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

Map 9-1. Historic Sites-Commercial Fishing. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The Kenai Fjords coastline is rich with marine life. Many species of fish and shellfish inhabit the area's streams, fjords, and pelagic zones. Relatively few species, however, have been harvested for commercial purposes. Prior to the 1960s, the only species of interest to commercial fishers have been various species of salmon, halibut, cod, and herring. In recent decades, fishers have harvested a variety of new species, including species of crab, shrimp, scallops, and octopus. Halibut and cod, as a rule, have been harvested in the open ocean, 30 to 60 miles south of the park coastline, while the remaining fish and shellfish species have been gathered along or near the coast.

The streams of Kenai Peninsula's southern flank are shorter than those that flow into Cook Inlet. For this and other reasons, salmon (particularly red salmon) and other commercially viable fish and shellfish have never been as plentiful in this area as they have been either in Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound. Inasmuch as commercial fishing along the peninsula's southern coastline did not take place until fishing was a well-established industry in both Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, the park's fishing history will be told within the context of developments in these adjacent areas.

This chapter will concern itself primarily with the area's commercial fisheries. A history of the park area's twentieth century subsistence fishery is described in Chapter 6, while the sport fishery is covered in Chapter 10.

The Southern Kenai Peninsula Salmon Fishery, 1911-1945

Not long after the United States government purchased Alaska from the Russian government, West Coast commercial fisheries interests began to exploit Alaska's untapped fisheries populations. They had, by this time, been harvesting the salmon populations of Washington territory and the province of British Columbia for some time. Before long, fishing companies began to eye Alaska's seemingly unlimited salmon resource.

Early Cook Inlet Salteries and Canneries

In 1878, Alaska's first two salmon canneries were established. Both were located in southeast: one was near Sitka, the other at Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island. That same year, commercial salmon interests first took advantage of Cook Inlet's rich fisheries resource; the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC), which operated a fur trading station near the mouth of the Kenai River, established a salmon saltery at the site. Captain James Wilson, the station agent, was in charge. A year later, a second salmon saltery was established at the Western Fur and Trading Company's fur trading station at the mouth of the salmon-rich Kasilof River, some 12 miles south of the ACC saltery. Captain H. R. Bowen operated both the trading station and saltery. During the same period, the first saltery was opened on Kodiak Island; it was located on Karluk Spit, along the island's southwestern coast. [1]

Other nearby fisheries developments followed soon afterward. In 1882, the first two salmon canneries in Central Alaska were built; the Alaska Packing Company of San Francisco built a cannery at Kasilof, while Smith and Hirsh built a cannery at Karluk Spit. The following year, the Alaska Commercial Company opened its second Cook Inlet salmon saltery; it was located at English Bay, where the company had operated a fur station since the early 1870s. [2]

Between the late 1880s and the late 1890s, new canneries were built in several areas adjacent to the southern Kenai coast. In 1888, four canneries were built on Kodiak Island and one at Kenai. A year later, the first Prince William Sound canneries were built (four were constructed there that year, all on the sound's eastern shore), and five additional canneries were erected on Kodiak Island. In 1890, a new cannery was constructed at Kasilof, and in 1897 another cannery arose at Kenai. In 1899, the first cannery was constructed on Cook Inlet's western shore; it was located at Tyonek. By 1900, therefore, scattered salmon canneries were located northwest, south, and east of the present park boundaries; all, however, were located more than a hundred miles away. During this period, the sockeye (or red) salmon was the only valuable salmon species; the early canneries, therefore, were located near sockeye-laden streams. Few were interested in the southern Kenai fishery, where pink and chum salmon species predominated. [3]

Few new canneries were constructed during the first decade of the twentieth century. The decade that followed, however, witnessed new growth in the fishing industry, and for the first time, canneries were constructed just a few miles away from the present park boundaries. In 1911, the Seldovia Salmon Company built the first cannery in Lower Cook Inlet; it was located at Seldovia, a town that had been in existence for more than 30 years. In 1912, the Fidalgo Island Packing Company built a cannery at Port Graham, and three years later a cold storage facility (for cod and halibut) was constructed at Portlock. Eight years later, the Arctic Packing Company built a cannery at English Bay. Seldovia and English Bay were long-established area villages; Port Graham and Portlock, however, were unpopulated sites before facilities were erected there. Canneries remained at most of these locations until the 1950s, if not longer. [4]

