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NOAA Celebrates 150 Years of Science in Woods Hole and a Legacy that Still Lives Today


The marine science community in Woods Hole is celebrating a special milestone this year; the 150th anniversary of the founding of what is now the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This fisheries lab, one of the first in the country, was founded in 1871 by Spencer Baird, a visionary man whose legacy is still alive today.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Jon Hare, Science and Research Director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to learn more about Baird and his impact on Woods Hole Village.

Eident The Atlantic seaboard is vast. Why did Spencer Baird pick Woods Hole?

Hare So, Spencer Baird had been interested in fisheries for a number of years and worked with Congress to set up the Fish Commission, as we call it, for short. And, he had visited Woods Hole before and came back to Woods Hole for three reasons, really. One was it had a natural deep-water harbor. And if you think about 1871, probably not the same roads and probably not the same ability to drive around. So, transport by ship was much, much more important.

It also had, and still does have, very clean water. It's a port, so it's next to the land. But, there's a lot of tidal flow between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. And so, the water is very clean. Visiting other ports, he was not able to find the same water quality that he was able to find in Woods Hole.

And then the other piece, which it seems a little bit hard to believe at this point in time, but Woods Hole was relatively easy to get to, because there was a train which came from Boston. Those train tracks are now the bike path. But, the transport to Woods Hole was advanced for its time. And so, Spencer Baird came down on the train and then set up this science station in Woods Hole because of those attributes.

Eident So, it sounds like Spencer Baird clearly had a vision. He saw the potential in Woods Hole, and the idea was to establish a lab that looked at a wide variety of research areas within marine science. But he also wanted to make this work accessible to the public. That seems to me that that might have been unusual.

Hare He did have a very broad vision. He imagined science and then opened [it] to the public, serving as a way to inform the public about science in general and marine science specifically. And then, he worked with the federal government, realized that there were some limitations on what the federal government could or could not do. The scientific community was building in Woods Hole. So then, the Marine Biological Laboratory started, which could really focus on the education piece of marine science, sort of working from Spencer Baird's vision that education is as important as conducting science. So, yeah, he was just incredibly broad thinker, visionary.

Eident Those who know Woods Hole know that the area is brimming with science and scientific institutions. You attribute that in part to Spencer Baird's legacy?

Hare I think you have to attribute it, I would say, almost completely. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is one of the preeminent oceanographic institutions in the country. It was started by Henry Bigelow, who had done a lot of work with the Fisheries Commission and with resources of the Fisheries Commission. So, it's all sort of intertwined in terms of this momentum building behind Woods Hole as a science community. And it's really now, you know, just a world class science community. I mean, I can go anywhere in the world and say I'm working in Woods Hole and people know that that's where you go to do the marine science.

Eident Climate change science also has a home in Woods Hole as well.

Hare Yeah, correct. So, there's the Woodwell Climate Research Center, which is dedicated to climate change. But it's actually very interesting that you mention climate change because even in the 1950s, researchers in Woods Hole, both at Fisheries where I work and Woods Hole Oceanographic, Henry Bigelow were studying the effect of at that point in time, they weren't thinking of it as climate change, but they were studying the effect of changes in the marine environment and how that was affecting fish populations. When you look back at that work now, you can see of what they really were studying was climate.

Eident In doing the research to commemorate the 150th anniversary of fisheries in Woods Hole, did you find any surprises? You look through records, but you also walked around the village.

Hare Yeah, exactly. So, I'm not a historian, I'm a scientist. But, learning sort of the history of a place or a history of how science developed, it really is a fascinating topic. And so, I a couple of Saturday afternoons walking around town with my dog and finding the rocks with the memorials on them.

And, it's interesting to think about where our lab is now. It's federal property, but that was donated by citizens of Woods Hole so that fisheries could build a building in Woods Hole. It really just sounds like a special time. So, that was just a very interesting pursuit for me to think about the history of science in Woods Hole, since I am the benefactor of 150 years of other people's work.

Eident And, it sounds like Spencer Baird, who was such a visionary 150 ago by staking the claim that this Wood's Hole village had some real potential for the scientific community, it's still thriving today.

Hare You know, he talked the US lighthouse board into letting him use one of their old garages. So, that's where science in Woods Hole started. It started in an old borrowed garage. And now are six institutions, NOAA Fisheries, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the United States Geological Survey has a lab in Woods Hole, Sea Education Association and the Woodwell Climate Research Center. So, it's gone from one borrowed building to six world renowned science institutions, all doing different facets of marine science and environmental science.

Eident And, that's Jon Hare, Science and Research Director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, based in Woods Hole, one of the first marine labs in the country. Jon, thank you so much.

Hare Well, thank you very much for having me, Kathryn. And I look forward to seeing you in Woods Hole.

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Learn more about the history of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, including in this presentation by Jon Hare to the Woods Hole Historical Museum.