The famed California sardine fishery never would have collapsed and the Monterey canneries would not have gone out of business 70 years ago if only people had started listening to Frances Naomi Clark sooner.
One of the first women to earn worldwide acclaim as a marine scientist, Clark spent much of the first half of the 20th century on a boat leading a crew of fishery researchers. She often wore rubber boots, slacks, a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a beret. A typical day’s job was spent tagging as many sardines as possible. The team would take a fish, cut an incision into its belly and implant a small metal strip with a serial number on it, sew up the fish and toss it back into the water as quickly as possible.
Later, onshore and far away, the tags would reappear thanks to magnets installed in fish processing tanks at sardine canneries. By 1938, this survey technique allowed the California Department of Fish and Game, where Clark worked, to determine that sardines migrated as far south as Baja California and as far north as British Columbia.
Clark and her colleagues also had enough data to conclude that sardines were being overfished and that if the catch weren’t controlled somehow, the industry would cease to exist. In 1941, she wrote in the Monterey Peninsula Herald: “The plant operators tend to think the fisherman don’t look hard enough for large fish. The fishermen claim that the large sardines have gone to other waters… Alas. All that can be said is that the large sardines have gone into reduction pits and cans.”
Ed Ricketts is often credited for finding the answer to the question “Where did all the sardines go?” He said, “They’re in the cans.” But Clark had said it years earlier. She was for a while the only person in the Department of Fish and Game with a doctoral degree. From 1941 until her retirement in 1956, she ran the California State Fisheries Laboratory. Authorities in Peru and New Zealand enlisted her help when their fisheries began to deplete. Her research was published in more than 50 scientific papers covering a range of marine subjects including ocean currents, habitat loss and giant squid. The work she did laid the groundwork for protecting fisheries. Her research on the California Current System generated data that has been critical to our understanding of climate change.
Clark was famous in her day but has been nearly forgotten. Her memory is kept alive by an informal network of wonks and researchers studying California fishery history. One of them is Tim Thomas, who was a curator for the Monterey Maritime & History Museum. The inflation of Ricketts’ reputation irks him: “There’s a myth that he was out there trying to save the sardines,” Thomas says.
Another keeper of the flame for Clark’s place in history is Kathryn Davis, a professor of environmental studies at San Jose State, who wrote her dissertation about the Monterey sardine industry. She specializes in researching accomplished women scientists who “disappeared” after they died, and she says Clark is a prime example.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, American women were doing amazing things, especially in science,” Davis says. “They were doing unusual things and were very good at it – they were world-famous. Clark, like the rest of them, was disappeared because she wasn’t a man.
“You can find 100 biographies of male scientists because people keep writing about them. I am fighting the idea that it was only men who were important to science.”
As other examples, Davis points to botanist Ynes Mexia, who is the subject of a biography that Davis is writing, and Harriet Chalmers Adams, a naturalist who was a popular figure on National Geographic’s speaker circuit.
Clark arrived at the California coast by way of the Nebraska prairies, where she was born and raised. When Clark was about 16, her farmer parents moved the family to San Jose. In 1918, she graduated from Stanford with an associate’s degree in zoology. She was soon hired as a secretary and librarian.
Eventually, she did break into her field, but even after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Clark faced barriers of discrimination. Joining the California Department of Fish and Game in 1926, she was its most highly educated employee. Still, the department was “reluctant to an administrative post because it felt that men would not tolerate a woman supervisor,” according to a 1994 article in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.
As she established her career, her reputation attracted a stream of male trainees. She called them “my boys” and they referred to her as “Clarkey.” When she was in her 80s, Clark was asked about sexism in her field. “My personal experience is not that people didn’t want to employ women,” Clark responded. “They just never thought of doing so.”