A part of NW fishing science could be lost

Volunteers are hoping to save the research vessel John N. Cobb, which helped transform fisheries science -- and witnessed a startling moment in U.S.-Russian relations.
Crosscut archive image.

John N. Cobb while still in service at Glacier Bay, Alaska

Volunteers are hoping to save the research vessel John N. Cobb, which helped transform fisheries science -- and witnessed a startling moment in U.S.-Russian relations.

On Feb. 26, 1962, Charles R. “Bob” Hitz volunteered for his first assignment as chief scientist aboard the John N. Cobb, a 93-foot wooden-hulled research vessel operated by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. He was 29 years old and had worked for the bureau two years. Departing Seattle, he and nearly a dozen other crew and scientists motored out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the mouth of the Columbia River to take samples of fish for the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC wanted to know whether fish in the Pacific Ocean had picked up radioactive material from the Hanford nuclear plants hundreds of miles upriver.

In the dead of winter, when storms roared in from the southwest, the Cobb crossed the treacherous Columbia River Bar for the safety of Astoria. Hitz recalls the Cobb’s warmth on those freezing days. “I can remember lying in the aft lower bunk in the scientific state room and hearing the wind whistling in the rigging even over the generator running below decks, “ he says, “and thanking God that we were [where] we were, not outside of the bar where the environment was much different.”

Hitz landed samples of fish from different depths, and he returned with the Cobb to Seattle four weeks later. He handed the fish samples to a University of Washington lab. Researchers found radioactive contamination from Hanford, but the expected radiation doses to humans who consumed the fish were “well within acceptable limits.”

More than a half-century after that trip, Bob Hitz, now 80 and living in Stanwood, is back with the John N. Cobb in a different capacity, as a volunteer. Retired from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, he’s eager to share tales of the historic boat, which span the transformation of fisheries science from support for the fishing industry to an effort to understand the lives of fish within the larger context of the ocean environment, including the impact of climate change. Hitz and other retired and working scientists have started an informal, but determined effort to preserve the Cobb as an important artifact of Pacific Northwest maritime history and an indispensible tool of ocean research.

As with many other historic boats, however, preservationists are facing an expensive, uphill battle. Though the hull is in good condition for a wooden boat built in 1950, the diesel engine is completely shot with a broken crankshaft. The owner, Seattle Central Community College, estimates repair costs at $800,000. “We don’t have the resources to repower it,” says college spokesman David Sandler. Without a working engine, the boat is more or less permanently tied up at the Ballard home of the Seattle Maritime Academy, which is a department of the college. Sandler says construction at the academy over the next two years will restrict public access to the boat, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. “We are exploring other options, which may include moving the Cobb to a third party that would agree to maintain it in a static format and provide access to the public,” Sandler says. The “options” also include selling the Cobb.

The roots of the John N. Cobb’s work go back to the 1940s, especially after the collapse of Alaska salmon runs led fishermen to ask scientists to help save their livelihoods. At first, men with notebooks boarded fishing boats to work alongside fishermen, but the government decided it needed a vessel purpose-built for fisheries research. The Bureau of Fisheries, later folded into NOAA, ordered a craft based on the purse seiner, a common type of fishing boat.

Named for the founder of the UW’s College of Fisheries, the Cobb was launched at a Tacoma shipyard, and she could fish with almost any kind of gear. In addition to seines, a floating net that is tied off at the bottom into a kind of bag, the vessel could also work as a trawler and a long-liner. And instead of a hold for caught fish, the Cobb featured labs and state rooms for scientists. “It’s an important transition for fisheries science on the West Coast,” says Carmel Finley, a historian of science at Oregon State University. “These [ships] were pioneering new ways of researching the offshore world.” Even though the Cobb doesn’t sail these days, students at Seattle Maritime Academy are still going aboard to study different rig configurations and their uses at sea.

Most of the Cobb’s early work focused on “exploratory fishing,” which is a little like prospecting for precious metals on land. Until the 1950s, most fishermen relied on local lore and knowledge passed from experienced elders to young people. But scientists on the Cobb, including Hitz, went looking for undiscovered stocks of fish, such as his specialty, the rockfish. Some of the Cobb’s surveys of bottom fish and shellfish from the 1950s and early 1960s still provide baseline data for current environmental studies. The Cobb also conducted research into factors that affect the populations of specific groups of salmon.

Though used solely as a research vessel, the Cobb had one important brush with the Cold War. On the morning of Sept. 20, 1966, the crew woke up to a sight Hitz called “unbelievable.” Barely three miles off Cape Elizabeth on the Washington Coast, at least 50 Russian ships were taking and processing hake, now called Pacific whiting. Some of the ships were 280 feet long. “As the sun rose, the red hammer and sickle on the stacks seemed to glow from the reflection [of the morning sun],” Hitz recalls. The prospect of Soviet fleets taking fish so close to American shores led Congress to pass laws that extended the U.S. territorial limit to 12 miles from three miles and created an “economic exclusion zone” extending 200 nautical miles into the Pacific.

After conducting research on the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Cobb was assigned to NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau, Alaska. Five months before its scheduled retirement in 2008, the crankshaft broke in its original 1931-design Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine, ending its career. Surplused and sold to the Seattle Maritime Academy, the boat was towed to Lake Union Park last summer for temporary display. Volunteers, including Hitz, welcomed visitors and organized displays of photos from her career.

Though the boat’s future is unclear, and the total costs of restoration unknown, Hitz and other preservationists hope to get started on a long-term preservation plan this winter. They say John N. Cobb could become a platform for teaching fisheries science to kids and young people. “It’s been around a long time and it’s really proven itself,” Hitz says.


Enjoyed this story? You might also like the Crosscut series on Northwest fisheries:

"Thanks for All the Fish."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors