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the story of the bureau of commercial fisheries biological laboratory woods hole, massachusetts

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The years from 1871 to the death of Baird in 1887 were the formative period of the new era of Woods Hole as a scientific center. In historical documents and in old books the present name Woods Hole is spelled in a different way. The old name "Woods Holl" is considered by some historians of Cape Cod (Conklin, 1944) to be a relic of times prior to the 17th century when the Norsemen visited the coast. The "Holl", supposed to be the Norse word for "hill", is found in the old records. The early settlers gave the name "Hole" to inlets or to passages between the islands, such as "Robinson's Hole" between Naushon and Pasque Islands, or "Quick's Hole" between Pasque and Nashawena Islands, and Woods' Hole between the mainland and Nonamesset Island. In 1877 the Postmaster General ordered the restoration of the original spelling "Wood's Holl", which remained in force until 1896 when the United States Post Office changed it back to Woods Hole and eliminated the apostrophe in Wood's. The change was regretted by the old timers and by C.O. Whitman who had given the specific name "hollensis" to some local animals he described.

At the time of his arrival at Woods Hole in 1871, Baird was well known to the scientific circles of this country and abroad as a naturalist, student of classification and distribution of mammals and birds, and as a tireless collector of zoological specimens. He maintained voluminous correspondence with the scientists in the United States and Europe, and was Permanent Secretary of the recently organized American Association for the Advancement of Science. To the general public he was known as a contributor to a science column in the New York Herald and author of many popular magazine articles. His newly acquired responsibilities as Commissioner of Fisheries greatly added to his primary duties as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution which was primarily responsible for the establishment of the National Museum in Washington. As a scientist, Baird belonged to the time of Louis Agassiz, Th. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin. Like Agassiz he attended medical college but never completed his studies, although the degree of M.D. honoris causa was later conferred upon him by the Philadelphia Medical College.

In the words of Charles F. Holder (Holder, 1910), "he was a typical American of the heroic type. A man of many parts, virtues, and intellectual graces, and of all the zoologists science has given the world... he was most prolific in works of practical value to man and humanity."

Commissioner Baird attended many Congressional hearings and conferences with state officials and fishermen at which the probably causes of the decline of fisheries were discussed and various corrective measures suggested. From the lengthy and frequently heated discussions and evidence presented by the fishermen and other persons familiar with the fisheries problems, he became convinced that an alarmingly rapid decreased in the catches of fish had continued for the last 15 or 20 years. Such a decline was particularly noticeable in the case of scup, tautog, and sea bass in the waters of Vineyard Sound. It was logical, therefore, that the new Commissioner of Fisheries would select for his initial activities the New England coastal area where the fishing industry was of the greatest importance as a politico-economical factor.

Woods Hole, however, was not a significant fishing center. In the "Fisheries and Fishing Industry of the United States" prepared and edited by Goode (1884-87) for the 1880 Census (fig. 4), the fishing activity at Woods Hole is described in the following words: "Of the male inhabitants only seven are regularly engaged in fishing, the remainder being employed in the guano factory, in farming and other minor pursuits... There is one ship carpenter in Wood's Holl, but he finds employment in his legitimate business only at long intervals. Of sailmakers, riggers, caulkers, and other artisans there are none. Four men are employed by Mr. Spindel, during the height of the fishing season, in icing and boxing fish. The boat fishery is carried on by seven men from April until September, inclusive. Only three species of fish are usually taken, namely scup, tautog and sea bass. The total catch of each fisherman is about 15 barrels, or about 2400 pounds. In addition about 6,720 lobsters are annually taken."

Before selecting a location for permanent headquarters for the work on fishery management and conservation, Baird undertook extensive explorations of the fishing grounds off the entire New England Coast. Section 2 of the Joint Resolution Number 8 of Congress gave the Commissioner full authority to carry out the necessary research. In part it reads as follows: "and further resolved, That it shall be the duty of the said Commissioner to prosecute investigations and inquiries on the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether any and what diminution in the number of the food-fishes of the coast and the 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 in the premises; and to report upon the same to Congress." Section 4 of the same Resolution contains an important clause which authorizes the Commissioner of Fisheries "to take or cause to be taken, at all times, in the waters of the sea-coast of the United States, where the tide ebbs and flowers, and also in his judgement, from time to time, be needful or proper for the conduct of his duties as aforesaid, any law, custom, or useage of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."

