Seventy-Five Years of Science —
The Story of the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries Center, 1935-2010
By Gary A. Wedemeyer, Senior Scientist/Historian Emeritus, 2013
As of January 2010, 75 years have elapsed since Dr. Frederic Fish initiated the pioneering research program that would evolve into today's Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC). Fish began his research working alone in the basement of the recently opened Fisheries Biological Laboratory on Lake Union in Seattle, Washington. WFRC's research began under the aegis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ends its first 75 years as part of the U.S. Geological Survey with a staff of more than 150 biologists and support personnel and a heritage of fundamental research that has made important contributions to our understanding of the biology and ecology of the economically important fish and fish populations of the Nation.
Although the current staff may rarely stop to think about it, WFRC's antecedents extend many years into the past and are intimately involved with the history of fisheries conservation in the Western United States. Thus, WFRC Director Lyman Thorsteinson asked me to write the story of this laboratory "while there are still a few of you around who were here for some of the earlier years" to document the rich history and culture of WFRC by recognizing its many famous scientists and their achievements. This history also would help document WFRC’s research 'footprint' in the Western United States and its strategic directions. Center Director Thorsteinson concluded that WFRC’s heritage told by an emeritus scientist also would add a texture of legitimacy based on personal knowledge that will all-to-soon be lost to the WFRC and to the USGS. The WFRC story is important for the future as well as for historical reasons. It describes how we got to the place we are today by documenting the origin, original mission, and our evolving role in response to the constantly changing technical information requirements of new environmental legislation and organizational decision-making.
The WFRC research program owes its existence to the policy requirements of Federal conservation legislation originating with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in 1933. The research program was shaped by laws enacted in subsequent years such as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), National Environmental Policy Act (1973), Endangered Species Act (1974), and Northwest Power Planning Act (1980), to name only a few. The WFRC has not been constrained by direct management or regulatory responsibility for a particular fishery (such as providing sustainable catch limits data to a resource management structure). Thus, WFRC has been able to concentrate on scientific pursuits and information needs required by contemporary environmental legislation. Over the years, we have pioneered in several important areas of fisheries research including the diagnoses and control of diseases in economically important fish, effects of environmental alterations on the physiological quality and survival of Pacific salmon released from federal mitigation hatcheries, applications in biotelemetry, and the bioenergetics of predator-prey interactions in the Columbia River.
The WFRC of today is a widely distributed organization in the Western United States. Knowledge of the historical connections and accomplishments of our predecessors is important beyond the sense of pride and unity it instills in the WFRC family of today. For example, a discerning reader will note the evolution of WFRC’s research from a single disciplinary focus (early era—hatchery disease problems), to multiple disciplines (middle to late era—species, populations, habitats; threatened and endangered species), to the present era (multidisciplinary and with increasing process focus). For the benefit of the current WFRC staff, more emphasis has been placed on the early years rather than on the present day because people are quite naturally more familiar with the recent past than with the research done during the first decades of WFRC's existence.
By every rational measure, the WFRC has evolved into a fisheries research organization well positioned to provide the biological information needed to support the continued conservation and management of our Nation’s living aquatic natural resources. The high standard of excellence that connects WFRC’s past to our present research program provides a firm foundation on which to base the work yet to be done.
In another 75 years, WFRC will undoubtedly be a very different place than it is today, but its evolution will be forever rooted in the story of the research and of the people related here.
To read more about our rich history the publication "Wedemeyer, G.A., 2013, Seventy-five years of science — The U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries Research Center: U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 149, 44 p." can be downloaded here.