Me and page 99

99I’ve never thought much about a popular Internet idea, that reading a page of a book can sum up the book. But thanks to Marshal Zeringue at the Campaign for the American Reader,  if you were curious about having to read the whole book, the answer is that you don’t have to! Just page 99!

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A warm welcome for All the Boats

It’s been an exciting week, with the book coming out. First Nature gave it a mention:


And then it was reviewed in Science.




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All the Science in an Ear Stone

sebastes1-e1338138425501With All the Boats on the Ocean being published in February, it’s time to think about how to carry on the story of the development of fisheries and fisheries science in the Pacific. I always thought I’d need a trilogy to tell the whole story. All the Fish is about the 1930s to the 1950s.  All the Boats brings that story to 1976 and the global expansion of territorial seas to 200 miles.

All the Science will bring the story to the present, more or less, or at least that is the current plan. Of course, there may be some glitches, such as my working title (I am assured the Press is going to want to change it, generally speaking you don’t put words like “science” in titles if you hope to sell books). And who knows what an ear stone is?

An ear stone is a bony growth in a fish’s ear. The proper name is otolith. They are hard, calcium carbonate structures located directly behind the brain of bony fish like Sebastes alutus. They  help with balance, orientation, and sound detection-much like the inner ear of mammals.

Hitz drawing

Hitz drawing, POP catches by the Soviets

Sebastes alutus, as all our alert readers know, is  better known by its many aliases, including Rosefish, Rosies, Redfish, and, more formally, Pacific Ocean Perch or POP.  The blog can really be said to be all about Rosefish and how they were almost eradicated by the Soviet factory processing fleets off Oregon in the 1960s. While there has been some recovery of the fish off Alaska, recovery off Washington, Oregon, and California has been pushed back to 2051.

To look at the story of the Rosefish, and their unique biology, is a way to trace how fisheries have globalized since the 1960s.

It’s also a way to talk about how fisheries science

George Moskovita and a load of Rosefish

George Moskovita and a load of Rosefish

has slowly uncovered the life story of these unusual fish. George Yost Harry Jr. Jergen Westrheim, and Dayton Lee Alverson were among the scientists first studying these fish. They suspected they might be be long-lived. George Moskovita fished for them, delivering the biggest load of his career to an Astoria cannery in 1965. Donald Gunderson was the first to study the impact of the Soviet fishing on the stock.

With new tools and technologies in the 1980s, scientists discovered that the fish can live for many decades, some to even 212 years. So the story of Rosefish is a story of the development of science. And that new science is in tension with the fisheries science  (MSY) that is at the heart of modern fisheries management today.

Fisheries are complex. They are hard to write about without being boring. Many of the issues are generally written about in a technical or academic style that is difficult to read.

One of the challenges in writing history is making it relevant, and telling a story in an engaging way that makes it easy for readers to follow. One of the best ways to do that is to hook your readers emotionally with the subject matter.  So All the Science about a fish, how it got fished, how it got studied, and what it all means to the way we understand our stewardship of the oceans and its fish stocks in the 21st century. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to tell that story yet, but the blog readers will be the first to know.

Posted in Environmental History, fisheries science, Fishing, George Moskovita, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet environmental history, Soviet fishing, Soviet history', World History | Tagged | Leave a comment

Another Astoria, 1947, moment


Nick Bez, left, with William L. Thompson, unknown man, Photo courtesy of the Columbia River Marine Museum

What I love most about writing history is the way information connects and how stories can be woven into frameworks for a greater understanding. History is not about the past, it is a powerful lens that allows you to understand the present and our place in it. The more history you know, the more grounded you can be. Since I’ve been reading through the almost 150 posts on this blog (many of them divided into story lines available here), I realized how many of the posts fit together, likes pieces in a jig saw. Yet if there is a single element that  ties all the posts together, it is Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in 1947.

As someone who taught world history, I tend to focus on big frameworks in my work, looking at fisheries and fisheries science from national and international perspectives. But sometimes I read a detail that stops me short because it illuminates a lot in just a few words. I was struck by this sentence in  Lyle Anderson’s account of the early days at Bioproducts at Warrenton, in 1938. The Columbia River Packers Association (CRPA), the biggest fish company on the West Coast, was run by William L. Thompson.

