People of the Lake
The site of today's Northwest Fisheries Science Center had been known and used for centuries by the tribes around the lakes, including the the hah-choo-AHBSH or "people of the lake," a band of the Lakes Duwamish. The 1856 General Land Office survey map of the area showed a short "Indian trail" between Lake Washington and "Union Lake" -- right about where today's NWFSC campus now sits.
It was a portage route, for transporting canoes over the short neck of land between the two lakes. T. T. Waterman's Puget Sound Geography identifies the portage trail as "just south of where the present canal is cut" (Waterman, p. 102). Travelers would push their canoes as far up a little creek as possible and then carry them the rest of the way to the neighboring lake.
The "people of the lake" weren't always just passing through. The marshes along Portage Bay were abundant with plants, fish, and birds. It remained a rich tribal food-gathering area even after the first white settlers arrived in Seattle. But not for long.
Seattle pioneer Harvey Pike acquired the land between the lakes and he attempted to dig a ditch in 1861, but he did not succeed. A second ditch for transporting logs opened in 1885. As the city grew, engineers began to dream of a more elaborate project: connecting Puget Sound to Lake Union and Lake Washington. Work began in 1911 and the Montlake Cut, between the two lakes, was completed in 1916.
The entire Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed in 1917. It meant sweeping changes to the area we know as Montlake: The level of Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet, with some marshlands drying up and others covered with fill. The area that would become the center's campus remained under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had dug the Montlake Cut.
Northwest Fisheries Science Center
The Northwest Fisheries Science Center was spawned, in a sense, by a Bureau of Fisheries research lab established at Stanford University early in 1909 by fisheries scientist (and Stanford president) David Starr Jordan (1851-1931). It was called the Pacific Fishery Investigations, and it researched Pacific Ocean fish issues extending up to Alaska. Yet by the 1920s, it was becoming clear that the Northwest would be, by necessity, at the center of a new wave of fisheries research. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was already drawing up plans to harness the Columbia River, which would eventually require a massive amount of study into the life cycle of the river's salmon. In 1924, Bureau of Fisheries commissioner Henry O'Malley established a small staff to work in one of the University of Washington's fisheries halls. In 1928, Congress appropriated money for the Bureau to "study ways to get fish around the dams" (Celebrating, p. 7). These early studies into hatchery effectiveness, fish ladders, and irrigation screens developed over the ensuing decades into an extensive array of research programs that continue to seek ways to improve salmon survival rates at the dams today.
One of the early hints that a new lab might be built in Seattle came in an editorial in The Seattle Daily Times on January 13, 1930, urging passage of a new federal fisheries bill.
"The measure ... makes provision for fish cultural stations in various parts of the country, but the largest enterprise is that proposed for this state," said the editorial:
"The bureau asks for authority to erect a fish laboratory during the next fiscal year at a cost of $125,000. The location of the laboratory would be left to the discretion of the bureau experts, but more than likely it would be built in Seattle. The advantages of being convenient to the University of Washington and to the headquarters of the commercial fishing interests undoubtedly would appeal to the bureau scientists. Facilities which hardly could be duplicated elsewhere would be available on the site of the old canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington, recently relinquished to the bureau by the War Department" ("Fisheries Bill").
The bill passed that spring, and by June 1930 the location of the new lab had been settled: "On the shore of the Lake Washington Ship Canal between the Montlake Bridge and the Seattle Yacht Club" ("Fish Laboratory").
"The purpose of the laboratory will be to work with the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington in the study of fishing conditions in the Northwest," said the Times ("Fish Laboratory").
A Scientific Headquarters
In a commentary in September 1930, the Times pronounced the location "ideal," partly because of its proximity to the university and partly because it could moor its own boats on Portage Bay ("New Laboratory"). The new lab would assure that "Seattle will be made the scientific headquarters of the fishing industry" ("New Laboratory"). That month, the well-known Northwest architect John Graham (1873-1955) had drawn up plans for the $125,000 building. Graham's plans called for a two-story building, made of concrete construction faced with brick, 130 feet by 50 feet, with a full basement.
