In the early 1870's, a fierce debate raged within the fishing industry of New England concerning the supply of food fishes in coastal waters. The use of efficient traps for the large-scale capture of fish was blamed for an alarming decline in the catch, especially by those who depended on traditional fishing methods. In some states, the controversy was carried to the legislature but, though endlessly debated, little action was taken.
The dispute soon caught the attention of Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird had already begun to nurture a growing interest in the rapidly expanding field of marine biology by summer field trips to Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, when the fisheries controversy arose. The debate provided Baird with an opportunity to show that science could make a real contribution to the solution of a problem of economic importance as well as to generate an immense amount of basic scientific data on marine life.
Authorization and appropriations for the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries were passed by Congress in 1871 and Baird was appointed the first Commissioner. The congressional mandate was broader than Baird had originally sought. The Commission was not limited to investigations on the New England coast and no time limit was placed on its existence. This lack of specificity greatly aided the Commission's later expansion.
For the first nine years of the Commission's existence, it relied on other executive agencies, particularly the Revenue Service and the Navy for vessels with which to conduct dredging and cruising operations. In 1880, construction was completed on the first Commission vessel, the Fish Hawk, and in 1883, the Albatross began operations. Most of the Fish Hawk's operations were on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, while the Albatross ranged as far as the Pacific coast, Bering Sea, and Japan. Other Fish Commission vessels included the Grampus, Halcyon, Danglade, and Yvonne.
The original duties of the Commission were eventually extended to include fish culture, further studies of fisheries and fishery industries, and studies in fresh-water and marine biology. The Commission became part of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 and its name was changed to the Bureau of Fisheries. In 1939, the Bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior, and in 1940 was merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to form the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The U. S. Fish Commission and its successors have always maintained close ties with the Smithsonian and the United States National Museum. Baird was Assistant Secretary and Secretary of the Smithsonian while serving as Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, and often assigned Smithsonian people to Fish Commission duties. In a number of cases, there was considerable overlap between Commission and Smithsonian work. A number of Commission staff, including Tarleton Hoffman Bean and Barton Warren Evermann, served as honorary curators for the Museum's Division of Fishes. The Museum has also served as depository for specimens collected by the Fish Commission and its successors.