The Resurrection Bay Fishery

During the same period that witnessed the first canneries in Lower Cook Inlet, commercial salmon processing facilities were pioneered in Resurrection Bay. In 1911, Charles F. Boggs established a salmon saltery in Seward. Boggs, along with partner Alfred Rosness, operated the saltery in 1912 but closed it thereafter. [5] During 1915 and 1916 new salteries popped up on the east side of Resurrection Bay, at Caines Head, and at Sunny Cove on Renard Island; all were small in scale, and none lasted more than a few years. [6]

Canneries were also in the works. In 1912, former Seward resident Henry H. Hildreth headed a group that proposed a salmon cannery at Caines Head. The group also planned to construct a saltery at Porcupine Cove, recognizing that nearby Bear Glacier would be an excellent source for ice. But neither facility was built. [7] A more successful proposal was made by the San Juan Fishing and Packing Company. [8] Officials from that company arrived in Seward in November 1916; construction of a cannery and cold storage plant, located at the foot of Jefferson Street, began in January 1917. It was ready by the time salmon season commenced in mid-June. [9] Cannery management stated that in addition to canning salmon, they planned to freeze halibut, salmon, black cod and red snapper.

San Juan plant
The "San Juan plant" was Seward's largest cannery from 1917 to 1930. Pacific Fisherman Year Book, 1921, 104.

For most of the next forty years, a salmon cannery operated in Seward. The so-called San Juan plant, using traps [10] as well as company-owned purse seiners, canned salmon only until 1921; for the rest of the decade, salmon was only an incidental part of an operation that was geared toward halibut processing. (Few black cod or red snapper were ever processed there.) Just a year after the San Juan plant de-emphasized its salmon canning operations, the Kodiak Island Fishing and Packing Company established a Seward plant. The cannery, however, operated for only the 1922 and 1923 seasons. [11] Fisheries interests were forced to conclude that the Resurrection Bay salmon supply was (in the words of one government report) "insufficient for the profitable operation of a cannery." In order to augment the salmon harvest, the Territory of Alaska built a hatchery at Grouse Lake (eight miles north of Seward) that opened in late 1924. Red, king, and pink salmon were raised. A fire, however, destroyed the hatchery in March 1927. It was not rebuilt. [12]

In 1929 a new plant, called Seward Fisheries, Inc., appeared on the scene. Owned by Nils Hagen and three associates, it was located just south of town and was described as a "smaller fish-processing plant;" fish were butchered by hand but packed by machine. The facility operated until 1934; it then lay idle for two years until it was reopened as the Hagen and Company plant. The new, improved plant was fully mechanized; government observers, however, noted that the facility was still just "a small one-line cannery." [13] The Hagen and Company plant operated until the end of World War II. [14]

When the San Juan plant opened in 1917, officials had announced that even though the company had three purse seiners, it would process all fish delivered to the plant. Such an invitation, which was tendered by canneries throughout the territory, encouraged the growth of a local, independent fishing industry. Before the San Juan plant opened, Seward-area fishers were probably limited to those who were involved in the early salteries (noted above), plus occasional entrepreneurs who sold their catch directly to local residents. The presence of a cannery, however, attracted a sufficient number of Seward-based fishing vessels that by the late 1920s, the Federal government had agreed to construct a small boat harbor. The Corps of Engineers constructed the harbor during the summer of 1931. [15]

small boat harbor
Boats based at the Seward small boat harbor (such as those moored in this mid-1970s view) have played a major role in the fishing history of the nearby fjords country. M. Woodbridge Williams photo, NPS/Alaska Area Office print file, NARA Anchorage.

