O. E. Sette and the birth of fisheries oceanography


NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette off Maui in 2004_NOAA Photo by Ray Boland

The R/V Oscar Elton Sette, 2004, off Maui, courtesy of NOAA

We have just been having the best time, rooting around and finding out all kinds of interesting stuff! It all started with our old friend, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, won this year’s Oscar E. Sette award for Outstanding Marine Fishery Biology at the American Fisheries Society this August. Ellen was deeply thrilled, but she was also puzzled. “It seemed crazy to me that I won this award named after O.E. Sette and I know nothing about him,” she told us. The award webpage had nothing, and a quick Internet search didn’t turn up the answer to her question—yes, he was a federal fisheries biologist who died in 1972 and NOAA named a research ship after him, but she wanted to know more about him than that.



Dr. Ellen Pikitch

Naturally, she turned to the blog for help, and while we certainly knew the name, we really didn’t know why Sette was honored by the naming of a research vessel and an award. We asked another old friend, Dr. Bill Pearcy, emeritus professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, who was given the Sette award in 1995. He knew Sette in the early 1950s when he was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii. He believes Sette’s scientific contributions deserve more recognition.


“Sette was a pioneer in integrating fisheries, oceanography and meteorology to understand the dynamic structure of the equatorial Pacific, and the importance of upwelling and frontal structures as they relate to tuna distribution and abundance,” Bill wrote to us.  “What we now call ecosystem science.”

Sette began his career by working for William F. Thomson at California Fish and Game in 1918.[1]  He did his undergraduate degree at Stanford under David Starr Jordan. He was 24 when the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries Henry O’Malley, hired him as Chief of the Division of Fishery Industries. Four years later, he was named Chief of the North Atlantic Fishery Investigations, doing pioneering work on mackerel recruitment and trying to understand why abundance varied so from year to year. It would be good training for his future work. His masters degree at Harvard was under Henry Bryant Bigelow.[2]

2016-08-25_1223The sardine crisis in California prompted the U.S. Fisheries Service to send Sette back to California in 1937, to head the new sardine research program. In 1943, he published what would become the research plan for CalFOFI, created four years later.[3]

When the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service set up a new office in Honolulu in 1949, Sette was named the director, as well as chief of the Pacific Oceanic and Fishery Investigations (POFI), with three new research ships to deploy to find out more about where to catch tuna.

Bill recalled seminars where everybody who attended was welcome to contribute. Sette drew out those around him. “He respected graduate students,” Bill said. “He wanted to know what we thought.”

The Honolulu office crackled with excitement. As the data began to flow in from the first cruises of the Hugh M. Smith, a young oceanographer named Townsend Cromwell began to piece together the physical and biological structure of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. He confirmed the existence of upwelling at the equator, and the Cromwell Current is named after him.

There were other important scientists at Honolulu with Sette, including Milner Baily Schaefer, who would be appointed the first director of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission when it was created in 1951.

Also at POFI with Sette and Cromwell was a recent graduate from the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, Bell M. Shimada.  He divided his time between Honolulu and Tokyo, where he translated Japanese scientific documents on oceanography and fisheries into English. When Sette’s team published its landmark paper in 1953, the text was 50 pages, with 25 pages of bibliography, much of it translated from Japanese and European languages. It is a remarkable document showing the construction of what we now call fisheries oceanography.[iv]

Both Cromwell and Shimada were both killed a plane crash in 1958, en route to an new oceanography expedition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched the NOAA Townsend Cromwell in 1966. The NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada is homeported in Newport, OR.

We enjoyed our time poking around and finding out about Sette the scientist, but we also found warm memories of Sette the man, as well.  He was a teacher who was able to draw the best from his students and from those around him. He valued informal meetings and personal contract. He was capable of synthesizing and finding meaning in great reams of information, long before the assistance of a personal computer. He was a gardener who raised butterflies, composted before it was fashionable, and took daily meteorology readings in his garden.[v] In other words, as Bill put it, he was a true scientist.

Almost 20 years after his death, the American Fisheries Society’s Marine Sciences Division decided to name its most prestigious award after him. Bruce Leaman, who was busy cleaning out his desk at the International Pacific Halibut Commission, managed to find the notes from the first meeting of the new Sette committee.  Gary Sakagawa suggested the award be named after Sette. There was instant agreement.

In 2003, NOAA named one of its research vessels after Sette. It was the former Navy Adventurous, a Stalwart-class ocean surveillance ship that had been in service since 1988. She is based in Honolulu and continues the research Sette and his team started in 1949, trying to understand the migration patterns of Pacific tuna, and the ocean world in which the great fish swim.

There is a sweep of history between the work that Sette started, to the many scientists who contributed to the understanding ocean processes that he conceptualized, and  to the work that Ellen Pikitch is doing in helping to create marine reserves, especially in the Pacific, where Sette did so much of his important work.

[1] J. Richard Dunn, “William Francis Thompson (1888-1965) and the dawn of marine fisheries research in California,” Marine Fisheries Review, 63 (2), 15-25.

[2] A. W. Kendall, and G. J. Duker, “The development of recruitment fisheries oceanography in the United States,” Fisheries Oceanography, 7 (2), 69-88, 1998.

[3] O.E. Sette, “Studies on the Pacific pilchard or sardine (Sardinops caerulea). 1-Structure of a research program to determine how fishing affects the resource.” U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, Spec. Sci. Rep. 19 :27 pages.

[iv] O.E. Sette, “Progress in Pacific Oceanic Fishery Investigations, 1950-1953,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Spec. Sci. Rep. Fish, 116, 75 pp.

[v] Powell, Patricia, “Oscar Elton Sette: Fishery Biologist,” Fishery Bulletin, 70 (3), 525-535, 1972.



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 Albacore tuna, California sardines, fisheries science, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, William F. Thompson, World History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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