A Brief Historical Account

A collection of fishes has been accumulating in the course of research and teaching at the University of Washington since the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (originally the College of Fisheries, and then the School of Fisheries) was organized in 1919. Although some of the material is dated as early as 1843, serious collecting did not begin until 1928. About one quarter of the collection was obtained during the tenure of Leonard P. Schultz, between 1930 and 1936. Dr. Schultz taught ichthyology, made numerous collections in the Pacific Northwest, described a number of new forms, and began major revisionary studies of many groups of fishes common to this region.

After Leonard Schultz left the University of Washington in 1936, responsibility for the collection fell to Arthur D. Welander who took over the courses in ichthyology that had been started by Schultz. Growth of the Fish Collection, however, was restricted by the limited space occupied by the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences until 1949.

In 1949, a new building, the Fisheries Center, constructed by the University of Washington to house the School, provided approximately 2,540 square feet of floor space for the collection, plus an adjoining cataloging and preparation room. This additional space permitted expansion of the collection under the direction of Dr. Welander. The University provided funds for shelving, preservatives, and containers, as well as suport for graduate assistants to carry on the tasks of curating and cataloging new material and periodically checking the level of preservative in old jars. During the years 1948 to 1959, Albert W. Herre was engaged by the University as Acting Curator of Fishes, especially to work on mid-Pacific and Philippine collections. In the meantime, Dr. Welander became involved with the work of the Laboratory of Radiation Biology, and while this required some systematic work, his primary interests came to lie in the field of effects of radiation on the early development of fishes.

After Dr. Herre retired from his work at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences in 1959 due to illness, the collection remained more or less idle until the fall of 1963 when J. D. McPhail was appointed Assistant Professor and Curator of Fishes. At that time the collection was badly disorganized after having been moved, two years before, from its original location on the first floor of the Fisheries Center to the basement. Dr. McPhail completely reorganized the collection and substantially added material until his resignation from the University in 1966.

After the resignation of McPhail, and seeing no one in the immediate future who could accept the responsibility for their care, the type specimens of the collection, 13 holotypes and 112 paratypes, representing 48 nominal species, were transferred in September of 1966 to the collection of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D. C. Although Dr. Welander continued to supervise the maintenance of the collection by graduate students paid by the University of Washington, no trained ichthyologists actively worked with the collection from 1966 to 1978.

In September of 1978, upon the retirement of Dr. Welander, Theodore W. Pietsch was appointed to the faculty of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences as Assistant Professor and Curator of Fishes. Shortly thereafter, with the help of a one-year grant (1979-1980) from the Biological Research Resources Program of the National Science Foundation, as well as strong support from the School and the University, the entire collection was cleaned, realcoholed, and reorganized. In addition, all backlog material was incorporated into the main collection, and serious drainage and ventilation problems were corrected. However, efforts to to relabel and recatalog the collection, initiated in 1981 subsequent to termination of NSF support, were interrupted by severe budgetary cutbacks placed on the University by the State of Washington. The collection received only minimal financial support for the next several years.

The situation improved dramatically beginning in 1988 when a three-year NSF collection facilities grant was awarded to Dr. Pietsch to coincide with the University's construction of a new fisheries building, "Fisheries Teaching and Research" (FTR). The NSF funds made possible the hiring of the collection's first collection manager, Alexandra M. Snyder, in September 1988, while funds from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences provided for a permanent graduate research assistantship in the collection. By the time the FTR building was occupied in May 1990, conversion of all lots from isopropanol preservative to ethanol, and replacement of cardboard-lined metal caps to polyethylene-lined polypropylene caps, had nearly been completed. Excellent progress had also been made towards recataloging and computerizing the collection.

The new facility was christened on 23 May 1990 with a catered "open house" hosted by Dr. Pietsch, which was attended by 174 faculty, staff, and students, all of whom were very favorably pleased with what they saw. FTR provides approximately 3400 square feet of floor space to house the fish collection, including adequate space for specimen preparation, to accomodate visitors, and for storage of supplies, collecting gear, and archives that document the collection. There is also office space for the collection manager and four graduate students, plus an additional room that houses a small ichthyological library and computer workstations. The entire facility is fire-protected by a built-in sprinkler system, spark-proof lighting, and fire resistant walls. The collection itself can be made entirely secure behind locked doors in total darkness, and the temperature is maintained at a nearly constant temperature of 19 C. A movable "Spacesaver" compactor storage system provides 5285 linear feet of shelf space for the collection--nearly twice that provided in the old building and sufficient for decades of expansion.

By September 1991, when NSF collection support expired, essentially all material had been converted to ethanol preservative, all metal lids had been replaced, large specimens had been moved into new stainless steel tanks, most backlog material had been cataloged, and over 14,500 lots had been entered into the collection's database management system. After termination of NSF support, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences demonstrated a strong commitment to the collection by providing permanent salary support for the collection manager position.