The number of fishing vessels, never large, varied from year to year; in 1933, for instance, the Seward Gateway noted that the local fleet consisted of the M.S. Marian, the M.S. Roy, the M.S. Mayflower, the M.S. Bavaria, and several power dories. (The first four motor ships were independently owned; Seward Fisheries owned the dories.) Henry Munson, a longtime local resident, recalled that during the 1930s "there were about a dozen boats fishing in the bay;" a wartime report concurred with Munson's estimate, noting that "about 12 fishing boats are normally based in the Seward harbor." [16] During the early years of the fishery, the primary techniques used were either beach seines or hand purse seines. By the mid-1920s, however, these methods had been replaced by gill nets; during the 1930s, gill nets and power dories harvested the bay's fish. The summer fishing season typically began in early June and lasted until August 10; the fall season began ten days later and stayed on until September 10. [17]

The Regulatory Environment

Early Alaska salmon processing was carried on in a virtually laissez-faire environment. But by the early 1920s, it had become increasingly clear that commercial interests had overfished and abused many of Alaska's primary salmon fisheries. Governmental authorities, as a result, began to regulate some of the territory's prime salmon fishing areas. The first such action took place in 1922 when three fisheries reservations were established; one of the three, the Southwestern Alaska Fisheries Reservation, included waters just west of the southwestern Kenai Peninsula. The following year, more widespread changes began. The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries subdivided the territory into management districts; the area west of Gore Point was included in the Cook Inlet district, while the area east of Gore Point was included in the Prince William Sound district. [18] The reservations created in 1922 remained in force until June 6, 1924, when Congress passed the so-called White Act. This act established a framework for regulating each of the territory's fisheries; areas undergoing considerable fishing pressure, predictably, were immediately regulated with closures and other management actions, while areas that were seldom fished were given few regulations. [19]

In Cook Inlet, several canneries were in operation each year during the 1920s and 1930s. In response to the high degree of fishing activity, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries applied increasingly sophisticated management actions. Beginning in 1923, for example, the agency dispatched the patrol boat Teal from its Seattle headquarters to the Cook Inlet fishing grounds; the Teal remained in the inlet all summer, gathering information and enforcing fishing regulations. By the end of the decade, the government was sponsoring an ongoing stream improvement program along selected Cook Inlet waterways. Before long, the agency began to deploy stream guards at key Inlet locations to enforce fishing regulations, and by the late 1930s it had begun chartering aircraft to augment the existing patrol efforts. [20]

stream guard
During the mid-1950s, the Fish and Wildlife Service placed stream guards near several area streams. This 1958 photo shows a typical stream guard shack, skiff, and a Coast Guard floatplane. USF&WS, Cook Inlet Annual Management Report, 1958, 127.

In Resurrection Bay, where fishing activity was substantially less than in Cook Inlet, the regulatory environment was more relaxed. As noted above, Resurrection Bay was first considered to be part of the Prince William Sound management district. In December 1924, revised White Act regulations redefined Resurrection Bay as being a separate management district with its own set of regulations; the district's fish volume, however, was so small that Central District (Prince William Sound) personnel in Cordova reported on Resurrection Bay fisheries activity. The bay became an administrative part of the Cook Inlet district in early 1951 and has remained there ever since. [21]

Fisheries management in Resurrection Bay was applied with a much lighter touch than in Cook Inlet. Specific regulations, for example, were applied only to bay waters that were north of an imaginary line connecting Cape Resurrection and the west side of Bear Glacier. Active management measures were few. In 1931, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries dispatched a stream guard to the bay; a year later, the agency maintained a salmon weir near Bear and Grouse lakes. The Teal, however, seldom visited Resurrection Bay; the stream improvement program was virtually nonexistent; and fisheries personnel rarely if ever engaged in aerial patrols. [22]

Fishing Along the Outer Coast

Prior to the end of World War II, the long stretch of coastline between Resurrection Bay and the southwestern tip of Kenai Peninsula was almost entirely ignored by the commercial salmon industry. The primary reason for the lack of interest was that red (sockeye) and king (chinook) salmon were the only varieties sought by the canneries. The southern coastline's annual yield of these species was insignificant during this period; the sockeye runs were much smaller than those of later years, because glaciers and floating glacial ice then covered many areas that are now ice-free. [23] The severe weather, rough seas, remoteness from a fisheries facility, and the comparative fragility of the fishing boats then in use were additional reasons why fishers generally avoided the area.