Those plans must have been altered over the next few months, because in February 1931 construction crews were busily erecting a "three-story building, steel faced with brick" ("Large Crew").
"It will house about fifty persons connected with fisheries, research, statistical agents, specialists in biology," said The Seattle Times. "The International Halibut Commission will also have its offices in the building" ("Large Crew"). The moving-in process was gradual, since May was the time of year when many of staff members were out in the field, conducting research on the rivers and bays of the Northwest and Alaska.
On May 22, 1931, the new building welcomed the public in an open-house event. Among those in attendance were Bureau of Fisheries Commissioner Henry O'Malley and U.S. Senator Wesley Jones (1863-1932). O'Malley later recalled that the "personnel and equipment of the Stanford field station" had been transferred to the new building, along with almost all of the Bureau's Pacific biological investigation " (Atkinson, "Montlake").
An additional building, known as the Pilot Plant, was also built in the early 1930s. It housed facilities for processing fish brought in from research trips and played a key role in the laboratory's work to improve seafood safety and processing practices.
The International Fisheries Commission, commonly called the Halibut Commission, moved in to the main building in July 1931. O'Malley referred to the new building as the Fisheries Biological Laboratory, which was just one of the names it became known by in Seattle. It was also called, variously, the Montlake Laboratory of the Bureau of Fisheries, the Fisheries Research Bureau or simply the Bureau of Fisheries.
Joseph Craig became the Montlake Laboratory's first director. Craig was in charge of one of the new lab's first tasks, a study of the Puget Sound's sockeye salmon. This was a particularly apt task, since scientists could stroll out of their offices and watch sockeye spawn in the waters near the lab.
During those first few years, the Montlake Laboratory proved to be an influential "training ground for a number of future leaders in fisheries research and management," including Richard VanCleve, John Kask and Lauren Donaldson (Atkinson, "Montlake"). Much of the lab's research dealt with Alaskan salmon, as part of the bureau's longtime effort to understand the nature of the Alaska salmon runs. Their work also extended into salmon processing and food technology issues.
Frederick Davidson, who had supervised one of the Alaskan sockeye studies, took over in 1933 as director. Davidson initiated many innovations in studying both the halibut and salmon fisheries of the Pacific. Samuel Hutchinson, the "first permanent biologist employed at Montlake" (and later regional director) inaugurated an important new study on Sashin Creek in Alaska about the freshwater survival of pink salmon eggs and young (Atkinson, "Montlake"). The Sashin Creek station would remain a key experimental station for many decades.
The Montlake Laboratory conducted studies during the 1930s on the coho salmon runs in Puget Sound and the massive sockeye runs on Bristol Bay in Alaska. The Montlake scientists established a test station on the Brooks River, at the outlet to Brooks Lake. Another component of this study involved the ocean-going phase of a salmon's life, "the first real study in the United States of the ocean life history of salmon" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). The study used roaming U.S. Coast Guard cutters and purse seiners to detect the whereabouts of salmon.Harlan Holmes's Fish Ladders
The laboratory's scientists also did research to assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in designing effective fish ladders and fish screens for the dams on the Columbia River. Harlan Holmes became "the Bureau's fish passage expert" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). He was described by colleagues as having a "very inquisitive mind" and a dedication to his work that manifested itself most memorably in the time he swam up the fishways of the Rock Island Dam on the Columbia, "just to prove that if a man can swim up a fishway, then a salmon should have no problem" (Atkinson, "Montlake").
Holmes spent much of the 1930s working on the Bonneville Dam fish-passage systems and returned to the Montlake Laboratory in 1939 to study the ever-growing fish passage problems on the other Columbia River projects. In 1941, Holmes became the director of the Montlake Laboratory.The development of the Columbia River dams required research far beyond fish ladders. Through the 1930s, the lab was studying many aspects of fisheries maintenance and rehabilitation on the river. Joseph Craig, Willis Rich, and Robert Hacker compiled extensive histories of the river's fisheries. The lab also embarked in 1934 on a Columbia River survey, to identify all accessible salmon streams in the Columbia system. At least 16 people were employed on this project in the 1930s. The staff was growing so large that in 1936, the Bureau took over the 15 rooms that had been occupied by the International Fisheries Commission.
