A few notes on Milner Baily Schaefer (1912-1970) and the R/V Oregon

Milner Baily Schaefer, SIO photo

Milner Baily Schaefer,
SIO photo

When you finish a book, there are always bits and pieces left on the floor, or on the desk, or in the cupboard, things that are interesting but you just can’t fit them in because they distract from the point you are trying to make and that is hard on your readers. We’ve finished two books now (yes, All the Boats on the Ocean has been turned over to the highly capable hands of my editor, Christie Henry at the University of Chicago Press), and for those of you wondering why it look so long, the peer review alone took more than five months. Instead of finishing the book over the summer, we didn’t get back to work on it until November. See how easy it is to get distracted from what we were originally writing about?

We’ve been thinking a lot of about Benny lately (that’s what his friends called him). Schaefer is generally regarded as one of the leading post-war American fishery biologists. He was considered F. W. Thompson’s top student at the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington. He was the first director of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission between its creation in 1951, until 1956. He is the author of the concept Surplus Production Theory, which held that fish populations had “surplus” that could safely be harvested, a theory that has been much criticized. If you are interested in his very illustrious career, here’s a link to a biography by Deborah Day, the former archivist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, http://scilib.ucsd.edu/sio/biogr/Schaefer_Biogr.pdf

Chapman's book on his adventures was published in 1949.

Chapman’s book on his adventures was published in 1949.

We are more interested in his early life. He started his university career in 1935, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Washington, and won the President’s Medal for scholastic excellence. He also met Wilbert McLeod Chapman. Together, these two students of W. F. Thompson’s would go on to decisively shape post-war American fisheries science. Together, they would mobilize fisheries science into a powerful tool for the State Department to wield against nations unhappy with American fishing boats in their waters. Both graduated from the School of Fisheries at UW.

Schaefer enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was commissioned a lieutenant. Chapman was turned down for service because he was blind in one eye. Chapman was working for the Washington Department of Fisheries in the early 1940s. He was offered the job of Curator of Fisheries  at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences. Almost immediately, the Office of Economic Warfare asked him to survey tropical Pacific fish resources and to develop a fishery to feed American troops.

Chapman had Lt. Schaefer added to the fishery project, but Schaefer almost immediately contracted rheumatic fever, was invalided home, and spent fourteen months recovering in Naval hospitals. One of the other of the five scientists Chapman worked with in the Pacific, Robert T. Smith, died “of ailments aggravated by his experiences in the South Pacific.”[1]

A book based on Chapman’s wartime adventures in the South Seas appeared in 1949. Chapman called it Fishing in Troubled Waters, a provocative title if ever there was one, but the book is a light-hearted and rueful account of his misadventures, trying to learn fishing skills from native fishermen. It is breezily dedicated to “the gals we left behind, Mazie, Marge and Vi, this book is dedicated in the hope that some day we will be forgiven for having deliberately started and maintained the Pacific war in order that we could have a trip to the South Seas without taking them along.”

The dedication is discordant, in that one scientist died during the venture, and Schaefer’s health was probably permanently impaired by the long bout of rheumatic fever; he died in 1970 at the age of 58. When the war ended and Schaefer was recovered, he went to work for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Honolulu. He was one of the first American scientists to work in the Mandated Island, the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline Islands, where the Japanese had developed a lucrative fishery for tuna in the 1920s.

With the end of the war, the American government moved to take over the fisheries the Japanese had developed in the Pacific, the king crab fishery in Alaska, and the high seas tuna fishery, especially in the Mandated Islands. The vehicle to achieve both goals was the Pacific Explorer, the world’s largest fishing boat, and the flamboyant man who ran it, Nick Bez.

In January of 1947, after a final outfitting in Astoria, the Pacific Explorer, accompanied by twelve trawlers rigged for purse-seine fishing, set off on its shake-down cruise, to Costa Rica. The trawlers would catch the fish, then transfer it to the mothership for freezing. The Pacific Explorer was nothing if not efficient: it would not only freeze and transport  tuna, but it would do research as well. There was a fisheries technician assigned to the vessel, as well as a fisheries biologist, Milner B. Schaefer. The crew would “study ocean life and currents and temperatures.”

It was an impossible assignment; it’s not feasible to look for fish, operate a floating fish plant, and do any meaningful research on ocean conditions. But Benny took at least two cruises on the Oregon, which Bob Hitz has told us was the first of the four fishing boats built to work with the Pacific Explorer.

Benny made at least two cruises on the Oregon, at least according to the published literature. He spent from January of June of 1948 onboard the Oregon and the Alaska scouting for tuna in the Western Pacific, in the waters around what were called the Mandated Islands, the Marshall, Marina, and Caroline islands. The Japanese had developed a lucrative fishery for tuna during the 1930s and the Americans wanted to claim the waters for American fishermen.

American fisheries at the time depended on bait, for a pole and line fishery that had been developed by the Japanese and exported to California. But the research cruises showed that bait was hard to find in the central Pacific.  The American fleet would not be able to greatly advance its tuna fisheries in the Pacific until the development of the power block in 1957.


[1] Chapman papers, Box 4, Folder 6, “Statement in Regard to the Recent Death of Richard Thomas Smith,” undated.


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in boat building, Cold War, Environmental History, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Nick Bez, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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