“Some of the fishermen called him Tulie Thompson because in his earlier days as a fish buyer he acquired the reputation of down-grading trips of fish by calling them Tulies, which was the Columbia River name for a salmon in a run past its prime.”

It’s a line that incorporates a lot of information about the fish business on the Columbia in the 1930s–or the fish business anywhere, at any time.  Thompson sold his shares of the company to Nick Bez, who was elected chairman of the company. The CRPA also bought some shares in the Bez’s new Pacific Exploration Company.

The CRPA, or The Combine, as it was known locally, became the most powerful cannery on the West Coast.  It began operating in Alaska in 1902. By 1980, when the company shuts its doors and moved to San Diego, it was the largest employer in Astoria. Now, its old Hanthorn Cannery on the waterfront in east Astoria is Pier 39, an upscale boutique hotel.

It’s easy to romanticize the fishing industry, mainly, I think, because of all the wonderful pictures and the beautiful boats. One of the reasons why George Moskovita’s memoir is so important is that he describes a world of brutal hard work, dangerous conditions, and a struggle to cover costs and provide for a family. Guys like Tulie Thompson, downgrading the quality of their fish and paying a lower price, didn’t help.



Posted in Columbia River Packers Association, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Nick Bez, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Blurbers blurb about my new book!

finleyOne of the many nice things about publishing a book is that the press solicits people to say nice things about it, for printing on the back cover. These mini-book reviews are called blurbs, and the people who write them are called blurbers.

It’s still two months until the book will be out (Feb. 27 for those you counting the days) but the University of Chicago Press has finished the book jacket design and decided on these quotations for the book cover. John R. McNeill is one of the best American Cold War historians. Arthur McEvoy wrote the iconic The Fisherman’s Problem. And Ellen Pikitch is one of my oldest friends, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, and, incidentally, this year’s winner of the Oscar Elton Sette award from the American Fisheries Society for Outstanding Marine Fishery Biology.

In this compact and highly readable book, Finley argues that overfishing since the 1950s is less a tragedy of the commons than a tragedy of the Cold War. She shows how geopolitics, science, law, and greed combined to generate a scramble for the oceans and a regime of overfishing that lasts to this day. A welcome addition to several scholarly literatures.”—J. R. McNeill, author of Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

Finley makes her point—that government subsidies to deep-sea fishing are a main cause of the current catastrophe—dramatically clear. Her descriptions of the damage that factory trawlers did to the ocean floor and the speed with which they wiped out fisheries in the ’60s and ’70s are especially powerful. Relevant not only to people who are interested in fisheries and oceans, but also to those concerned with global resource crises generally, this interdisciplinary, pragmatic book surpasses most of the work of historians in this area. Synthesizing scientific material with international law and politics, as well as the internal affairs of government agencies and private businesses, Finley links the fisheries story to the ‘great transformation’ of global ecology in the postwar period by way of the technology, policy, and politics of food production. All the Boats on the Ocean is a significant, original book.”—Arthur McEvoy, author of The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850‒1980.

“Those of us who thought we understood how the oceans plight came about will find much that is new in this thoroughly researched and highly engaging work. Weaving history, politics, and science, Finley shows how the seeds of the current predicament were sown during the Cold War Era, as government subsidies fueled the rapid acceleration of fishing. Her call for a reinterpretation of the role of fishing within government is long overdue. A must-read.”—Ellen Pikitch, Stony Brook University.


Posted in Cold War, Environmental History, Fisheries policy, fisheries science, History of Science, History of Technology, Marine Policy, Maritime History, Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY), Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rachel Carson Center, Soviet environmental history, World History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We dust! We clean! We re-organize!

