Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 9:

The Halibut and Cod Fisheries

The waters off the Alaska coast have been attracting commercial cod and halibut fishers for more than a century. In 1884, not long after the first salmon cannery commenced operations, San Francisco-based schooners began to exploit Alaska's cod banks. Two areas were visited: the southeastern Bering Sea and "the southern shore of Alaska" (probably the Gulf of Alaska). In the years that followed, cod boats returned to these areas to an increasing degree. The cod harvest continued to increase until about 1915. [78] The cod banks, however, were miles offshore. The schooners, in most cases, had little or no contact with Alaskans and made few if any port calls.

Another bottomfish, the Pacific halibut, was first harvested in 1888 off the Washington coast. At first, vessels remained close to Puget Sound. Industry development, moreover, proceeded slowly; as late as 1900, the total West Coast harvest was less than 10 million pounds. (From 1930 to 1970, by contrast, the west coast harvest varied from 44 million to 75 million pounds.) Then, in the late 1890s, some of the Seattle-based vessels began fishing the waters of Southeastern Alaska each fall. At first, growth was slow because of the difficulties in getting ice, the relatively high transportation costs, and the long distance to the large volume markets in the East. Soon after the turn of the century, however, Seattle began to assume significance as a halibut center, largely based on the increasing supply of Alaska halibut. [79]

During the new century's first decade, the heightened demand for fresh fish caused the Pacific halibut fleet to move northward in search of new fishing grounds. Fisheries interests recognized that halibut and cod thrived on many of the same banks. A chart issued in 1905 of the North Pacific fishing banks noted that the principal halibut and cod banks were in Alaska waters. The three largest banks, where "codfish and small halibut are numerous and red rock fish fairly abundant," were of particular note. Those three, in rank order, were Baird Bank, in Bristol Bay (9,200 square miles); Portlock Bank, northeast of Kodiak Island (6,800 square miles); and Slime Bank, in the Bering Sea (1,445 square miles). [80] In all probability, little commercial bottomfish harvesting took place in Central or Western Alaska during this period; in the Seward area, the only known commercial activity was an occasional boatload of halibut that was sold directly to local residents. [81]

By 1910, the southeastern Alaska halibut and cod fisheries were in sufficient difficulty that Governor Walter E. Clark conducted a fact-finding mission on the subject. He then wrote to Charles Nagel, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor. In that letter, he noted that "In the last few years the halibut and cod industries have experienced a large growth, and the fresh fish industry ... has become highly important to the people of Alaska and of the states." He was alarmed, however, "that some of the halibut fishing banks [i.e., those in southeastern Alaska] are seemingly becoming depleted." He therefore urged that the steamer Albatross be ordered to Alaska waters that year to study the problem. In response, the U.S. Fish Commission agreed to send a boat that would "prospect for cod and halibut banks in the waters adjacent to Kodiak Island during the season." [82]

Commercial halibut harvesting in the Gulf of Alaska may have begun as early as 1911, primarily as a result of overfishing in southeastern Alaska waters. [83] By November 1913, further development was in the offing. A news article stated that "A fleet of halibut fishing schooners are outfitting [in Seattle], preparatory to sailing for Alaska to test reported halibut banks off the entrance to Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound. Should the halibut grounds prove satisfactory, the fleet will continue operations there." [84]

Bottomfish harvesting in the Gulf of Alaska continued, probably in small but increasing volumes, for the next several years. In June 1916, a fishing boat from the new Kenai Fishing and Trading Company saltery on Renard Island (near Seward) "located five banks of cod on its first trip out, and returned to Seward with 500 cod fish for salting." [85]

That fall, industry prospects brightened when the San Juan Fishing and Packing Company agreed to build a cannery in Seward. Plant managers were primarily interested in canning salmon, but they also announced that they would freeze halibut and black cod, along with other species. The new plant was a boon to the local halibut industry; two halibut boats were part of the company-owned fleet, and the company also agreed to buy halibut (and other species) from independent fishers. By March 1917, even before the plant had been completed, the San Juan was already hard at work; the boat caught 176,000 pounds of halibut within 50 miles of Seward and headed south to the company's Seattle plant to process the catch. [86] These halibut, in all probability, were caught either on the Portlock Bank or in Seward Gully, both of which are directly south of the present-day park.

