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Dean C. Allard, now retired, was head of the U.S. Navy History Center.

the origins and early history of the steamer albatross, 1880 - 1887
by Dean C. Allard
Reprint from Marine Fisheries Review
Vol. 61. No. 4, 1999

Page: left arrow 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 click for next page

Spencer Fullerton Baird (Fig. 1), a noted systematic zoologist and builder of scientific

Figure 1 - Spencer F. Baird, founder and first Commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries and second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

institutions in 19th century America, persuaded the U.S. Congress to establish the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries (1) in March 1871. At that time, Baird was Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Following the death of Joseph Henry in 1878, he became head of the institution, a position he held until his own demise in 1887. In addition to his many duties as a Smithsonian of-cial, including his prominent role in developing the Smithsonian's Federally funded National Museum as the repository for governmental scientific collections, Baird directed the Fish Commission from 1871 until 1887.

The Fish Commission's original mission was to determine the reasons and remedies for the apparent decline of American fisheries off southern New England as well as other parts of the United States. In 1872, Congress further directed the Commission to begin a large fish hatching program aimed at increasing the supply of American food fish.

Five years later, Baird served as the government's chief scientific witness during an international arbitration held at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Can., to determine how much the United States owed for the rights granted in the 1871 Treaty of Washington to fish in the territorial waters of Canada and Newfoundland.

From the U.S. point of view, the $5.5 million award that the Halifax tribunal granted to Canada and Newfoundland was shockingly unjust and suggested that the fishing treaty should not be renewed when it expired in 1885. Another reaction was Spencer Baird’s decision to initiate a Fish Commission program that gave direct aid to the nation’s commercial fisheries, including efforts to locate new fishing grounds that were as far removed from British North America as possible (Goode, 1883:177–178; Allard, 1978:180–238).

While pursuing these utilitarian programs, Baird’s Commission devoted each summer to basic biological and physical investigations of the northwest Atlantic. Initially, Baird’s pioneering surveys concentrated on the coastal waters of New England. The village of Woods Hole, Mass., was the base for this work in 1871 and 1875 and in the years following 1881. But, during the first decade of the Commission’s work, as Baird extended his investigation to cover most of New England’s continental shelf, he established his laboratory at a number of other locations in the region, ranging from Noank, Conn., to Eastport, Maine.

Baird repeatedly argued that the basic knowledge accumulated through his investigations was essential for the solution of practical fishery problems (Allard, 1978:164–179). But some contemporary observers argued that scientific work, including the gathering of massive collections of specimens for Baird’s National Museum in Washington, received undue emphasis by the Fish Commission (U.S. Congress, 1889:544–545, 655–656).

The objectives of the Fish Commission lay behind Spencer Baird’s 1880 request to Congress for the ship that became known as Albatross (Fig. 2). American officials, still smarting from the Halifax award of 1877, recognized the importance of locating new banks and improving the productivity of existing grounds used by American fishermen. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in his initial lobbying with Congress, Baird stressed the need for a ship that could undertake exploratory fishing (USFC, 1884:xxiv).

In addition, Baird very much had in mind the value of the Albatross in exploring the deep waters of the Northwest Atlantic where an exciting new frontier of scientific discovery beckoned (Fig. 3). Of initial interest was a region of relatively warm water on the edge of the Continental Shelf that the Fish Commission called Gulf Stream Slope. The abyssal waters extending seaward of this area soon became

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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