Miller Freeman- A NOAA Ship and Her Namesake

The NOAA ship Miller Freeman is at the end of her line, as she is being scrapped in Washington State. This research vessel sailed from the Bering Sea to Southern California collecting fisheries data for decades, creating a voluminous record of fish population statistics and other oceanographic information, and even testing out trawl gear. But she isn’t just noteworthy due to her contributions to fisheries science. She frequented several Alaskan ports of call (she brought several of my friends and acquaintances to Kodiak for the first time) and at different points in her career was home ported in Seattle and Newport. The Miller Freeman was a ship that many people and many ports claimed as their own.

Miller Freeman, image courtesy NOAA.

Miller Freeman, image courtesy NOAA.

The vessel was named for an influential and controversial figure in fisheries history. Miller Freeman (1875-1955) was editor and publisher of Pacific Fisherman. Pacific Fisherman was a monthly news magazine that served as the preeminent voice of the Pacific seafood industry from 1903 until 1966, when National Fisherman purchased the publication. Freeman was never a fisherman himself, but from his Seattle headquarters he became a key player in the formulation of fisheries policy and principal advocate for a range of seafood industry issues. He is often credited for pressuring the University of Washington to found a fisheries program of study, which is now known as the John Cobb School of Fisheries, perhaps not coincidentally named for another editor of Pacific Fisherman. Freeman served on the International Halibut Commission (the precursor to the IPHC) and was very active in international negotiations, always eager to strengthen the position of the US in regards to Pacific fishing rights. His passion for expanding US hegemony in the Pacific fisheries had a decisively racist tenor, evident not only in his editorials, but in the fact he was a founder of the Anti-Japanese League in Washington State.

Yet it was for his advocacy of scientific research and science-driven management that NOAA determined to name their newest research vessel in memory of the editor. The Miller Freeman was designed by Philip F. Spaulding, constructed by the American Shipbuilding Co., and launched in 1967. This 215 ft Pacific trawler had a fuel capacity of over 150,000 gallons, meaning her cruise range was 13,000 miles. And cruise she did. With up to eleven scientists, a crew of up to 27, and 7 members of the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corps, the Miller Freeman towed trawl gear along an extensive grid around the Gulf of Alaska and each year did a similar groundfish trawl survey along the upper continental shelf of California, Oregon, and Washington. The ship also conducted hydroacoustic surveys through the Shelikof Strait, around the Alaska Peninsula and into the Bering Sea. It was due to the retractable centerboard of the ship that she was able to conduct high quality acoustical surveys, since the equipment could be moved away from the hull and the reverberated noise that emanated from it.

Perhaps to the postmortem chagrin of the ship’s namesake, the ship also cooperated with scientists from Russia, China, Poland, South Korea and yes, Japan, in multi-lateral research programs to support international management of Bering Sea fisheries.

She was also one of the largest research trawlers in the nation. In short, she was a mean, multi-disciplinary machine, capable of conducting oceanographic and fisheries research in some of the roughest waters on the planet. The Miller Freeman was decommissioned in 2013 and sold later that year. Just as Miller Freeman lives on in old copies of Pacific Fisherman (the earliest of which are digitized and available through the University of Washington’s Special Collection website) the Miller Freeman’s legacy is assured in the quality and quantity of groundfish data gathered over the years and the cadre of crew, scientists, and NOAA officers who called her home. Thanks for your service, old friend. 

This article was originally published in Pacific Fishing.