University of Washington's School of Fisheries


May 1, 2019

Students taking sockeye otoliths for age studies, Lake Aleknagik, Alaska, 2018. Photo by Dan DiNicola.

At the turn of the twentieth century fishing was big business in the Pacific Northwest. Opportunities to harvest the bounty of the sea were on the rise as seafood and maritime continued to develop and expand. In 1900, the fishing industry reported a healthy $25 million in capital, and Seattle's trade with Asia, nonexistent five years earlier, was over $15 million a year. To the north, the waters of Alaska were home to some of the largest and most productive fisheries on the planet; the sheer amount of salmon led some to believe the resource was infinite.

Nearly 20 years later, The University of Washington College of Fisheries (now the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences or SAFS) arose to satisfy the need for trained scientists to study and manage fishery resources regionally and around the world. The University's close proximity to the Pacific Northwest's thriving fishing industry proved to be an ideal location as the two would grow in tandem over the next 100 years.

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Beginnings of the School

"The idea of establishing a College of Fisheries at UW evolved to a great extent from the growing importance of commercial fisheries, especially for halibut and salmon, in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska." said Bill Karp, SAFS Affiliate Professor and NOAA Fisheries Scientist Emeritus.

At its onset in 1919, the early curriculum of the College of Fisheries focused on fishing technology, fish products, aquaculture, and cannery management to address the needs of the industry and provide employment for students upon graduation. Over the next decade areas of study would begin to expand, incorporating a strong emphasis on the foundational sciences and fish biology.

By the mid-1940's the salmon industry in Alaska began to see a significant decrease in landings. Prior to Alaska's statehood, the fishery was managed by the federal government and the closest fisheries school was the fledgling UW School of Fisheries. Concerned for the future of the resource, the salmon industry commissioned William F. Thompson, the School's Director at the time, to investigate the factors influencing the dramatic decline of salmon in Alaska. Shortly thereafter, permanent field stations were constructed in Southwest Alaska to monitor Bristol Bay salmon, and the Fisheries Research Institute (now Alaska salmon Program) was born. This brought respect and renown to the growing School and to the University of Washington.

Boatswain's Locker

"SAFS played an important role in the change in fisheries management from unbridled use and expansion of fishing capacity to the scientific management of fisheries," said Rod Fujita, Director, Research and Development, Environmental Defense Fund. "There has been no greater or more important change in the history of fisheries, because scientific management is the key to our ability to sustain good yields from fisheries over many years, feeding billions of people and employing tens of millions."

"Strong leadership toward science-based management for Alaska and West Coast fisheries has been importantly influenced by principal people from SAFS," said Scott Goodman, Executive Director, bering sea Fisheries Research Foundation. "SAFS has a footprint in fisheries management that has been enduring."

Relationship with Fisheries

The proximity between the School of Fisheries and a major fishing industry port has also led to an interesting dynamic where both entities coexist, often to each other's mutual benefit, in contrast to the commercial fishing dynamics of the Northeast United States, where fishers are often skeptical of scientific input. Upon graduation many SAFS students are employed by the fishing industry, federal and state agencies, management, councils, and international commissions which assess and manage commercial and recreational fisheries. Many graduate research projects at SAFS often include science that also directly supports regional fishery management information needs.

"The huge amount of research and high levels of engagement of SAFS faculty in the assessment and management of salmon and groundfish fisheries of PNW has brought immeasurable benefit to these fisheries and the communities that depend on them," said Fujita.

"Key to SAFS success has been collaboration with industry in carrying out scientific research and a desire and ability to bring industry knowledge and perspectives forward when conducting research and interpreting results," said Karp. "As a result, even when science supports management measures that are not favored by industry, industry continues to support and respect SAFS science and SAFS scientists."

This relationship was especially crucial as key figures like Don Bevan (School Director, 1981-1985) and others advocated for the enactment and authorization of the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act despite strong opposition from much of the US fishing industry. Similarly the School found itself intertwined with the controversial United States v. Washington, commonly known as the Boldt Decision, in the 1970s. The Boldt Decision determined that 50% of the state of Washington's salmon (and other fish) resources be allocated to Native American tribes. As a result, the Tribes as co-managers needed to now have scientific advice in regulating fisheries and fisheries programs and School of Fisheries graduates would fill many of those new positions.

