The United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, established in 1871, launched and carried out the first sustained study of marine biology in the United States. It was instrumental in the artificial propagation of fish, thus increasing the country's fish resources and in concentrating attention on the preservation of natural resources. In 1877 the Commission initiated the collection of detailed and reliable data on American commercial fisheries, their modernization and improvement.
The immediate origin of the Fish Commission lay in a dispute in southern New England between the owners of traps (nets, weirs, or other means of capturing large quantities of fish) and a much larger group of fishermen who fished from small boats or the shore with single lines. Accusations that traps were responsible for the diminution in the supply of coastal fish raged. Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, with a keen interest in marine biology had followed the dispute closely. He recognized that the practical work related to its solution would contribute to proving the utilitarian value of science and provide excellent opportunities for basic marine biological research. Backed by prominent friends and his own knowledge of the political dynamics of Washington he sought a congressional appropriation for an extended investigation of coastal fisheries.
At the request of Henry L. Dawes, chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives to whom Baird had turned for help, he outlined in a letter of January 3, 1971 the dispute in southern New England, including a proposal for a commission charged with determining the scientific reason for the decrease in coastal species and headed by a mediator empowered to consult with the states and seek a fair solution. As it shortly emerged from Congress the resolution established the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries. This created a body with no time limits, and without restriction as to area, thus opening the way to a national investigation. The head of this new agency was to be appointed by the President, to be an officer of the government and to serve without additional pay. With its basic authorization assured, a $5,000 appropriation was quickly approved and Spencer Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was appointed Commissioner by President Grant. He took the oath of office on March 8, 1871.
While its appropriations for the propagation of fish far exceeded those for research, the Commission on Fish and Fisheries was influential in promoting scientific development in the federal government. In 1881 the Congress at Commissioner Baird's request, appropriated $190,000 for a sea going vessel, the Albatross, especially equipped for marine biology. He settled on Wood's Hole in Massachusetts as the site for a permanent scientific station and arranged for the purchase of the land by private subscribers such as the Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and Williams College. Such institutions had a right to send a specialist to the station to do research. The marine biological laboratory at Wood's Hole developed into a world famous research institution.
In 1903 the independent commission became the Bureau of Fisheries in the Department of Commerce and Labor. The Bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1939 and in 1940 was merged with another bureau to become the Fish and Wildlife Service.