The San Juan's cold storage facility was completed during the summer of 1917. Largely as a result, Seward became an important halibut port. As F. Heward Bell has noted, it was a convenient port to dispose of "broken trips," those catches too small or with fish to old to be run east to the distant railhead ports. Seward also gained prominence as a reoutfitting center–that is, a place for repairs, spare parts, and provisions. The Portlock Bank and other areas in the Gulf of Alaska, by this time, were becoming major bottomfish harvest areas, and Seward was a welcome nearby port for the Seattle-based fleet. The annual number of halibut processed in Seward during this period remained small. [87]

cold storage facility
Seward has offered cold storage facilities for the area's fishing fleet for more than fifty years. John Skerry photo, from USF&WS, Cook Inlet Annual Management Report, 1958, 42.

Seward commercial interests, always hungry for a new economic base, publicized the new industry and tried to lure fish-laden boats–and fisheries capitalists–to the port. Seward, at the time, was booming because it was the terminus of the government railroad, then under construction, and residents hoped that the town's growth potential would lead to additional fisheries facilities. The problem, from Seward's point of view, was that there was little market for Pacific bottomfish on the West Coast. Many halibut boats, therefore, headed straight from the fishing banks to Prince Rupert, B.C., from which Canadian National trains sped shipments to eastern markets. Others, aiming for the frozen-fish market, were willing to drop off their fish at an Alaska port; citing a lack of cold storage capacity, however, they usually took their catches to Juneau, Ketchikan, and elsewhere. [88]

Seward commercial interests waged a campaign that stressed the port's unique location and growth potential. The Pathfinder, a Pioneers of Alaska publication, hyperbolically proclaimed that

Seward is the nearest port to the most extensive halibut banks in the world.... The halibut is found on many banks, and is especially plentiful on the famous banks forty miles out from Resurrection Bay.... This great industry is in its infancy, but will be developed to the full in due time, with the result that Seward is destined to be within the next few years the fishing center of Alaska.... Our halibut have already found the Eastern market by the hundreds of thousands of tons. A marked increase each year is shipped East.... To illustrate the extent and richness of the "Halibut Pay Streak," ... boats have repeatedly brought into Seward catches ranging from 100,000 to 125,000 pounds of halibut each, within a period of from six to nine days. This illustration is not an exception. It is the average. It is usual for boats of from 15 to 20 tons to catch their capacity in one day after arriving at the banks. [89]

Advocates also tried to convince fisheries capitalists to invest in new cold storage and transportation facilities. A 1922 Seward Gateway article intoned that the lack of additional storage space prevented Seward from profiting from the increasing harvest. If one or more plants could be built, it stated,

this town will become the biggest fishing center on the Pacific Coast.... There would be fish for at least ten big cold storage plants on this bay. This means that a couple of hundred fishing boats with crews ranging from three to twenty men would be stationed here.... [But] cold storage plants here must be first assured of transportation [to the] coast cities of the States.... There is no use lying down on the job because some efforts have failed in the past. Keep trying and we are bound to succeed. [90]

Still others claimed that all Seward needed to become a major halibut port was corrective legislation. A 1922 editorial recognized why the industry had been slow to develop and posed a question that called for a legislative response:

It seems strange to the layman that fishing boats will fish on these banks at the very entrance to Resurrection Bay and take their catches [elsewhere]. On first thought it appears that the reason for this is that there is no market here for the fish. True, there is one cold storage plant and it cannot handle but a very small part of the catch.... Why are there not more cold storage plants on Resurrection Bay? [Because] cold storage fish ... cannot compete with fresh fish. There is one thing that will make the cold storage business profitable ... and that is a closed season on halibut fishing.... The cold storage fish will have a market when fresh fish can no longer be had.... When this becomes the case it is safe to say then Seward will become one of the principal fishing centers on the Alaskan coast. [91]

The editorial writer's wish, in fact, soon became reality. Because the abundance of halibut had been declining for years, in both the U.S. and Canada, industry representatives requested international control of the fishery. The two countries drafted a convention in 1922, and on March 2, 1923, representatives from both countries signed the Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the North Pacific Ocean. The convention created the International Fisheries Commission, the forerunner of today's International Pacific Halibut Commission. One of the convention's main provisions was for a three-month closed season; the first closure began on November 15, 1924. [92]