Salmon Runs and Life Histories
As the 1930s drew a close, it became clear that the under-construction Grand Coulee Dam would be a far more complex problem for fisheries than Bonneville Dam. The dam was 320 feet high "precluding any hope of either passing the adult salmon over the dam or the young migrants downstream" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). More than 1,000 miles of spawning and rearing grounds were eliminated.
The Montlake Laboratory was given the responsibility for the Grand Coulee fisheries maintenance program, which lasted from 1939 to 1948. It was "the first attempt at massive transplants of salmon runs from their native streams to new, quite distant spawning and rearing areas" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). Salmon were trapped at Rock Island Dam and trucked to new streams. This project encountered many unforeseen problems, yet also enjoyed some successes. Some runs actually increased in abundance in their new "home" streams (Atkinson, "Montlake").
As the 1940's arrived and war loomed on the horizon, lean times lay ahead for the Montlake Laboratory. In 1939, the Bureau of Fisheries was switched from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department and a year later the Bureau of Fisheries was merged into the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, when the U.S. entered World War II, many of the staff members were called up into the navy. Those staffers who remained had to get by with serious restrictions on expenses, equipment, and transportation. Most programs were simply maintained at a standby level. Willis Rich took over as director in 1943 and Tom Barnaby became director in 1944.
When the war ended, new scientists began to arrive at the lab. The Columbia River studies continued and new research began on Alaskan fish populations. In 1952, Clinton Atkinson, a University of Washington fisheries graduate and experienced researcher, was appointed at the Montlake Laboratory's new director. His instructions were, in his own words, to "revitalize the research program at Montlake, create an environment for productive research by the staff, and enhance the prestige of the laboratory through cooperation with other fishery agencies and the industry" (Atkinson, "Montlake").
Atkinson started a new unit within the lab called Pacific Salmon Investigations, with Clifford Burner as assistant director. This new unit studied Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River drainage, looked into the issues of temperature, water quality and predation on Columbia River salmon survival, and surveyed Cook Inlet waters in Alaska. Center scientists were breaking new ground in other areas, as well. In 1948, a lab scientist examined 36 teeth from a freshly killed sea lion and developed "the technique to ascertain the ages of seals and sea lions and other pinnipeds" (Fifty Years of Cooperation, p. 286).
Meanwhile, the lab continued to work on the complex problem of fish passage on the Columbia River. In 1955, Gerald Collins of the lab developed a large experimental flume at Bonneville Dam, where fish could be diverted into various kinds of test fishways to test their speed and ease of passage. The results were, according to Atkinson, "truly amazing, contributing more to the understanding of the movement of salmon and steelhead in fishways and over dams than any previous research" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). The results were soon incorporated into new fishways construction on the Columbia and Snake rivers. More intractable was the problem of preventing young salmon, migrating downstream, from being swept into the turbines and other perilous areas.
In the 1950s, the Montlake Laboratory developed a valuable research tool, the "sonic tag," which was attached to a fish and allowed continuous tracking. It also made it easier to count the salmon at, for instance, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in the Ballard area of Seattle, which was also part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal project.
Tagging and Tracking
Meanwhile, the Montlake Laboratory had been asked to take on one of its most complex tasks: Determining where the Asian and North American salmon intermixed in North Pacific waters. This had become a vital question by the mid-1950s, because Japanese fishing fleets were increasingly cruising the North Pacific and taking an unknown number of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. The work on this project was divided between the Montlake Laboratory and the Fisheries Research Institute at the University of Washington. This collaboration "closed the gap that had gradually developed between the two groups over the preceding years" (Atkinson, "Montlake").
The project required vast amounts of data -- 60,000 fish were tagged from 1956 to 1961 -- and also required sophisticated systems to analyze that data. Because of this, Montlake Laboratory became one of the first fisheries laboratories to acquire automatic data-processing equipment -- an early computer. Montlake also acquired, for the first time, an oceanographer, Felix Favorite, when it became clear that ocean temperature had a direct impact on the distribution of salmon on the high seas. The preliminary results showed that the Japanese fishing fleets were indeed taking large numbers of Bristol Bay sockeye. The Japanese contingent of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission was reluctant to accept this conclusion, but the evidence proved powerful and helped guide the commission's later decisions.