The significant words "where the tide ebbs and flows" were interpreted by Baird in a very broad scientific sense which extended the authority for his investigations to the offshore areas of the open ocean.

Pounds and weirs were most frequently accused by the public as destructive methods of fishing responsible for the decline in the abundance of food fishes along the coast. Although Baird gave very serious consideration to the possible destructiveness of fixed nets, traps, pounds, pots, fish weirs, and other stationary apparatus, he was fully aware of the complexity of the factors which may cause the decline in fish populations. He discusses this difficult problem in a paper entitled "Report on the condition of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England" and published as the first section of the voluminous First Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1871. Of the causes which may have contributed to the decrease of summer shore fisheries of the south side of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a fact which he considered as well established by the testimonies of competent persons, he lists the following: (1) decrease or disappearance of the food of commercial fishes; (2) migration of fishes to other localities; (3) epidemic diseases and "peculiar atmospheric agencies, such as heat, cold, etc."; (4) destruction by other fishes; (5) man's activities resulting in the pollution of water, in overfishing, and the use of improper apparatus.

The biologist of today will recognize in this statement Baird's broad philosophical approach to the major problem of fishery biology. The outlined program combined oceanographical and meteorological investigations with the studies of biology, ecology, parasitology, and population dynamics of various fish species. Baird's program of research is as comprehensive and valid today as it was 90 years ago.

No time was lost in initiating this program. Woods Hole was selected as the base of the sea coast operations during the first summer. In spite of the insignificance of local fisheries, this locality offered a number of advantages which were recognized by Baird. Communication with Boston, New York, and Washington was good and promised to be better with the expected opening of the railroad branch in 1872. Being centrally located in relation to principal fishing grounds of New England and having good dock facilities and water of sufficient depth for sea going vessels, Woods Hole was a suitable base for visiting the offshore grounds. Furthermore, it was believed that the alleged decrease in food fishes was most clearly manifested in the region around Vineyard Sound. The small yacht Mazeppa of the New Bedford Custom House and the revenue-cutter Moccasin attached to the custom-house at Newport, R.I., were placed at the disposal of Baird; and the Light-House Board granted permission to occupy some vacant buildings and the wharf at the buoy-station on the west bank of Little Harbor (fig. 5). The Secretary of the Navy came to Baird's assistance by placing at his command a small steam launch which belonged to the Boston Navy Yard and by giving many condemned powder tanks which could be used for the preservation of specimens. Nets, dredges, tanks, and other gear were provided by the Smithsonian Institution. Cooperation of the various governmental agencies was authorized by Congress which in Section 3 of the Resolution specific that "the heads of the Executive Departments be, and they are hereby directed to cause to be rendered all necessary and practicable aid to the said Commissioner in the prosecution of the investigations and inquiries aforesaid."

This provision of the law was of great value. It is apparent, however, that the success in obtaining cooperation authorized by law depended a great deal on the personal characteristics of Baird, his great ability of getting along with people, and his remarkable power of persuasion. These qualifications played the major role in his success in organizing the Commission's work and also in obtaining the cooperation of scientists as well as that of fishermen and businessmen.

The investigation during the first summer consisted primarily in collecting large numbers of fishes and studying their spawning, rate of growth, distribution, and food. In the course of this work nearly all the fish pounds and traps, some 30 in number, in the vicinity of Woods Hole, were visited and their location recorded. There was no difficulty in obtaining the owners' permission to examine these installations and to collect the needed specimens. Altogether 106 species of fish were secured, photographed, and preserved for the National Museum. Of this number 20 or more species had not previously been known from Massachusetts waters (Baird, 1873). Information gained in this manner was supplemented by the testimonies of various fishermen who presented their ideas either for or against the use of traps and pounds. Among them was Isaiah Spindel, who at the request of Baird, prepared a description of a pound net used at Woods Hole and explained its operation. In the following years Spindel became an influential member of the group of local citizens who supported Baird's plan of establishing a permanent marine station at Woods Hole.