The international treaty, and the three-month closure, did not result in the construction of new cold storage plants in Seward. This period, to be sure, witnessed dramatically increased utilization of existing facilities; this increase, however, was largely coincidental to the imposition of the seasonal closure. Instead, three other factors are cited in attracting increasing halibut volumes to Seward. The first event, in 1922 or 1923, was an increase in capacity in the San Juan plant's cold storage facilities. (As noted above, the plant was primarily a salmon cannery when it opened in 1917. After the 1921 season, however, canning ceased, and the canning floor was probably converted to a halibut cold storage area soon afterward.) In 1923, the plant instituted two other attractions to lure nearby halibut boats; it installed fueling facilities and raised the prices it paid for halibut. The plant made no secret of its intention to "get boats to offload here that normally go to Sitka and Ketchikan." The newspaper crowed that "there is no reason why Seward should not become the center of the halibut fishing industry, as the banks are right against the mouth of the harbor and extend westward for a hundred miles." [93]

The plan worked. In 1923, the San Juan plant announced that it was shipping between 1.5 million and 1.75 million pounds of frozen halibut per annum; a year later, the plant received some 2.5 million pounds of halibut. Halibut volume remained high for the next several years; in 1927, the plant again received 2.5 million pounds. [94] These higher volumes, to a large part, were in part due to San Juan's heightened customer-service orientation; a far more important variable, however, was the sharply increasing level of halibut harvesting. (John P. Babcock, of the International Fisheries Commission, stated in July 1927 that "the amount taken from the banks near Kodiak has tripled in the last three years.") In addition, Seward had the nearest cold-storage plant to the rapidly increasing halibut fishery off the Alaska Peninsula. In 1924, relatively few halibut were being caught in the Gulf of Alaska; the Central Alaska harvest was just one-seventh of that in Southeastern Alaska. But by 1925, halibut fishing was being carried on "as far west as Unimak Island," and in 1927, "fish came into Seward from as far away as 800 miles to the westward"–that is, from the seas surrounding Unalaska Island. Although many of the halibut from this newly-exploited fishery found their way to the San Juan plant, local sources continued to state, conclusively, that the Gulf of Alaska halibut fleet landed the lion's share of its catch in Prince Rupert. [95]

During this period, most of those that fished for halibut in the local waters were Americans; Canadians fished there as well, though on a smaller scale. (Fishermen of other nationalities were not prohibited from harvesting in the area, but did not do so.) [96] Prior to 1929, no comprehensive statistics are available on the specific nature of area fishing (see Table 9-10). The Seward newspaper, however, routinely jotted down details about the local halibut fleet when they emptied their holds at the San Juan dock. To judge by news accounts, few if any boats off-loaded halibut in 1921, but during the spring and summer of 1922 scores of notices appeared. (Typical entries noted that "the halibut boat Constitution arrived in port Sunday with a load of halibut, the cargo of 12,000 pounds being taken by the San Juan Company," and "the halibut boat Gladstone, Capt. Pete Peterson, arrived in port with 28,000 lbs. of halibut, sold to San Juan." [97]

Table 9-10. Annual Halibut Harvest in Statistical Area 25, 1923-1995

Figures provided in the "volume" and "landings" columns are in thousands of pounds of net weight. * - volume has been rounded off to the nearest 10,000 pounds of net weight. m - millions of pounds of net weight.

Volume of Catch, Area 25 Total for
West Coast
% of
@ Seward
% of West
Coast Total
CanadaU.S. Total

1.5-1.75 m
2.5 m
2.5 m
1.0 m















Source: Richard J. Myhre, et. al., The Pacific Halibut Fishery: Catch, Effort and CPUE, 1929-1975 (Seattle, International Pacific Halibut Commission), 1977, except as noted. Sources for pre-1929 data for Seward landings: a — Barry, Seward History/II, 88, b - Barry, Seward: A History/III, 33, c — Seward Gateway, August 10, 1928, 4.

As has been noted in Chapter 6, one of the most prominent early halibut fishermen was "Herring Pete" Sather. The Seward Gateway was reporting on his fishing activities by June of 1922. In late July, this entry appeared:

The halibut boat Rolfe [sic] arrived in port Sunday with 15,000 pounds of fish which were sold to the San Juan Co. The Rolfe is one of the luckiest boats in the business, bringing in a full load each trip. The boat is registered at 6 tons, but Capt. Pete generally piles on a ton or two more for good measure. [98]

Notices about Seward halibut processing were published throughout the 1920s. [99] Pete Sather's interest in the halibut fishery, however, appears to have tapered off after his marriage, in May 1924, to Josephine Tuerck. After that date, his primary responsibilities centered on the couple's Nuka Island fox farm. He probably never abandoned halibut fishing, however; in 1946, Josephine noted that he "is forever ... fishing halibut for market." [100]

Sather and the other halibut-boat captains sold their product for 10 to 11 cents per pound during the early to mid-1920s. The evidence gathered during this period provides few details about where the halibut were harvested. Most were probably caught out on Portlock Bank. But most of the smaller boats–including Sather's–fished in waters close to the Kenai Peninsula shoreline. [101]