To assist with carrying out the salmon research, in 1958 a hatchery was built on the Montlake Laboratory campus. Known as the Sockeye Hatchery, the 7,200-square-foot facility has been used to study a number of different species.Montlake was also busy in the 1950s with an Alaskan king crab research project, following the Japanese fishing fleet's re-entry into the crab fishery. From 1956 to 1964, a group of Montlake researchers succeeded in determining the entire life cycle of the king crab in the eastern Bering Sea. In some cases, the Montlake scientists sailed to the Bering Sea and donned scuba gear and collected the necessary samples themselves. As the 1960s began, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had reorganized, and as a result, some of the Alaskan fisheries research was transferred to a new biological lab in Juneau.
The Era of the 1960s
Yet the Montlake Laboratory continued to expand throughout the 1960s. In 1962, it acquired a U.S. Navy surplus vessel, which it named the George B. Kelez, allowing the lab for the first time to do oceanographic and highs seas salmon studies year-round. The biggest expansion came in 1964, when the Montlake Laboratory tripled in size with the addition of the 65,000 square-foot East Building (containing a "fully modern laboratory") and the connected Center Building, containing a library and conference room/auditorium (Atkinson, "Montlake"). Meanwhile a number of field stations were scattered around the Northwest, including at Bonneville Dam, Pasco, and Mukilteo.
Research on the continuing problem of Columbia River fish-passage took a new turn. The lab shifted its effort to cutting mortality of the young fish heading downstream. The scientists discovered, among other things, that salmon were dying in droves because of the "supersaturation of gases, mainly nitrogen, in the tailwaters below the dams" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). The lab also studied the feasibility of barging or trucking young salmon past the Snake River dams.
In 1966, Atkinson resigned as director to become fishery attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Clifford Burner was named acting director for a short while and then Gerald Collins was named director. Toward the end of the 1960s, the lab -- in keeping with the tenor of the times -- began to focus more on the environment and the effect of contaminants on fish. The lab also began studies of aquaculture -- rearing salmon in pens. Over the decade of the 1960s, the staff almost doubled to nearly 200.
The year 1970 brought one of the most sweeping changes in the lab's history. On October 3, 1970, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was placed under new agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was part of the Department of Commerce. The Bureau gained a new name: National Marine Fisheries Service. Then in 1971, the Montlake Laboratory itself was given a new name: the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, one of only four nationwide marine fishery research centers. By 1976, these centers, including the one at Montlake, were given the responsibility for "both the biological/environmental and fisheries utilization research" (Atkinson, "Montlake"). However, the practical effect of reorganization, during those first years, was a reduction in funding and staff. The George B. Kelez was decommissioned in 1974.
Work and funding began to pick up after the passage of many sweeping environmental laws, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, both passed in 1972, and, especially, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, passed in 1976. The latter "extended federal control of coastal waters from the historic three to 200 miles," and required more research and resources to protect it (Celebrating, p. 13). The center took on the complex task of analyzing the life cycles of various species in the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea and determining the best possible harvest management plan. Meanwhile, the center's oceanographic studies made it possible to predict with accuracy, for the first time, precisely how much impact a certain level of fish harvest would have on the size and distribution of a species. These studies became a formidable tool in fishery management and "rank as one of the outstanding accomplishments of the center" (Atkinson, "Montlake").
The center's scientists also helped fishermen better utilize some of the new species in the 200-mile zone. They "isolated an enzyme responsible" for the rapid degradation of the flesh of certain species, making it possible to use those fish for making surimi, a popular fish by-product (Celebrating, p. 13). Scientists also developed methods for controlling a dangerous food-borne pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, which affected seafood.
