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Ken Hendricks
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Pretty good deal, don't you think? That same year, before the transfer of ownership was complete, an industry began which would explode in size and scope to eventually feed the world.
Cod was the first fish commercially harvested in Alaska. Ships sailed from San Francisco and fished the waters off the Alaskan Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. Several companies established shore fishing stations. The cod was salted to preserve it and cod-liver oil was extracted.
Canning cod was unsuccessful. The American public did not like the taste. Although commercial cod fishing continued in Alaska, salmon replaced cod in importance because the American public preferred the taste of canned salmon. Several salmon salteries operated before salmon canneries opened in 1878.
The introduction of the canning process sparked development of Alaska's large salmon fisheries. By 1900, over 85 percent of the fish annually caught in Alaska waters were salmon. By the end of the nineteenth century, 42 salmon canneries operated in Alaska. In 1878, Alaska canneries packed 8,000 cases of salmon; in 1900, they packed 1.5 million cases.
Western Alaskan waters had more sockeye salmon, the preferred species for canning. It cost a great deal more, however, to establish and operate a cannery in Western Alaska. The distances from markets and suppliers at Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco were greater. Almost all labor had to be imported. Larger companies owned most of the canneries in Western Alaska. 
By 1917, 118 canneries operated in Alaska. That year they packed more than half of the world's supply of salmon, nearly six million cases valued at $46 million. Much earlier, however, production had outdistanced demand. Alaska cannery owners organized an association as early as 1891 to sell unsold cases of salmon. 

From the beginning, non-residents dominated the salmon fishing and canning industry in Alaska. Originally, the owners were from San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. More recently, foreign interests, particularly the Japanese, have purchased and operated canneries in Alaska.
Many Alaskans resented non-residents exploiting Alaska's salmon resources. Residents felt they and the territory benefited little. When Alaska received territorial status in 1912, control of its fisheries remained with the federal government although the territory was given authority to tax the industry.

Once caught, salmon spoiled quickly. For that reason, canneries were usually built near river mouths where salmon schooled before ascending the stream to spawn. Their salmon were caught in barricades placed across the mouths of streams. Although efficient, barricades did not allow many salmon to escape upstream to spawn. Congress outlawed barricades in 1889.

Fish traps were also used. Huge mobile floating traps were introduced in 1907. Alaskans outlawed fish traps in 1959. Many expected this action to help small Alaska fishing operators. Large cannery owners would have to pay more for fish caught from boats. The move also would help maintain the salmon runs.

Floating canneries, where salmon were processed aboard ship, were introduced in Alaska in the 1880s. By the 1920s, they were popular in Southeast and Southwest Alaska. Smaller operators used gill nets or drag seines. The gill net entangled fish after its head and gills passed through a net square. The nets were anchored from shore or let out from a boat.

Drag seines were nets pulled across a salmon run. During the 1960s, the fishing industry changed as freezing fish and flying fresh seafood to markets became possible. By 1982, only 51 percent of the salmon caught in Alaska waters was canned. Although a number of canneries closed, Alaska's fishing industry rapidly expanded.

Commercial companies fished in Alaska waters with short-sighted aggressiveness. As early as 1899, Alaska Natives appealed to the government to protect the salmon for those who relied on it for food. They also asked for the return of some of their fishing sites that cannery operators had occupied.

In 1900, Congress responded to the appeals by requiring that anyone engaged in commercial salmon fishing in Alaska establish a hatchery for sockeye salmon, but they failed to provide adequate funding for enforcement.

During the 1920s, the emphasis in regulating the salmon fishery shifted from establishing hatcheries to limiting the length of the fishing season and the number of fish that could be caught with different types of gear. 

In 1903, Alaska cannery owners began to introduce salmon-butchering machines. These machines replaced 15 to 30 cannery line workers. They also increased the rate of production. With the help of an operator, a machine cut off the head, tail, and fins of a fish; split it down the belly; removed the entrails; and cleaned the fish. Although the machines changed the industry, thousands of seasonal cannery workers were still needed in the Alaska salmon canning industry.

 Alaskan waters were also home to halibut, herring, shrimp, and crab. As early as 1878, small herring operations caught and processed around 30,000 pounds of herring valued at $900. Japanese began commercial crab fishing in Alaskan waters during the 1880s. Several boats annually caught crab off the Aleutian and Kodiak islands. Only after World War II did Americans begin to fish commercially for crab in Alaskan waters.

Commercial fishing for halibut began in the 1890s. Before cold storage plants, a major difficulty was getting the fish to market before it spoiled. Alaska's glaciers provided a solution. Halibut were packed in wood boxes and glacial ice. By the early 1900s, halibut accounted for 10 percent of the fish caught in Southeast Alaskan waters

Commercial fishing in Alaskan waters continued to decline in the early 1940s because of World War II. Following the war, new markets for Alaska's seafood opened. Shrimp processing plants opened. Crab fishing boomed. In 1980, over 75 million pounds of crab were caught in Alaskan waters.

In 1982, a record-breaking 330 vessels fished for crab at Kodiak and 118 vessels fished for crab in the Bering Sea. Markets for previously unexploited ground or bottom fish, such as flounder, were discovered.

With statehood in 1959, Alaska received the authority to manage its fisheries. A Department of Fish and Game, an outgrowth of the Department of Fisheries created by the territorial legislature in 1949, was charged to set annual catch limits, to determine types of gear that would be permitted, and to define when and where fishing could take place. 

During the 1960s, the fishing industry changed as freezing fish and flying fresh seafood to markets became possible. By 1982, only 51 percent of the salmon caught in Alaska waters was canned. Although a number of canneries closed, Alaska's fishing industry rapidly expanded.

Then in 1967, and again in 1974, the salmon runs in Bristol Bay were so small that both years the region was declared a disaster area. As they had in the 1930s, Alaskans blamed over-fishing and mismanagement.

Alaskans felt that limiting the salmon fishing season and restricting types of gear were inadequate measures to preserve the fisheries. In 1972, they voted to amend the state constitution to give the state the power to limit the number of commercial fishers. The state restricted the number of licenses it would issue for commercial salmon fishing.

After years of dominating Alaska industry, during the first half of the 1980s, the seafood industry ranked second behind the petroleum industry. It remained an important source of income for the state and individuals.

In 1981, Alaska's fishing industry produced more than one billion pounds of products. Forty percent of the world's salmon catch was in Alaskan waters during the first years of the 1980s. The fishing industry provided around 44,000 jobs in Alaska. 

The Alaskan fishing industry has had issues in the past with overfishing, resulting in periodic low-yield fisheries. But through diligent research and legislation, the State of Alaska has prospered from lessons learned, and today Alaska's fisheries are healthy, abundant and highly sustainable. Alaska commercial fishing continues to feed the world with nutritious, delicious, high-quality seafood.


Alaska Historical Society

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