President Harry Truman goes fishing, photo courtesy of Truman Presidential Library and Life magazine

President Harry Truman goes fishing, photo courtesy of Truman Presidential Library and Life magazine

We are telling a lot of stories here at the Pacific Fishery History Project, and since we have trouble keeping them straight, we’re sure it’s a problem for our loyal readers. Postings tend to be more than a little random. The blog is like a small town where Bob and I know everybody, but nobody else knows anybody. The blog is home ported (so to speak) in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. But it is Astoria in 1947, a very particular point in time in terms of fisheries development .

I set the blog up six years ago, as I was writing my first book, All the Fish in the Sea. I wanted OSU Press to republish George Moskovita’s memoir. I knew it would need an introduction and I needed to learn more about Pacific fisheries history. As I read, I started to write little posts. One of the early readers was a retired federal scientist, Bob Hitz, who always wanted to write a book about his adventures onboard the federal research ship John N. Cobb. He started with a blog post and now he’s writing his book.

Between us we’ve written about 150 posts about the development of fisheries and fisheries science after World War II. Most of our posts fall into eight main categories, but all of the posts are connected, either by the people, the boats, the fish, or other events. For the first time, we’re doing an inventory of our material, and linking posts together. Our posts are labeled, CF means I wrote the post, BH means it came from blog. We also include the date of original publication.

Most of the scholarly attention and journalistic interest in fisheries is devoted to the Atlantic Ocean, where fisheries developed over hundreds of years. Development in the Pacific was completely different, with fisheries starting and crashing; sometimes in less than a decade (check out our posts on Oregon’s first fishing crash). There are some West Coast fish (salmon springs to mind) with a rich and considerable literature. Our interest is in the industrial fishery and the science around it.

1) Our story begins in 1945, when President Harry Truman visited Seattle and went salmon fishing. The man rowing the presidential rowboat was Nick Bez, one of the richest men in the Northwest, owner of canneries and gold mines and the world’s largest fish processing boat. There are currently a dozen blog posts that tell the story of one of the Northwest’s most popular businessmen.

2) Exploratory fishing is also a major theme of the blog. The Soviets, the Japanese, and the Americans all engaged in exploring for new fish stocks after World War II. This was the process that brought the Soviets to Oregon, where they decimated POP stocks.

3) Fish. We are interested in fish. We have a series of posts about California sardines and Oregon pilchards, and how the California fishery stimulated fishery development in Oregon. We also have a long series of posts on Sebastes Alutus, which are also known as redfish, roses, Pacific Ocean Perch, or POP.

4). Scientists. I am a historian of science and I am interested in how science is created, and the context in which it is done. There are three pages here, dealing with a variety of modern fishery scientists, then posts on Dayton Lee Alverson and Jergen Westheim.

5) Boats. We like boats. And pictures of boats. The main boat in the blog is the federal research vessel John N. Cobb. Now retried from service, the Cobb was the primary research vessel on the Pacific coast since it was built in 1950. Our blog posts here divided in the history of Cobb, and Bob’s adventures on the Cobb. We also have a page for the Pacific Flyer, .

6) George Moskovita is one of the constant threads that runs throughout the blog. George fished for sardines in California in the 1930s, was one of the first fishermen to trawl out of Astoria in 1940, and he helped develop the shark fishery during World War II. Oregon State University has republished George’s memoir.

7) The Soviet Fishery of the 1960s. Some of the blog’s best posts are by Bob Hitz, who was one of the federal scientists studying the Soviet fleet.

8) Post-war global fisheries development. We’re primarily interested in West Coast fisheries, but we also have considerable interest in post-war fisheries in general.

For a general introduction, let’s start with Astoria, Oregon, in 1947.

Astoria, 1947, (CF, originally published Oct. 25, 2015)

Towards a curriculum in Pacific fisheries history, (CF, published July 4, 2015)





Posted in California sardines, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, George Moskovita, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Ocean fishing, Oregon pilchards, Overfishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet environmental history, Soviet fishing, Soviet history' | Leave a comment

Still another voice from Astoria in the 1930s

The cover for Lyle Anderson's brief biography of his career

The cover for Lyle Anderson’s brief biography of his career

We love it when families retrace their involvement in the fishing industry. The family of Lyle Anderson, who worked at Bioproducts in Warrenton, have been compiling information about their father’s career as a chemist making fish oils, pet food, and fish hatchery food.