The center was also responsible for placing observers aboard foreign fishing boats operating within the 200-mile zone, to collect data on their catches. In 1980, 90 observers were sent out on the high seas. Meanwhile, the center continued to collect data about the increasingly alarming problem of fish mortality among downstream migrants over the Snake and Columbia dams. By the time the lab celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1981, it had an enviable track record of scientific accomplishment, according to John V. Byrne, NOAA's administrator at the time,
"It was revolutionary, it was unusual, it was new," said Byrne of the lab's research, during a 1981 speech celebrating the anniversary. "It was innovative, and the fact that it has become routine simply indicates that it was done properly and done right" (Fifty Years of Cooperation, p. 285).
Dayton (Lee) Alverson was appointed the center's director in 1971, and remained in that post until he retired in 1979. William Aron was appointed director in 1980.
Changes in Organization and Direction
In the mid-1980s, many of the center's Alaska programs had been gradually moved to NOAA's Sand Point labs in north Seattle. Then, in 1988, the split became complete. A separate Alaska Fisheries Science Center was formed at the Sand Point facility. The Montlake center then acquired its current name, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Aron moved to the Alaskan center and was replaced as director by Richard Berry.
Scientists at the lab began to focus more heavily on surveys of West Coast groundfish, including hake, sablefish, sole, rockfish, and perch. The center also increasingly studied environmental hazards and the effects of oil and other contaminants on fish. This research would prove invaluable in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The post-Exxon Valdez research done at the center was among the most significant and most effective work in its history, and contributed many insights into how to prevent and deal with future spills.
Endangered Salmon Runs
In 1991, the center took on a new task, challenging from both scientific and political perspectives. The first petitions had been submitted to list the region's salmon runs as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and the center's job was "to investigate those runs and determine which ones should be listed" (Celebrating, p. 15). One center scientist, Michelle McClure, said in 2002, "I spend a lot of time trying to make sure that I am presenting the results in the most unbiased manner possible ... you have to be true to the evidence, not to what you want to happen" (Celebrating, p. 16).
After all of the runs had been studied, 26 distinct salmon populations were listed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Then the work shifted to an even more daunting task: Devising strategies to help those listed salmon runs recover. Usha Varanasi, who became the center's first woman director in 1994, said, "We are undertaking one of the greatest and toughest ecological challenges of the century" (Celebrating, p. 17).
There have been some notable triumphs. A captive broodstock program helped prevent extinction of Idaho's Redfish Lake sockeye run -- one of the most fragile runs of all. In 1992, only one salmon, nicknamed Lonesome Larry, returned to this high mountain lake. By 2000, 257 sockeye were returning to Redfish Lake. In 2010 and 2011, returns have been more than 1,000 each year and the run's genetic diversity has been retained.
The Center Today
The center had begun work in new areas of research, including the Marine Mammal Program in 2003. In 2005, Southern Resident (Puget Sound) killer whales (orcas) were listed as endangered, partly because of research conducted by the Marine Mammal Program. In 2004, the center acquired another crucial operation, the West Coast Center for Ocean and Human Health, dedicated to "understanding and predicting effects of the ocean on human health" (West Coast Center). Meanwhile, the center's extensive groundfish science research supported what had become the West Coast's most valuable federal fishery: hake, also known as Pacific whiting.
The Montlake facility itself was expanding as well. The Montlake South building, which housed offices to accommodate a growing staff, was completed in 2007. It took the place of the old Pilot Plant, which was demolished and replaced with a new structure on the south side of the campus. Varanasi retired in 2011 and John E. Stein became the director in 2012.
As of 2012, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center employed about 500 people, which included researchers at its three Washington research centers in Mukilteo, Pasco, and Manchester and its two Oregon research centers at Hammond (near Astoria) and Newport. The center had a fleet of small research vessels, the largest one being the RV Streeter, often moored at the dock the center shares with the neighboring Seattle Yacht Club. In addition to the center's main buildings, a number of smaller lab facilities are scattered around the site.
As the center celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2011, it continued work on many of the issues that were part of its long history: North Pacific fishery health, groundfish science, and the environmental factors that affect fish populations. The center increasingly turned toward researching ecosystem-based fisheries management, climate change, harmful algae blooms, and habitat recovery. The center even helped research an important dietary issue: the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, found in certain fish.
Yet a significant part of the center's work still deals with the issue that led to its founding long ago: The impact of the Columbia River dams on the salmon runs.