The outer coast, beginning in 1923, was classified as being part of the Prince William Sound district. Then, in late 1924, the area became part of the new Resurrection Bay district. Fishing pressure along the outer coast, however, was so light that no specific regulations were applied to the area until after World War II. By the 1930s, the coastline had once again come under the nominal purview of the Prince William Sound district fisheries agent. That person, however, had far more pressing management concerns; he generally ignored this stretch of coastline, both in day-to-day activities and in annual reports. By 1943, the stretch of coastline west of Aialik Cape had become an administrative division of Cook Inlet. It has remained there ever since. [24]

Governmental fisheries officials, for the most part, were convinced that this stretch of coastline was essentially bereft of marine resources. One report, based on 1927 data, noted the following about the area:

The fishery districts nearest to [Resurrection Bay] are Prince William Sound on the east and Cook Inlet on the west. In both directions [from Resurrection Bay], especially to the westward, are miles of coastal waters that have no salmon fisheries, so that this bay stands as a district wholly apart from any other.... [25]

Despite that assessment, however, there is widespread evidence that commercial fishers periodically harvested fish from park waters prior to World War II. Evidence is strongest for such activity during the 1930s and early 1940s, although commercial fishing boats may have been active in the area during the 1920s as well.

As noted in Chapter 6, Natives from English Bay and vicinity often traveled along the park coastline as part of their seasonal round during the years prior to World War I. The establishment of canneries at Seldovia, Port Graham, and English Bay during the 1911-1920 period had the practical effect of disrupting the Natives' seasonal cycle; cannery work was available during the months when residents traditionally put up salmon for winter supplies. [26] Prior to World War I, therefore, Natives were the primary (perhaps the only) subsistence fishers along the outer Kenai coast; whites avoided the area (in the words of one longtime resident) because they "didn't want to step on the toes of the Natives." But after the war, there were "lots of white fishermen" and relatively few Natives. Some of those white fishers may have been residents of Halibut Cove or other Lower Cook Inlet communities who traveled the coast on their way to the Prince William Sound fishing grounds; residents of Cordova and vicinity may also have fished the coastline on their way to Cook Inlet. [27]

Specific information about who fished (or just traveled) along the coast has been provided by Josephine Sather, who helped run a fox farm on Nuka Island. Sather, writing in the mid-1940s, spoke kindly of several "old timers who [came] here on their regular seasonal trips." They included John Malutin, Hans Simondsen, and Bert Jacobsen. Malutin, a Seward resident, was captain of the M.S. Marian, which was active from 1927 to 1933, perhaps longer. Little is known about the other two fishermen. In all probability, the Kenai coast was probably visited by quite a number of fishing boats during the 1920s and early 1930s. Because the coast yielded few if any kings or sockeyes, however, commercial fishers did not linger in the area for long. [28]

As noted in Chapter 6, Pete and Josephine Sather were the best-known people to fish the park's waters during this period. They caught pink salmon with seines in many areas of Nuka Bay, and most of the time they were subsistence fishers, feeding what they caught to their foxes. Pete, however, occasionally attempted to sell pink salmon at the canneries, despite their relatively low value. One old-timer recalled that if Sather and other locals "could sell their fish for one-quarter cent each, that gave them flour and sugar for the winter." [29] Sather would typically fill his boat to overflowing; then, because his fishing boat had no refrigeration equipment, he would often head west to the Port Graham-Seldovia area, hoping for a quick sale. If the first cannery he visited wouldn't buy his fish, he would move on to other canneries, making offers at each one. Sather also sold his harvest at the Seward canneries; according to Ralph Hatch, a longtime resident, Sather made a couple of heavily-loaded trips per year to off-load pinks. "By the time he got here," Hatch recalls, "the boat smelled bad but the cannery took them anyway." [30] It should be noted that while much of Sather's subsistence fishing was from Nuka Bay, some–perhaps most–of his commercial fishing harvests were probably from Port Dick and other westward waters. [31]