The biography is short but it details the start of Bioproducts, a small Oregon company, “started on a shoestring in the Great Depression.” The company was started by Dick and Eben Carruthers. They raised money to get through school by packing salmon eggs for sports fishermen.

With the help of a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan, they were able to lease a plan in Astoria, to make Vitamin A from fish livers.

We’ll be returning to this fascinating little stories in future blog posts.

Posted in California sardines, Columbia River Packers Association, Environmental History, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Pacific Fishing History Project | 1 Comment



China Rockfish from Orr’s Guide, p. 32

By: Charles R. (Bob) Hitz       Blog 41                                             Nov 9, 2016

I was aboard the John N. Cobb one evening in August, 1960 during my first exploratory trip when we anchored alongside Triangle Island, the westernmost island of the Scott Islands group located off Cape Scott at the northwestern end of Vancouver Island, Canada.  It gave the crew a chance to sport fish and I was struck by the variety of rockfish caught.  I still remember seeing my first China Rockfish (S. nebulosus), its blue-black body color with a vivid yellow strip down the side.  The intensity of the different colors displayed by rockfish when they came out of the water was amazing.


Sally Collins holding a Chinook Salmon Collins Photo

When we were on the grounds and had a successful tow, we’d sort the trawl-caught fish into groups.  One of them, rockfish, could be comprised of one or more of the 53 species found in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.  They were recorded as either red or black with the exception of one red species, Pacific Ocean perch (POP) S. alutus, which had recently became commercially important.  I was fascinated by the different color patterns of the rockfish.  They were not as vivid as sport-caught fish but were still very noticeable.


Bruce Collins holding a red Vermilion Rockfish, Collins Photo

Bruce Collins, a family friend, loves to sport fish and makes a trip with his family to thewest side of Vancouver Island at least once a year seeking chinook and silver salmon.  They are very successful and he showed me a picture of his wife, Sally, holding a chinook salmon she caught.  He mentioned they caught a number of rockfish and showed me photos which reminded me of those fish I saw many years ago – the wonderfully vivid colors when they came out of the water alive.  He returned them to sea so they could continue to live.  We know they are slow-growing and that many rockfish live to be 50 to 100 years old.  There are pictures of Bruce holding a red Vermilion Rockfish (S. minialus), and a red striped species called the Tiger Rockfish (S. nigrocinctus) held by their son Scott.  The photo of the subdued brown one Bruce is holding is difficult to identify from only the picture because of the dark brown blotch on the rear part of the gill cover indicates it is a Brown Rockfish, (S. auriculatus) whereas the color streak on the 3rd dorsal spine which is found on the Copper Rockfish, (S. caurinus).  It could be a hybrid, which are known to exist in Puget Sound where there is apparent hybridization of quillback (S. maliger), copper and brown rockfishes, making species identifications especially difficult (1).  If they had appeared in the 1960 trawl catch when I was aboard the Cobb, the red-banded one as well as the red one would be piled into the red category, and the brown one would go into the black.


Scott Collins holding a tiger Rockfish, Collins photo


Starting about the time I was hired we were required to identify each species in the catch, and with so many different rockfish we needed a key to identify some of them correctly.  Keys in those days were based on different characteristics of individual species and the two keys we used were Clemens and Wilby’s “Fishes of the Pacific Coast of Canada” (2) and Phillips’ “A Review of the Rockfishes of California” (3).  In 2008 after the Cobb was decommissioned I actually found a copy of the Clemens and Wilby book we had used.  On the inside of the cover in my handwriting I found, “Exploratory Fishing – U.S. Fish & Wildlife” written when I was on a trip in 1960.