As noted above, the halibut industry, both in the Gulf of Alaska and Seward, grew dramatically during the mid-1920s. In 1927, however, the fishery–and Seward's role in it–took a turn for the worse. That summer, the spectre of overfishing began to rise; the editor of the Seward Gateway interviewed the captains of several halibut boats and concluded that the halibut harvests were headed for a crash. The editor stated that "With few exceptions, [the captains] advocate the closing of certain banks, such as ... the Portlock bank.... The fish taken there are all immature and the bulk too small for the market." [102] The number of fish caught in waters off the park coast (in Statistical Area 25, which includes the waters east of Nuka Island and west of Cape Fairfield; see Map 9-5) dropped from 3.3 million in 1929 to 2.1 million in 1931. In addition, a new cold storage plant was built at Portlock, which was more than 100 miles closer to the Alaska Peninsula halibut harvesting areas than Seward. A third factor working against Seward's role was that the Seattle-based halibut fleet, during this period, was converting from sail power to gasoline power; the new technology shortened the time needed between Seattle and the fishing grounds. [103]

Map 9-5. Pacific Halibut Statistical Areas. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

For all of these reasons, the number of halibut processed at the San Juan plant dropped from 2.5 million in 1927 to 1.0 million a year later. The annual total rebounded to 1.4 million in 1929 and 1.6 million in 1930, but in 1931 it sank back to 1.0 million. In order to profitably operate, the plant had to process at least a million halibut per year. The deepening depression, however, promised further cutbacks in the halibut harvest, so the plant closed after the 1931 season. For the next 18 years, Seward fish plants played an insignificant role in halibut processing and shipping; for at least part of that period, Seattle was the home port for most of the U.S. halibut fleet that fished in the waters of Central and Western Alaska. [104]

The late 1920s and early 1930s were also declining years for the Central Alaska cod industry. The Alaska cod industry, as noted above, reached its peak about 1915. After that point, however, the lack of a West Coast market began to hamper industry growth. A more sinister factor working against the industry was the persistent claim of Atlantic cod dealers that the Pacific species was "an inferior fish that will not keep." Perhaps because of that claim, the industry appears to have declined during the 1920s; more important to the Alaska economy, the territory never gained a strong foothold as a processing venue. The San Juan cold storage plant in Seward, as noted above, stated its intention to process cod when it opened in 1917, and the Portlock facility, which opened in 1927, was built with the express purpose of processing cod from the Aleutian Islands. At both locations, however, cod appears to have been a minor player. In May 1927, the Seward Gateway reported a proposal for a new cold storage plant that would process "cod and halibut for the North Dakota market." That plant, however, was never built, and cod processing appears to have largely disappeared from the scene after that date. [105] By 1933, the Alaska cod industry was operating at a "low level." Annual fisheries reports published in later years indicate that cod, over the years, supported a small, intermittently industry. Harvesting areas included southeastern Alaska, the Bering Sea, the Unalaska area and the Shumagin Islands. These areas were all quite distant from Seward and had no economic impact on local fisheries operations. [106]

Although Seward, during the 1930s and 1940s, did not play a significant role as a halibut-processing site, the waters south of Seward witnessed a boom in halibut harvesting. As noted in Table 9-10, the harvest in Statistical Area 25 (that is, the waters just south of the present-day park) rebounded from 2.1 million in 1931 to 3.7 million in 1933. In 1933 the waters south of the park, for the first time, recorded the highest harvest of any West Coast statistical area; an astonishing 8.1 percent of all West Coast halibut were caught there. [107] The halibut harvest, contrary to the dire predictions of the later 1920s, did not crash. Instead, it remained high for years afterward. From 1933 to 1950, for example, more than three million pounds of halibut were annually harvested from Area 25, with just three exceptions. Area 25 continued to be one of the five highest-ranked West Coast harvest areas in all but two years during that 18-year period, and in five of those years–1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, and 1942–the area was the highest-ranked West Coast harvest area. During this period, between 5 and 9 percent of all West Coast halibut were typically caught in Area 25.

During the 1950s and 1960s, halibut fishing in Statistical Area 25 continued at a high, sustained level. Harvests during that 20-year period ranged from 3.6 million pounds, in 1968, up to 6.6 million pounds, in 1966. Area 25's halibut resource led the West Coast industry; the area was ranked among the top five statistical areas every year between 1950 and 1970, and it was responsible for between 6.5 and 10.6 percent of the entire West Coast harvest during that period.

