19th-Century Marine Life’s Role in the 21st Century

January 21, 1891, log entry from the Fish Hawk. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7184, At 9:52 a.m. on January 21, 1891, the air temperature was 52 degrees and the skies were cloudy off Mackay Creek, South Carolina. The crew of the Fish Hawk recorded this and additional details—such as water temperature, wind direction, and dredge contents—in its “Record of Dredging.” This documentation is part of Record Unit 7184 United States Bureau of Fisheries, Records, circa 1877-1948 in the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). In the early 1870s, there were concerns within the New England fishing industry over a decline in the supply of food fishes in coastal waters. Spencer Baird, Assistant Secretary of Smithsonian, saw this issue as an opportunity to demonstrate how “science could make a real contribution to the solution of economic importance as well as to generate an immense amount of basic scientific data on marine life.” In 1871, when Congress approved the formation of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Baird was named its first commissioner and served without pay while continuing his duties at the Smithsonian. Soon, numerous vessels were sailing along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, providing scientists with marine specimens that were collected during dredging and trawling operations. The Fish Hawk and Albatross were the first two large vessels built specifically for marine research. Construction of the Fish Hawk was completed in 1880. The Albatross was launched in 1883, and designed to go anywhere in the world, it sailed to the Pacific Coast, Bering Sea, and Japan. Both vessels were decommissioned in the 1920s. (To see other archival materials that document the Albatross, click here.) View of upper deck of the Albatross by an unidentified photographer, The Albatross is the first exam Today, The National Museum of Natural History’s Fish Division’s collections are filled with specimens from the Albatross that are still used in research.  SIA is home to the logbooks and related materials of these and other vessels that conducted this work.  The logbooks offer page after page of chronologically arranged entries that report data including temperature, condition, trawling/dredging results, and where the vessels went. Also interesting are occasional doodles and sketches. The image below, from the 1898-99 Fish Hawk logbook is my favorite. Sketch by JDM in “Original Logbook of the ‘Fish Hawk’ United States In a recent joint project between SIA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), nearly 400 logbooks—whose conditions varied from very good to those with mold damage—were digitized. Because this will mean less handling of the original logbooks and papers, the materials are more likely to stay intact. Other digitized logbooks in the SIA collections are from the Grampus, Halcyon, Yvonne, and Danglade research vessels. Some previously digitized logbooks are available here. Interestingly, the work carried out by the crews of these 19th-century vessels remains relevant in the studies of marine life, weather, and environment in the 21st century. Currently NOAA is creating a dataset of the various entries from these historic logbooks so researchers can explore “relationships between the climate and its effects on the environment,” as part of its Climate Database Modernization Program (CDMP). According to Catherine Marzin of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries: “The particularity of the logbooks of the U.S. Fish Commission research vessels is that scientists onboard the ship captured the hydrology, the geology, the ecology of the oceans they were surveying as well as oceanography and weather. This collection provides a unique picture of the environment as witnessed and studied by Smithsonian scientists of the time. “Weather data in particular are integrated into climate datasets such as the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS). Nowadays, climate scientists are collecting as much historical weather data as they can locate around the world to better understand the past climate and apply modern computational approaches to predict the future.”

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