Both keys used the “true and false” method for identifying a fish.  If we came across one we weren’t sure of we would go to Clemens and Wilby’s key, starting with Item 1 which reads “1 (6) Mouth in a circular sucking disk; jaws absent; nostril, 1, median.”  If the fish we were trying to identify was a rockfish the statement would be false, so we skipped, down to item 6 which states; “6 (1) Mouth not in circular sucking disk; jaws present; nostrils, 2”.  True, so then we could go to item 7, answering each of the descriptions which matched or skipping until we reached item 268 (315), which states; “Spines in anal fin, III, conspicuously large, stout, second and third usually longer and stronger than first; rays, 5 to 9,” which is true and we have reached Family Scorpaenidae – Rockfishes.  Then we could go down one line to item 269, answer those questions and continue down the lines until we had identified the rockfish we held.


Bruce Collins holding a Hybrid Rockfish Collins Photo

If we couldn’t name the rockfish in the Clemens and Wilby key which listed 24 species of Sebastodes in Canadian waters, we would turn to Phillips’ key which lists 49 species in California waters.  His key is only for the family of Scorpaenidae – Rockfish, and the print was even smaller.

You can imagine trying to identify a fish by following a key like this on an open deck in rain and wind, the vessel rolling and pitching from ocean swells and chop.  Inspecting fish while wearing bulky foul weather gear and trying to read fine print was extremely difficult and keeping the book dry almost impossible.  If you got out of the weather and went down into the hold where the scientific lab was located and could concentrate on the small lines of text I, for one, would become seasick and have to get back up onto the deck.  I thought there had to be a better way for identifying rockfish in the field.

In those days the keys were put together in the depository where the preserved specimens


Hitz’s Key,page 5, Hitz Drawing

were kept, and measurements and counts were made on individual specimens.  Most were preserved in formaldehyde, which leached out natural color.  Color photos of each species would have been the ideal way to produce a field key, but the cost of printing a colored pamphlet was prohibitive and there weren’t many colored photos of rockfish available.

Once I was back at the office I selected the 53 species that I believed existed along the northeastern coast of the Pacific, placed each name on a half-size sheet of typing paper and then divided those into 4 categories by body color; Striped Rockfish, Black Rockfish, Red Rockfish and White/Red-Spotted Rockfish, putting those identification tabs along the outside margins of the page.

Deciding that a pen and ink scale drawing of the profile of each fish was the way to go, I used Phillips’ publication (3) as a guide to make the drawing, using the black and white photo he had of individual fish to get the outline and the measurements and counts that he listed for each species to make sure of the accuracy of the drawing.


Hitz’s Key pages 36 & 37, Hitz Drawing

Once that was completed, one or two characteristics that separated an individual from the rest of the group were selected, condensed to a few words and placed on the page next to its profile.  A line was drawn from the text to the profile so that the identifying characteristic that identified the fish could be easily recalled in the field.  The page was finalized by placing the tabs that represented the individual fish on the margins of the page.


Orr’s Guide page 8

One of the four colored tabs which matched the color of the fish was put on the outer edge of the paper.  Head spines were used to separate the rockfish in the old keys, they were divided into two groups, weak or strong head spines, placed at the top of the page and one was selected to match the fish.  A drawing of the top of the head showing the location of the 8 pairs of head spines was also added to the page.  The head spines present for an individual fish were note on its page.  At the bottom there were three tabs representing the relationship of the 2nd anal fin spine to the 3rd that the old keys used to help separate the rockfish.  They were longer than 3rd, as long as 3rd, and shorter than 3rd.  The tab that represented the fish aided identification.

A number of drafts were tried in the field until the final one was laid out on an 8.5” x 11” standard sheet of paper.  This was divided in half, placing one fish on the right side and another on the left and folded to make a 5.5” x 8.5” pamphlet.  It could be put in a pocket and used when there was a question about the identification of a group of rockfish within the trawl catch.  If the pamphlet got wet and slimy it would dry out with time and if not, you could get another one.  It was finally published as the U. S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service Circular 203 in March 1965 (4) with a total of 53 species of Sebastodes listed, and IT WORKED.

After NOAA was formed in 1970, the observer program expanded and individuals were trained to go out on foreign vessels to monitor those catches, taking a circular with them.  It was modified in 1977 and again in 1981, adding 4 species for a total of 57 species, and the generic name was changed to Sebastes instead of Sebastodes.  Additional copies were made.