East of Nuka Bay, the only park waters known to be fished before World War II were located at the southwestern end of Resurrection Bay. In all probability, Seward-area fishers discovered not long after the San Juan plant commenced operations that the Bear Glacier area offered a significant fish run. By the early 1930s, Resurrection Bay had two distinct sockeye runs. The first and larger run took place in the upper bay (north of Caines Head) in early June. By the end of the month, however, the local newspaper announced that "The salmon run in [upper] Resurrection Bay is about over and vessels will have to journey down to Bear Glacier if they expect to make any catches, say local fishermen." [32]

West of Nuka Bay, little or no commercial fishing took place anywhere along the outer coast during the early to mid-1920s. The English Bay, Port Graham, and Seldovia canneries obtained their fish either from nearby fish traps or from fishing boats that stayed fairly close to home. Beginning in 1928, however, a new cannery was built in Portlock, 12 miles southeast of English Bay, and a larger facility was constructed there in 1930. The new Portlock cannery, the availability of more seaworthy fishing vessels, and most of all the rising value of pink salmon all resulted in the exploration of the fishing resources of Windy Bay, Rocky Bay, Port Dick, and other outer coast sites. Fishers soon discovered that these bays were rich in pink and chum salmon, and as the price of these fish rose, these areas became increasingly attractive to the nearby canneries. Roy Cole, the captain of the patrol boat Teal, noted in 1935 that "a few [pinks] show in the lower Inlet from English Bay to Point Gore." By mid-July of that year, commercials fishers were harvesting pinks and chums in Port Dick and selling their harvest to the Adriatic, a tender owned by the Cook Inlet Packing Company plant in Seldovia. [33]

halibut fleet
During the 1920s, Seward was a popular stopover for ships in the halibut fleet that fished out on Portlock Bank and area sites. Neville Public Museum, photo 5670.4.

Little is known about fishing activity in the western part of the outer coast for the next few years; management reports from the period do not discuss the subject. [34] Nevertheless, pink or chum salmon (perhaps both) probably continued to be harvested, though in small volumes. By 1939, the area was once again receiving Captain Cole's attention; he noted that year that "the run of pinks in the section from Point Gore to Seldovia was scattered" and made a specific description of the Port Dick run. In 1940, he noted that "intensive fishing was in progress" between Seldovia and Port Dick from July 28 to August 10; the following year, Cole noted a "very good" pink run along the coast between Kachemak Bay and Port Dick and "intensive seine fishing" in the Port Dick area in late July and early August. The resource was sufficiently valuable that Cole, and the Teal, personally monitored the Port Dick seine activity during this period. By the early 1940s, therefore, the fishing resources west of Gore Point had been fully explored and were being commercially exploited on a regular basis; Port Dick, specifically, was being described as one of two major pink producing streams in Lower Cook Inlet. [35]

By 1943, commercial fishers had made the first known foray into the Kenai Fjords area. The management report that year noted a new "Seward District" that year east of Port Dick; that district was composed of "Seward Bay" (Resurrection Bay?), from which 7,330 pink salmon were harvested, and "Tunder Bay" (Thunder Bay?), from which 11,970 pinks were harvested. The harvest for both bays was minor; together, they accounted for just 2.1% of the 900,000-plus pink salmon that were caught that year on the east side of Cook Inlet. [36] The "Tunder Bay" harvest did not immediately result in further commercial activity. By 1944, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the successor to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries) had instituted a statistical system that recorded the number of fish caught along specific segments of coastline (see Map 9-2). That system failed to record a commercial fish harvest between Gore Point and Aialik Cape either in 1944 or 1945.

Map 9-2. Southern Kenai Peninsula Statistical Areas, 1944-1950. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Although fisheries reports suggest (admittedly, with some lack of certainty) that 1943 was the first year of commercial activity in park waters, several longtime Seward residents recall that local fishers (other than Pete Sather) worked in park waters before 1943. Henry Munson, whose memories of Seward date back to the mid-1930s, recalls that "boats went beyond Resurrection Bay" during that period and that "there were boats in that area before World War II." Seward Shea, another longtime resident, was more specific; he remembers stories of salmon fishing at the south end of "Pete's Island" (Nuka Island) and also near Petrof Point. In Shea' s recollection, the boats in this area came from Seldovia; he admits, however, that never personally saw a Seldovia or Port Graham boat east of Gore Point during this period. [37]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002