In 1992, thanks once again to NSF, the College of Ocean and Fishery Science, and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, a three-year project was begun to establish an archival center for Northeast Pacific fish eggs and larvae at the Fish Collection. The goals of this project included: 1) consolidate several regional collections of Northeast Pacific and Bering Sea fish eggs and larvae for permanent archival storage at the Fish Collection; 2) fully curate all lots; 3) catalog and computerize the collection; and 4) make the collection freely available to researchers. Michael W. Brogan was hired in September of 1992 as a postdoctoral research associate to oversee the project, which also included funds for graduate and undergraduate assistants. By September of 1995 when the original funds expired, nearly 55,000 lots of eggs and larvae had been transferred from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, International Pacific Halibut Commision, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, and Vancouver Public Aquarium. Fluid preservatives were changed as required (3% buffered formalin for eggs, 70% ethanol for larvae), vial closures were upgraded to Poly-Seal caps, and all lots were arranged in air-tight, light-proof cabinets. Approximately 8,000 lots of larvae had been cataloged, entered in the collection's database management system, and bar-coded to work with a new loan invoice program written by Dr. Brogan. The data for an additional 25,000 lots transferred to the Fish Collection had been computerized at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, but the data files had not yet been transferred to the Fish Collection before termination of funding.

Another significant change in the collection ocurred in November of 1992 when the collection manager, Alexandra Snyder, left the University of Washington to take a new position at the University of New Mexico. The collection was without a a full-time collection manager until September of 1993, when Brian K. Urbain, then at the American Museum of Natural History, accepted an offer to fill the position. During the interim period, collection management duties were assumed by Mary Lonzarich, then a graduate student of Dr. Pietsch, and Michael Brogan, postdoctoral research associate.

With the arrival of Mr. Urbain, a concerted effort was made to catalog and computerize the large volume of backlogged material that had been accumulating for several years. The majority of these specimens were received from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (National Marine Fisheries Service) as a result of interactions between Dr. Pietsch and the agency over the previous 15 years. Several fisheries undergraduates were hired to aid in this project and, within two years, nearly 6,300 catalog numbers had been added--an increase of over 25%. The efforts of Kirt M. Hughes (then an undergraduate) during this period are especially noteworthy. He single-handedly curated, cataloged, and organized the collection's 500 or so large (2, 3, and 5 gallon) glass-jarred lots.

A change in computer database management practices took place in late 1993 when Mr. Urbain switched from "dBase" (DOS) database software to "Paradox" (Windows) and implemented a set of data-entry standards and structural changes to the database in an effort to ensure greater data consistency and accuracy. With the database successfully converted from one format to the other in early 1994, attention was focused on editing the existing data and continuing the computerization of the collection's catalogued lots. Several undergraduates, both hired and volunteered, made significant contributions to these efforts.

In an attempt to expand the educational potential of the collection's resources beyond the University community, the Fish Collection established, in late 1995, an Elementary Outreach Program. Created by Mr. Urbain, the program provides tours of our facilities for elementary school children, and engages them in "hands-on" workshops concerning fish diversity. The program has been expanded to include grades 3-12, and is extremely popular with the public. Thousands of children from local school districts and outlying counties have participated to date.

The UW Fish Collection was involved in The International Kuril Island Project (IKIP), and The International Sakhalin Island Project (ISIP), a collaboration of American, Russian, and Japanese scientists, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation beginning in 1994, to survey the plants, insects, spiders, freshwater and terrestrial mollusks, freshwater fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of the Kuril Archipelago and Sakhalin Island. The collection has benefited from IKIP and ISIP in several ways, including the addition of a large number of lots of freshwater fishes from the poorly known areas of the Kuril Archipelago and Sakhalin Island, through the purchase of computers and increased database activities, and through partial funding for the establishment of our internet server.

"Integration and Dissemination of Ichthyoplankton Databases” was a one-year project funded by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) through the Washington Sea Grant Program, beginning in September 1995. With this funding, we continued the transfer of fish eggs and larvae from the AFSC, begun in 1992 with support from NSF, and made the associated database available to researchers on the internet. Currently about 80,000 lots of eggs and larvae have been cataloged and are searchable online.

The Fish Collection currently receives funding from NMFS to archive specimens in both the Adult and Early Life History collections, and to train observers for the North Pacific Groundfish fleet. Three graduate students and various hourly undergraduate positions are supported through these contracts.

We officially joined the Burke Museum in July of 2007. Still physically located in and supported by the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, this new relationship with the Burke ensures that all of the main collections housed on the UW campus are now available through Washington State’s official museum of natural history and culture.