own specialities more or less in isolation while the Commission pursued descriptions of the fisheries. This became the mode of research at Woods Hole for the several decades before the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was formed in the 1930's. The emphasis in much of this research was of the narrowest kind--as it had to be: I am in no way critical of the basic research; we must continue it, but we must recognize the surroundings and the nature of the activities that make it viable. The scientists gradually extended the frontiers of knowledge step by step. They set the national pattern of fishery research for the first two-thirds or so of the century that we are commemorating.

A similar pattern became established in Europe after the formation of ICES. The Kristiania Conference in 1901 endorsed scientific inquiry as the basis for a rational exploitation of the sea, and laid down rather precise plans for hydrographical and biological work. This brought together several countries to the inaugural meeting of ICES in 1902 (Went, 1972:10-22) .

Canada also, during the same period, established a Board of Management of the Marine Biological Station in 1898 for a laboratory on a barge in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Johnstone, 1977). This was followed by the Go Home Bay station in Georgian Bay in 1901 and permanent stations in New Brunswick and British Columbia in 1908. The Biological Board of Canada was established in 1912.

Subsequently, an attempt was made to establish a North American organization similar to ICES, with the formation of a North American Council on Fishery Investigation by Canada, Newfoundland, and the United States in 1920. However, this Council was discontinued in 1938.

Few fishery laboratories were established before the 1920's. They emerged as the limnological and aquatic biological laboratories gradually incorporated fishery studies. In addition, a few lab- oratories 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 organ- ized, 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 fish- eries. The researchers had to approach the scientific problems one by one, whereas the managers faced the overali 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.

The closure of the dichotomy has been long and difficult. I think there is a major lesson for us in this if we look at the problems we have had in closing this dichotomy, in satisfying the needs of the researcher, and at the same time trying to satisfy the concerned public. An illustration is the research on and management of the Pacific halibut fishery; a program that we regard as a foundation of modern marine fishery management (Bell, 1981). After alarms about overfishing during World War I, a treaty was negotiated between Canada and the United States in 1918, which failed to be ratified. The first treaty to be ratified was the 1923 Convention which permitted research and specified a winter closed season, a provision objectional to the Washington State legislature, which had requested legislative review of any conservation measures. The authority of the Halibut Commission was gradually extended to additional convervation measures in revised conventions of 1930 and 1937, but it was not until the Convention of 1953, 35 years after the first attempt at a treaty that the political differences were resolved to the point of granting reasonably complete authority for the conservation measures. This was possible only because the Commission and its research staff had worked very closely with all parts of the fishery, clearly established public confidence in its basis for decisions, and gained a special political decision. It was of course responsible to the Governments of Canada and the United States, but it also generated strong political support for its independence from the national fishery agencies. In essence, it gained confidence the old-fashioned way--it earned it.

This epoch, from 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 Eng- land, 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.

A major step toward application of science to the U.S. freshwater fishery management began during the 1930's in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA plans included a strong emphasis on all outdoor recreation, especially fishing. As the reservoirs were filled, it started fishery and environmental research programs with the objective of trying to improve recreation. This dichotomy between fishery research and management persisted for many decades, and its residue, even today, arises from both the climate required for scientific work, and the development of public confidence in the science. The scientists must focus on parts of complex problems if they are to advance their knowledge, yet they must contribute effectively to the regular cycle of decisions (for which they never have enough scientific evidence) if they are to develop the confidence of the public. The scientific focus is mostly long-term, yet the need for decisions recurs in short-term cycles.



Epoch II--Emergence of a Profession: The 1950's

The profession of fishery science began to emerge in the l950's. 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. I would like to read a quotation from one of our most perceptive fishery managers.

"The fishery administrator starts his functioning with a background of a vast, unorganized ignorance, illuminated by occasional flashes of traditional legend, hearsay, inference, assumption, guesswork, and praise be, an increasing backlog of scientific theory and fact coupled with the experience gained from trial and error. The administrator, having no firmly fixed starting point of fact, must then chart some sort of course in the hope of arriving at the only definite landmark in his harassed existence-- that represented by a stable, sound, productive fishery. This part of the job, nevertheless, might be considered relatively simple, calling for nothing more than a system of Spartan, conservative restraints and restrictions upon the taking of fish. By always leaning over backward in regulating, giving the resource the benefit of the doubt, he might come up with reasonable assurance of protecting the resource, except that the eco- nomic survival of thousands of individuals, hundreds of communities, and dozens of counties, may be affected by the administrative action taken" (James, 1951).

The dry wit of Milton C. James, who for many years was the Assistant Director for Fisheries of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is as pertinent today as it was in 1950 when he made that statement at the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Conference.

Despite such understanding of fishery management by a few people, the major impetus for the application of science to marine fisheries really came from political problems and I'd identify them as follows:

First was the Japanese excellence in fishing before World War II. At that time Japan had the largest fish catch of any nation, and had developed the best equipment and organizations for distantwater fishing of any nation. They demonstrated their ability with "invasions" of Bristol Bay, Alaska, in 1936 and 1937, which set off a continuing alarm about Japanese fishing off North America that was only slightly muted during World War II. Within a few weeks after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and with the resurgent pressure to protect Pacific salmon and halibut, President Harry S. Truman issued his famous proclamation which stated ". . .The United States regards it as proper to establish conservation zones in those areas of the high seas contiguous to the coasts of the United States, wherein fishing activities have been or in the future may be developed and maintained on a substantial scale." This action gave priority to conservation needs and clearly inferred that conservation would be shared, that other nations would not be excluded from the fisheries, and that the regulatory measures would be open to negotiation (Johnston, 1965). This really formed the basis for the many fishery treaties which soon followed.

The impetus in freshwater fishery management in the United States came with the mounting concern over the freshwater fishery resources that resulted in a major increase in Federal funding through the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950. Much of this money (from a 10 percent excise tax on angling gear) immediately went into research programs in each of the states.

The special concepts of fishery science as a separate part of the aquatic sciences had been gradually building since the landmark paper by Baranov (1918), with the work of European scientists associated with ICES, the work of W. F. Thompson on halibut and Fraser River salmon, and with the work of freshwater scientists in northern America associated with the Biological Board of Canada, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the States of California, Michigan, New York, and Washington, and the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, among others.

The scientific concepts had been established, but 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. He organized the Fisheries Research Institute and started a progam of research on the salmon management problems--not just salmon biology. He discovered that the existing regulatory system had permitted decimation of a large proportion of the several thousand spawning units, while allowing excess escapement from many of those remaining. The FRI developed vastly improved methods of estimating escapement and survival of the young salmon, which resulted in better forecasts of the returning runs and better regulatory control of the fishing. 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.

After World War II, fishery conservation treaties proliferated, and all of them depended on fishery science. Prior to the War, only the halibut and sockeye salmon conventions between Canada and the United States had had a significant reliance on scientific research. But afterward came a radical revision of the earlier whaling treaties in the Whaling Convention of 1946, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Convention of 1949, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Convention of 1950, the International North Pacific Fisheries Convention of 1953, the Great Lakes Fisheries Convention of 1954, and eventually others affecting northern America (Johnston, 1965). These attempts to solve specific problems gave rise to the United Nations meetings in 1955 in Rome and in 1958 Geneva that advanced the efforts to change the ancient Law of the Sea. In the Northeast Atlantic, the political problems were much more complex, and they still are. Attempts had been made to reach agreement on conservation conventions since 1882. ICES had been coordinating the ocean sciences since 1902, but a viable agreement on conservation was not reached until ratification of the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Convention in 1964.

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 state activities in marine fishery management of the United States were limited to the fisheries within 3 miles of the coast and badly coordinated. So, Congress authorized the Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific, and Great Lakes states to form compacts for coordination of marine fishery management in various years between 1942 and 1968.

In addition to the national actions to base marine fishery management on science, the states and provinces of northern America followed a similar course with respect to domestic fishery management. Funding for much of the research in the United States came from the Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration Act of 1950 (the Dingell-Johnson Act) which earmarked funds from an excise tax on fishing tackle. Scientific inves- tigative activities became a routine part of most freshwater fishery management in Canada and the United States.

Fishery science was accepted worldwide through the activities of the Fishery Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations after the Conference of FAO authorized the creation of regional fishery bodies in 1959 (Koers, 1973). Several regional committees or commissions were subsequently established which emphasized applied research and integrated scientific investigation with fishery development.

Thus, fishery science came out of academe and became another public- service profession similar to the sciencebased professions of medicine, architecture, and engineering. The fishery scientists were asked not only for their scientific findings but also for their ad- vice on a course of action.

The profession began to develop a conscience about its integrity, and took major steps toward reinforcing public confidence. The American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists was incorporated in 1956 to advance the application of science to the use of fishery resources and to maintain high professional standards. This action was soon followed by the larger program of certification of fishery scientists by the American Fisheries Society.

The profession grew rapidly in employment as laws required a scientific basis for management, and as the public expected ever more from the scientists. Membership in the American Fisheries Society was 1,147 in 1950, of which about three-fourths were probably fishery scientists. Now membership in the Society is approaching 7,000, whereas a directory of North American fishery scientists lists about 8,100. Employment once predominantly in government fishery agencies in 1950, has spread rapidly to other agencies and to the private sector.

The problems faced by fishery scientists have proliferated. Whereas the early challenges were predominantly in fish culture and government fishery regulation, fishery scientists are now called on to deal with aquatic environmental problems, operation of fish businesses, processing and packaging of fish, and fishery development.