During the 1970s, harvest levels in Area 25 dramatically fell–most harvests during the 1974-78 level were below two million pounds per year–but they then rebounded. From 1981 to 1994, harvests consistently exceeded three million pounds per year, and in 1986, longliners harvested a record 7.5 million pounds of halibut. Throughout this period, Area 25 continued to rank among the top five statistical areas. The area, each year, was responsible for at least five percent of the West Coast halibut harvest, and in 1981, this area alone accounted for a remarkable 12.9 percent of the entire coast's halibut harvest. Figures from the International Pacific Halibut Commission are unequivocal in their conclusion that Area 25, over the past 67 years (the period for which records have been kept) has been by far the most productive West Coast halibut harvesting area.

Since the 1940s, the Seward halibut processing industry has undergone dramatic change. As noted above, an insignificant number of halibut were processed in Seward from 1932 to 1947. (During the 1932-1936 period, most of the Alaska halibut fleet processed its catch in Seattle; in later years, Prince Rupert and southeastern Alaska ports processed an increasing number of fish due to their ability to command higher prices and their closeness to the fishing grounds. [108]) The opening, in 1948, of William Pege's Seward Fish and Cold Storage Company brought a brief revival of halibut processing. The company processed 69,000 pounds of locally caught halibut that year. It then shipped out frozen halibut steaks on the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage; the halibut was then air freighted to U.S. destinations [109]. The following year, the cold storage plant took in almost 500,000 pounds of halibut; shipping arrangements changed, and for the first time since 1930, ocean-going vessels tied up in Seward to load fish. The volume of halibut processed remained high in 1950 and 1951, but in 1952 the volume fell to just 49,000 pounds of halibut, and during the 1953-1957 period an insignificant number of halibut were processed in Seward. [110] It should be noted that even in 1949 and 1951, during the height of this short-lived boom, the Seward plant processed less than one percent of all West Coast halibut, even though Area 25 in those years yielded between 5 and 10 percent of the West Coast halibut harvest.

In 1958, Seward Fish and Cold Storage leased its plant to the Seattle-based Halibut Producers Co-operative (HPC), and for the next five years it processed a modest volume of halibut. (Most halibut boats bypassed Seward because, as noted in a 1962 letter from the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, "new modern fishing boats now transfer their catches to larger cities in the south." [111]) The volume in 1963 shot up to more than a million pounds; this was highest total that Seward had witnessed since 1931. The HPC facility, along with other Seward fish plants, was wiped out in the 1964 earthquake. In 1965, however, the plant was rebuilt, and the following year the volume exceeded the 1963 total. [112]

In 1969, HPC sold out to a Petersburg-based consortium that renamed the plant Seward Fisheries, Inc. In the year that followed, the plant processed more than four million pounds of halibut–by far the largest annual volume for a Seward plant. Ever since that time, Seward Fisheries has been a major West Coast halibut processor. It has processed more than two million pounds of halibut in every year except one, and in both 1972 and 1973 it was the top halibut plant on the West Coast. [113] Since 1970, furthermore, the plant has consistently processed between five and fifteen percent of the West Coast halibut harvest. Of those that brought their catch into the Seward plant, Canadian vessels accounted for more than 30 percent of the volume during the 1970-1972 period. That proportion dropped soon afterward, however, and by the 1976-1978 period, Canadian vessels were contributing less than 20 percent of the Seward plant's fishing volume. Due to international treaty provisions, Canadian vessels no longer fished Central Alaskan waters after the 1980 season; Canadian ship captains, therefore, stopped off-loading halibut in Seward.

State fisheries experts have given varying opinions regarding the amount of commercial halibut fishing that has taken place near the Kenai Fjords National Park shoreline. Ted McHenry, an ADF&G sport fishing specialist who lived in Seward from 1969 to 1988, noted that the commercial halibut people "stayed way out there ... the only time they were forced close to the beach was in storms." But Tom Schroeder, an ADF&G commercial fisheries biologist based in Homer from 1974 to 1989, stated that smaller halibut boats fished in several places along the park shoreline. Specifically, he stated that halibut boats fished near the south end of Nuka Bay, near Pederson Lagoon (in Aialik Bay) and James Lagoon (on the east arm of Nuka Bay). He agreed with McHenry, however, that the vast majority of the halibut boats fished outside (i.e., on the Portlock Bank), "especially in more recent years." Sportsmen, Schroeder added, are now responsible for most of the halibut harvest from waters near the park shoreline. [114]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002