In October 1998 Orr, Brown and Baker published a new guide, which improved the old circular by replacing many of the drawings with color profile photos of each species of rockfish.  In the introduction Orr states; “Primarily designed as an aid in field identification, this guide follows the basic format of Hitz’s (1965) ‘Field Identification of the Northeastern Pacific Rockfish (Sebastodes),’ the first guide to successfully use color as a major characteristic to identify species of Sebastes.”  In August 2000 a second revision (5) was made and almost all the drawings were replaced with color photos, making the identification of individual fish easier.  Those publications listed a total of 66 species of Sebastes in the northeastern Pacific Ocean increasing the count by 13 from the 53 that I used in 1965.


  • Love, M. S., M. Yoklavich, & L. Thorsteinson (2002). The Rockfishes of the Northeastern Pacific.  The Regents of the University of California, 404 p.  (p. 144, caurinus, description and p. 129, S. auriculatus description)
  • Clemens, W. A., & G. V. Wilby (1961). Fishes of the Pacific Coast of Canada.  Fisheries Research Board of Canada, Bulletin No. 68, 443 p.
  • Phillips, J. B. (1957). A Review of the Rockfishes of California (Family Scorpaenidae).  California Fish and Game, Fish Bulletin No. 104, 158 p.
  • Hitz, C. R. (1965). Field Identification of the Northeastern Pacific Rockfish (Sebastodes). U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Circular 203.
  • Orr, J. W., M. A. Brown & D. C. Baker (2000). Guide to Rockfishes (Scorpaenidae) of the Genera Sebastes, Sebastolobus, and Adelosebastes of the Northeast Pacific Ocean, Second Edition.  NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-117, 47 p.
Posted in Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, World History | 1 Comment

Our new cover!

all-the-boats-in-the-ocean-flatcoverWe cannot say how pleased we are with the cover to the new book! We are simply thrilled and grateful to Christie Henry, our editor at the University of Chicago Press, and her team for coming up with this fantastic design that really drives home what the book is about–the post-war industrialization of fishing, the explosion of factory processing boats throughout the oceans, and the subsequent decline of fish stocks. We’d also like to thank Karin Ellison and her magic fingers for technical help she gives to the blog.

We don’t know who did the art work but we suspect the artist may have been influenced by one of the few online photographs of the Soviet fishing fleet. We’ve used this on our blog before (and, truth be told, probably will again). There really has not been a great deal written about the impact of the Soviet factory trawler fleet in the world’s oceans, despite the magnitude of the impact the fishery had on fish stocks (including our poster fish, Sebastes alutus.  The most factual information about the Soviet fishery, especially in the Pacific, is found here on the blog, and on our most important posts, (all by Bob Hitz).

Soviet fish processing ships

Soviet fish processing ships

It was not just the Soviets that build a huge fleet of factory processors, many nations did, including Japan, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and a host of Eastern European states. Governments provided subsidies to modernize and industrialize, moving fisheries from salting to freezing, and the creation of new fish forms. Fishing was great for local economies, but, unfortunately, not so great for local fish stocks.

In some ways the new book is a lot like the old book (some characters are back, Wilbert Chapman, Nick Bez, and the world’s largest fish processing vessel, the Pacific Explorer. The Cold War is also back with a look at what it meant for fish stocks.

sebastesThe thrust of the book is different. We look at how cod from Iceland and tuna from Japan eroded  fisheries in New England and Southern California. The scope of the book is much different, about how fishing acted as a territorial claim in the oceans, at a time when colonial empires were ending on land and being re-created in the ocean. Fishing was one of the first global industries, over the centuries, and the rapid expansion after World War II was driven by trade policy at the national level.

So that’s what the new book’s about, how we built so many boats. Out in February. And in the meantime, be warned that we might gush again about our beautiful cover!

Posted in boat building, Carmel Finley, Cold War, Environmental History, Fisherie subsidies, Fisheries economics, Fisheries policy, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Japanese fishing, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Ocean fishing, Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet environmental history, Soviet fishing, Soviet history', World History | 2 Comments

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.



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