In 1889, the Bishop Museum received its first collection of fishes, consisting of 27 specimens taken by the U.S. Fish Commission’s vessel Albatross off the west coast of North America. The collection grew steadily under Alvin Seale, who worked in the capacity of Collector for the Museum from 1899 to 1903. He collected fishes from throughout the Pacific, including Micronesia, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and the Solomons Islands. Beginning in 1901, John W. Thompson, (who held the position of Preparator at the Museum from 1898 to 1927), deposited many Hawaiian fishes in the Museum’s collection. In addition to preserved specimens, he made plaster casts of about 600 species of fishes, including one representing the only remaining vestige a the type specimen. In 1922, Henry W. Fowler of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia came to Honolulu as a Bishop Museum Fellow for four months to commence study of the fishes of Oceania. Fowler described many new species from Hawai’i, and published on the fishes of Guam, Samoa, Tahiti Line Islands, and Hawaii in the Bishop Museum collection, culminating in the publication of The Fishes of Oceania and several supplements.

Little material was added to the Ichthyology collection between 1930 and 1965, but in late 1965, John E. Randall accepted a one-fourth time position as Ichthyologist at Bishop Museum. At the time, the collection catalog contained 5,556 entries. Almost all the jars of the fish collection contained more than one lot, each wrapped separately in cheesecloth. By 1970 each lot had been placed in a separate jar and the 70% ethanol replaced with 55% isopropanol (except for the types, which were retained in 70% ethanol). During this five-year period, Randall and his associates undertook an extensive program of collecting expeditions that more than doubled the size of the fish collection. Included among these expeditions, the Easter Island material, obtained with Gerald R. Allen in 1969 with support of the National Geographic Society, is the most extensive from this remote island, which is well known for its endemic marine biota. In 1970, a 6-month expedition to southeast Oceania on the schooner Westward was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society to Randall. Fishes were collected at 26 different islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago, Pitcairn Group, Rapa and the Austral Islands, Cook Islands, Society Islands, the Marquesas. For some of these islands (e.g., Rapa and the Pitcairn Group) these represented the first significant collections made at these localities.

From 1970 onwards, the collection has grown at an unprecedented rate, predominantly as a result of the wide-ranging and intensive collection efforts of Randall and his associates throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. During his five decades with Bishop Museum, Randall led nearly 180 collecting expeditions to over seventy localities throughout the world. Most of these expeditions were concentrated within the Indo-Pacific region, and focused on coral-reef fishes, with a special emphasis on species inhabiting outer reef environments at depths of 100-200 feet (30-60 m).

Among the most important fish collections received in recent years are those made by Associate Zoologist Richard L. Pyle and colleagues, who have pioneered the use of advanced diving technologies to survey unexplored coral-reef habitats at depths beyond that which can be safely accessed using conventional SCUBA gear. These collections, which focus on coral reefs at depths of 165–500 feet (50–150 meters) – often referred to as “Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems”, or the coral-reef “Twilight Zone” – have revealed a tremendous wealth of undiscovered biodiversity. This research has garnered broad public interest, and has been featured in dozens of natural history documentaries broadcast on the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, and the BBC, as well as the IMAX® feature film, Coral Reef Adventure.

Collection activity in the 21st Century remains vigorous, with emphasis on discovering new records and new species in poorly-explored areas of the world, yielding significant additions to the collection.