The ship Moccasin under the command of J.G. Baker was engaged in taking samples of plankton animals, in determining the extent of beds of mussels, starfish, and other bottom invertebrates, and in making temperature observations.

One of the principal collaborators in the studies conducted at Woods Hole in 1871 was A. E. Verrill (fig. 6) of Yale University, a professor whom Baird appointed as his assistant and placed in charge of the investigations of marine invertebrates. Dredging for bottom animals during the first summer was carried out on a relatively small scale from a chartered sailing yacht Mollie and a smaller vessel used in the immediate vicinity of Woods Hole. Extensive collections were made by wading on tidal flats exposed at low water.

Zoological work attracted considerable interest among the biologists of this country. Many of them stopped at Woods Hole fore greater or lesser periods and were encouraged by Baird to use the facilities of the Fish Commission. The group included such well known men as L. Agassiz, A. Hyatt, W.G. Farlow, Theodore Gill, Gruyure Jeffries of England, and many others.

The first year's work extended until the early part of October. Before returning to Washington, Baird commissioned Vinal N. Edwards (fig. 7) of Woods Hole to continue the investigation as far as possible. By the end of the first year a general plan of study of the natural histories of the fishes and the effect of fishing on fish populations was prepared with the assistance of the well-known ichthyologist, Theodore N. Gill. His old "Catalogue of the fishes of the Eastern Coast of North America from Greenland to Georgia", (Gill, 1861) was revised and the next text including the recently collected data concerning the Massachusetts fishes, appeared in the First Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries adopted by Baird (Baird, 1873) as a guide for the work of his associates for the purpose of "securing greater precision in the inquiries." The plan is composed of 15 sections, such as Geographical distribution, Abundance, Reproduction, etc., with detailed subdivisions under each one. A questionnaire containing 88 different items was included in order to facilitate the inquiries conducted among the fishermen. The scope of the highly comprehensive program is complete enough to be useful today; marine biologists of today would probably only rephrase it, using modern terminology. During the first year of operations conducted at Woods Hole, Baird and his associates laid down the foundation of the new branch of science which we now call fishery biology or fishery science.

Edwards, whom Baird appointed as pilot and collector to continue the work which started in June 1871 at Woods Hole, was a most remarkable man. Without a formal scientific education he was a born naturalist who possessed the essential characteristics of a true scientist, with great ability for accurate observation, correct recording of facts, and enthusiastic devotion to the study of nature. Sine the time of his appointment until his death on April 5, 1919, Edward remained in the continuous service of the Fisheries Station at Woods Hole and became the person most familiar to the biologists working there. Devoid of any vanity he unselfishly assisted many scientists engaged on various research problems. No wonder, therefore, that his name was frequently mentioned in the many papers, especially those dealing with the local marine fauna. For more than 30 years he kept daily records of sea-water temperature and density at Woods Hole, recorded the catches of fish from the pounds, noted the appearance of sea birds and their nesting, and recorded the results of seining and dredging. Shore seining seemed to be his favorite occupation in which he engaged with an unquenchable enthusiasm. E frequently rowed his heavy skiff, loaded with a 200-foot seine, five or six miles and after seining for several hours returned home in darkness.

In a letter on file in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Edwin Linton writes that Edwards' ability to forecast the weather for many hours ahead seemed uncanny to inlanders not familiar with the sea. He adds that "I think of Vinal's mind, when dealing with nature, as mirroring... the region from Narragansett Bay to Monomy, and I do not know how much farther. The set of the tides seemed to be in his mind as a moving picture which he could refer to on the moment, so that it was much easier to ask Vinal when it would be low water at Katuma Bay, on the coming Saturday, or when the tide would begin to make to the eastward at Quick's Hole on the following Monday... than it would be to attempt to work it out from the tide tables."

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