Reflections on AFS 1870

Executive Director Column

Doug Austen | AFS Executive Director

Fully into reconstruction after the Civil war, the year 1870, the year in which the American Fish Culturists’ Association was first organized, opened up a decade of dramatic growth and change for America. The year was filled with bold new projects, major advances in society, and a continuing abuse of the lands and waters to feed industry and support a quickly growing country. This was the year that the Brooklyn Bridge started construction as a massive engineering challenge to connect the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York City and the transcontinental railroad was just completed. The last of the eight states of the Confederacy rejoined the Union and the nation finalized adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The insatiable appetites of the coke ovens and mills of Pittsburgh, timber harvest for railroads and construction, and clearing new farmland was having immense impact on the land and waters of a wounded but swiftly expanding country.

This was also a time where recognition of the importance of a healthy environment was gaining slow acceptance. Just 6 years earlier, George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, which emphasized the connectivity of the environment with the sustainability and quality of life. Only 5 years prior to the publication of Marsh’s book was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, establishing an entirely new perspective on humans and their connection with their past. Also, in response to the dramatic reductions seen in fisheries—the result of logging, massive erosion problems, unregulated commercial fish harvest, and direct habitat destruction—a number of states established fisheries commissioners; New Hampshire in 1865, then Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont in 1866. The United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries was created in 1871 to investigate, promote, and preserve the fisheries of the United States. This was the setting when the small group of fish culturists first met at the New York Poultry Society in Manhattan, New York, in late December 1870 to formally establish the American Fish Culturists’ Association.

It was clear that they had been planning this gathering for quite some time. Thompson (1970) noted that this was a natural follow‐up to the work of Dr. Theodatus Garlick and his treatise on artificial propagation and the burgeoning interest in commercial trout production such as the hatchery established by Seth Green. To engage in a discussion of common challenges and share ideas and solutions was an obvious solution and one that is still applicable today. Thus the group gathered in New York City and finalized their first constitution that included four goals: (1) promote the cause of fish culture, (2) gather and diffuse information bearing upon its practical success, (3) exchange friendly feeling in intercourse among the members of the association, and (4) unite and encourage the individual interests of fish culturists. It is important to note that this group was described as a gathering of “activists” and not just a group gathering solely for discussion. Two initial actions were identified. First, a letter was sent by Society Secretary Livingston Stone to the “High Joint Commission” in Washington, D.C. requesting action on fish passage obstructions on the St. Lawrence River preventing salmon from ascending tributaries. A second action was to recommend that the Association address the issue of multiple common names of fishes by publishing the various names in association with the Latin name and a description. This was essentially the initial proposal to publish the AFS book Names of Fishes.

The actual first official annual meeting was held on February 7–8, 1872 in Albany, New York. Again, pushing the activist approach, the gathered group heard a recommendation by Horatio Seymour to make efforts to introduce Chinese and other foreign fish into the U.S. as food fish. Another motion to recommend that the Legislatures of different states pass such laws as shall encourage and protect “pioneers in fish culture.” Clearly, there was no reticence about employing the new Association as a tool for impacting policy.

As the American Fisheries Society, the direct descendent of the American Fish Culturists’ Association, moves towards its 150th anniversary, the question of why this group gathered and what they hoped to accomplish will allow us to better understand who we are today. It will also provide a foundation for allowing us to look into the years ahead with a solid recognition that AFS has been able to address dramatically evolving science and societal needs that have and will continue to change in the years ahead.

Author’s note: It has been some time since I have penned a column for Fisheries but it seems right to get back into that rhythm as AFS moves towards its 150th in 2020. President‐elect Scott Bonar has established a theme for the 150th celebration of Learning from the past, meeting challenges of the present, advancing to a sustainable future. In the next several columns, I will delve into the history of AFS and explore how the past can help us understand the present and what it might suggest about the future of AFS and fisheries.