"Recent graduates went on to pursue jobs with the tribes since they [the tribes] were building their own programs from scratch and were very much the 'newbies on the block,'" said Gary Morishima, a UW graduate of the Center for Quantitative Science and Technical Advisor for Natural Resources to the President of the Quinault Indian Nation. The change brought about by the Boldt Decision as well as the newly installed Fisheries Advisory Board process is something he refers to as "sunshine biology;" opening up fisheries management decisions made by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to external scrutiny to determine scientific merit.

The quantitative pedigree of the program has long been a cornerstone of the School, beginning with Doug Chapman teaching the first statistics class in 1949. "Doug trained a cadre of graduate students who took up leadership positions at management agencies throughout the nation and established the School of Fisheries as the place to be for the development of new modeling approaches and statistical analysis," said André Punt, current Director of SAFS.

The establishment of the Center of Quantitative Science in 1968 which led to today's Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management program would also train many of those who now provide the scientific basis for management decisions. The methodologies developed by SAFS researchers and graduates underpin the analytical approaches that are used in establishing harvest levels in the surrounding regional fisheries and others worldwide.

Fishermen's News Celebrates 75 Years

For example, Morishima developed Coho Assessment Model (CAM) of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), a new spreadsheet-based fisheries simulation model that could be run on the emerging PC technology of the 1980s, no longer limiting advanced modeling to select personnel and expensive cumbersome mainframes. Debates transitioned from "how" to conduct analyses to focusing more on the actual objectives of management.

"Fisheries science and resource management are complicated; and SAFS has and will continue to play a key role, both as a legacy and into the future. As fisheries assessments move to be more multi-faceted and modeling based, the UW and SAFS are well positioned to influence strong, diversity-minded modelling expertise," said Scott Goodman.

The School's prolific list of faculty, staff, and students has also been responsible for the development and implementation of many additional technological advancements in the field such as streamer-lines towed behind commercial fishing vessels to reduce bycatch of birds, counting towers, various techniques for aging fish, and advances in bioacoustics.

In 2002, Ed Melvin of Washington Sea Grant research and SAFS affiliate faculty member and associate Kim Dietrich (MS, 2003) were at the forefront of a collaborative research effort that led to Alaska's longline fisheries adopting streamer lines. When towed behind fishing vessels streamer lines create a visual barrier that deters birds from trying to consume baited hooks. Recent studies have shown that since their adoption, streamer lines have reduced seabird bycatch in Alaska's longline fisheries by 77 to 90 percent, saving thousands of birds per year including hundreds of endangered short-tailed albatrosses.

"It's really to the industry's credit that they were fully engaged in the research and started implementing streamer lines two to three years before they became mandatory," Melvin said. "The fishermen owned the solution from start to finish."

Another early notable example of fisheries innovation at SAFS was a selective breeding program of rainbow trout developed by Lauren "Doc" Donaldson beginning in 1932. His work would eventually produce a rainbow trout of greater size, faster growth rate, and enhanced spawning capabilities for the food fish industry. Commonly referred to as "super trout," the Donaldson strain of rainbow trout has been introduced around the world and is a favorite of many sport anglers.


The people of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are intrinsically linked and dependent upon the surrounding marine ecosystems. Strong science and evidence-based conservation and management has always been essential for its continued sustainability. Since its inception, the University of Washington College of Fisheries and now the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, has played an indispensable role in developing the science to support this evidence-based decision making and in educating and training the next generation of scientists, managers, and policy makers.

"The [SAFS] legacy is that of an incubator of the ideas and research that helped the world turn the corner from unsustainable use of marine resources to the stewardship of them using scientific principles, "said Fujita. "SAFS continues to train the best stock assessment scientists in the world, who are creating new knowledge through cutting edge research and also applying that knowledge in practical ways by engaging with fishery stakeholders and managers."

As SAFS moves forward into the next 100 years it will continue to build and grow on its storied history and adapt to society's changing needs for evidence-based conservation and management. The need for broader and more integrative ecosystem-based approaches will increase as we as a society address global issues such as climate change and population growth. Interdisciplinary studies will demand greater participation from stakeholders and the public, and SAFS will continue to be seen in leadership role in this area.

Bud Burgner taking sockeye otoliths for age studies, Lake Aleknagik, Alaska, 1946. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.


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