Fishing Through History – Bell Shimada, a man, a seamount, a boat


BELL’S SHIP — The FSV Bell M. Shimada at its commissioning ceremony last August.

The fisheries survey vessel (FSV) Bell M. Shimada, a research fishing vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was commissioned on Aug. 25. The ship, with all its scientific equipment and maneuvering capabilities, is one of the most technologically advanced ships out at sea today.

The ship, despite only being in the water for less than two years, has a long history that reaches as far back as World War II.

Julie Shimada, daughter of Bell Masayuki Shimada, gave a speech during the ship’s commission ceremony in Seattle in which she told the crowd, “Our ship has come in.”

“I was six months old and my brother Allen was three years old when my father died. Having this ship named for him has brought him back to us,” she said. “We are especially happy to be here in Seattle. Our father was born here, he fished here, he went to school here, and he is buried here. In a sense this is a family reunion.”

Allen currently works for the NOAA as a fishery biologist as his father had, in NOAA’s Fleet Allocation Council in Silver Spring, Md.

Bell M. Shimada photo courtesy of NOAA

A Nisei fisheries biologist

Bell Masayuki Shimada, a Nisei fishery biologist born in Seattle, led a short but fruitful career. After high school, he enrolled in the University of Washington’s School of Fisheries in 1939, but his studies were cut short in April 1942, when he was incarcerated for being of Japanese descent. He left the camps after enlisting, and worked in Tokyo during the occupation.

After being discharged from the military in 1946, he remained in Japan to work as a fishery biologist. There he was instrumental in shaping the fishing policies in Japan, as well as its whaling practices.

He returned to the United States to continue his education and career. He finished his undergraduate work, and later completed his masters in science for fisheries in 1948. He went on to work for the Bureau of Fisheries, a predecessor to what is now the National Marine Fisheries Service in NOAA, to continue researching in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1952, while working on a doctorate, Shimada left the Bureau of Fisheries and joined the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission in La Jolla, Calif. There, he left his mark as a brilliant tuna researcher. After finishing his doctorate in 1956, he quickly climbed the ladder of success within the nonprofit organization.

His life, however, came to an end in 1958 when his plane crashed in Mexico while en route to meeting up with other researchers to study ocean currents.

His career was only 12 years in length, but it left a very large mark in his realm of research. The work he did merited the naming of a seamount in his memory.

His name returned into the public eye nearly half a century later, when a group of high school students rediscovered his past and entered his name into a contest.

The kids who navigated the future

Marina, a city located just eight miles west of Salinas, Calif., opened its first high school, Marina High, in the fall of 2006. The city has a diverse ethnic background, mostly due to the former military base the city supported.

“I’ve heard that we’re the seventh most diverse city in the United States,” said Don Livermore, the first principal of Marina High School.

Marina High School reflected this diverse background, but they were unified under a nautical-themed school. The school promoted ocean and habitat conservation and worked together with local marine science centers such as the Moss Landing Marine Lab and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as NOAA.

The contest, however, was not something Livermore thought they would win.

“I had a neighbor, and he worked for NOAA. He came over one day and told me about a ship-naming contest they were doing, and they asked if we would be interested,” he said. “The contest really fit our school motto, ‘navigating the future,’ and I thought it would be good to try.”

Livermore asked his student body of 150 students if any of them were interested. The school’s only science teacher, Myah Gunn, came up with five freshmen interested in taking up the project.

Livermore, Gunn, and the five high school freshmen started looking through the names of various scientists NOAA had supplied them, as well as those Livermore’s neighbor gave him.

“We had a real diverse group of kids. I think one was Cherokee Indian, another was Vietnamese, a Korean, a Hispanic kid, and Filipino.”

The group of freshmen made their case for Bell Shimada to Livermore.  “There’s a lot of ships named after politicians, career admirals, a lot of white, Anglo-Saxon names,” said Livermore. “They wanted to choose a name of someone that contributed research as a scientist and also represents other cultures. They wanted someone that shows what this culture contributed to us.”

The students, however, figured that their choice was not the obvious one, and wondered if they should choose someone else with better odds of winning.

Livermore sat them down and asked them, “You want to be influenced by what other people think, or go with what you want?”

Above all, he was just happy his students went and did the research to find a candidate he and his students think was the best choice.

“I really didn’t think we’d win at all, but then in February, I get word that we’re in the running for the top 17 out of the 80 schools that entered, so I bought them lunch. Then I hear we made the top seven, so I had to buy them dinner,” Livermore said laughing. “By the time we were told we were in the top three, we had to go back and read what we wrote, because we couldn’t believe what was going on.”

As Livermore returned from summer break, he was told his students had won the contest. “I actually heard that one of my students met a student from one of the other three schools that were in the running, and they apparently were asking themselves ‘now why didn’t we think of him?’ when they found out we won.”

NOAA was happy to congratulate Marina High and came out to Marina to congratulate them personally. “We even had the admiral come out here. NOAA saw how happy the kids were.”

And out to sea

A month after its commission, the FSV Bell M. Shimada entered the port of San Francisco to hold an open house. The crew and the scientists who will work on the ship came out to show off the capabilities of the ship to local scientists and community members, such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the National Japanese American Historical Society.

“It’s a beautiful ship, one of the best I’ve been on,” said Dr. Roger Hewitt, who represented NOAA’s various labs located on the West Coast. This sentiment was agreed on by all the other scientists on board.

“The Bell M. Shimada is the fourth ship of its class,” said the Executive Officer Martin Miller. “That’s a good thing because the engineers had a chance to work out all the kinks from the first three ships before working on this one.”

The ship is equipped to monitor and record a whole slew of data simultaneously and is capable of researching everything from fish and bird immigration patterns to atmospheric and oceanic chemistry. This one-stop shop for researching the health of the Pacific Coast’s ecosystem is what scientists hope will be a vital asset in maintaining today’s fragile aquatic environment.

The Shimada is also a surprisingly quiet ship, which uses submarine propeller technology to run extremely quietly despite its 3,000 HP diesel electric engine. The ship is highly maneuverable, and capable of staying in one place in rough seas while scientists conduct research.

The FSV Bell M. Shimada is set to start its research starting January of next year.

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