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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

26 September 2013

❖ FISHING THEN AND NOW ❖ by Louise Dustrude, 1979.

Friday Harbor waterfront
Original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
      "There weren’t too many commercial fishermen in Friday Harbor before World War II. People farmed, or worked for the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Co., or maybe they cut cordwood for the Roche Harbor lime kilns.
       And a lot of them worked in the Friday Harbor Cannery (down where the condominiums are being built, next to the present ferry dock). Nearly everyone in town worked there at one time or another.
       Leith Wade was manager of the cannery before and during the war, and he remembers blowing the whistle half a dozen times a day during the big humpy season in 1945 to call people to work. 'The minister came, and the undertaker, and the barber, and people would even close up their stores and come down to help,' he recalls.
Purse seiners fishing for pinks and sockeye salmon
South end of San Juan Island, 1959
Photo by Larry Dion from a State Fisheries airplane.
Original photo from the archives of S.P.H.S.©

      The fish that kept the cannery running were caught mainly by purse seiners from Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Leonard Crosby was one of them. He met and married a local girl, Margaret Nielsen, and they settled here in 1950.

 Seiner moorage, Friday Harbor, WA.
Best boat photo of all time by
Friday Harbor's John Dustrude.
Thank you John.
The down-Sound seiners would fish from Sunday morning through Friday afternoon, and then tie up at the cannery for the weekend. It was said you could walk to Brown Island on the seine boats tied up in the harbor. There’d be a dance every Friday night at the Masonic Hall near the courthouse or the Moose Hall on lower Spring Street, and many Friday Harbor people remember those as 'the good old days.'
      But very few local people owned commercial fishing boats of any kind in those depression and war years.
      Lee Marble thinks there were only a half-dozen gillnetters on San Juan Island in the 1930s, and Charlie Nash says there were no more than a dozen in the entire county in 1940.
      The oldest type of commercial fishing gear in this area, according to Marge Workman, is the reefnet---and there never have been many of those.
      Her grandfather, Ed Chevalier, owned one of the earliest reefnet gears in the county, located in John's Pass between Stuart and Johns Islands. Marge fished there in the 1950s, and she says, 'It’s the most exciting way to fish. You can actually see the fish coming into the net. But you have to have good eyes to see them soon enough, and if you make a move they all turn at once and they’re gone.'
      She and her husband, Bob, have been gillnetting together for the past three years, but he too recalls reefnetting in the years past. And he remembers his father and uncle trolling from a round-bottom rowboat during the 1930s, selling their fish for 10 cents each and catching 50 fish on a good day.
      They fished off the west side of San Juan Is., and Bob recalls, 'We went out there and camped during the fall for a month or six weeks when the silvers were in.'
      Leith Wade helped build fish traps---the piling would be pulled out and reset every year---and operated buyer boats that went out and got the fish from the traps for the canneries, until traps were outlawed by a vote of the people in 1934.
Mitchell Bay Fish Trap, San Juan County, WA.
Photos from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©

      Fish were kept alive in the traps until picked up a cannery tender—or by a fish pirate. “Everybody knew about the fish pirates,” Leith says. Watchmen would be posted to guard the traps, but under cover of darkness outlaw boats would move in and steal the fish, using bribery or violence to take care of the watchmen.

      Bob Workman and his brother, Stub, started gillnetting in 1938 at Point Roberts, using two 20’ open skiffs with a half an engine from an old Model T. “Two of the cylinders had been removed, “ Bob remembers. And they pulled the net by hand.
      Everyone pulled nets by hand in those days. There were no power blocks or drums to make the work easier. “Your fingertips would bleed all the time,” Leonard Crosby says.
      The nets were made of cotton or linen, and they were very susceptible to rot. Gillnets and purse seines had to be soaked in bluestone every weekend, and the reefnets were tarred.
      There were no electronic aids to navigation, such as radar or fathometers. A few fishermen had radios, but Charlie Nash recalls that he couldn’t even afford the batteries for a radio.
      'All we had was a compass,' recalls Lee Marble, who started gillnetting in 1957.
      Charlie Nash was one of the first on the island to get into gillnetting after World War II. 'I got my first gillnetter in 1948, a Columbia River bow picker with a hand pulled net,' he says.
      Today Charlie has a reputation as one of the best fishermen on the island, but he says that when he started he “didn’t know anything about fishing, and I was a slow learner.”
      What are the major things a fisherman has to learn? 'Where to catch fish and how to stay out of trouble.'
      In those days, with so few boats out, 'If you got into trouble you could drift all day while you figured out what to do. If you did that now you’d drift into one of the other boats.'
      Charlie was the first fisherman in the county to get a nylon net, in about 1949 or 1950, and that was a great improvement. They’re less visible to the salmon, and you don’t have to bluestone them. 'You just take them home and pile them in a corner.'
      It was a big year for sockeye in 1954 and 'everybody found out about it,' Charlie recalls. During the fall and winter of 1954-55 there were a number of gillnetters built at Jensen Shipyard, including the STEADFAST, the SWEET GENEVIEVE, and the ETHEL M.
      And 1958 was another big year, 'and it was just a runaway after that.'
      Leith Wade says, 'It went from about 15 gillnetters on the Salmon Banks to three or four hundred.'
      And the numbers are still increasing, Chuck Hasty says, 'I can even see a difference since I started [in 1970]. It’s hard to find a place to set your net.'
      There are about 50 commercial fishermen now living on San Juan Island, and in the last few years more have joined the ranks than have quit. The overwhelming majority are gillnetters, with a handful of purse seiners and a handful who both gill net and reefnet.
      Those who do both---such as Terry Jackson and Charlie Brown—are outspoken in their preference for reefnetting. 'But you can’t make any money in it,' and so they gillnet too.
     'Reefnetting is a lot more fun because you see what’s going on,' Charlie says.
      'It’s a challenge. You’re on a one-to-one basis with the fish,' Terry says. “You might have to adjust your gear every 10 or 15 minutes to keep up with changes in the tide. And if you see a school of fish that turns away and doesn’t come into your net, you’d better know why.'
      Gillnetting, he says, once you put your gear out, “it’s just a waiting game.”
      Are there as many fish as there used to be? The consensus seems to be that there are, but a few dissenters say there aren’t. Most local fishermen say it just seems like fewer because there are so many more boats in the water.
     But Marge Workman says, 'I’ve never seen fish so thick as I did in the ‘40’s when they had that terrifically big humpy run. It looked like you could walk on them between Spieden and Sentinel Islands.'
      Phil Martin says that last year there was one of the biggest chum returns in history. The International Sockeye Commission predicts that this year will be big for humpies and next year for sockeye.
      Most local fishermen praise the work of the Sockeye Commission in building up the runs and conserving fish for the future.
      But offshore trollers, such as George and Karlene Morford, believe that the salmon resource “is in a crisis situation.” They believe that the hatchery programs are being poorly managed, and that salmon are being bred to return either earlier or later than the troll fishery season.
      They are also concerned to see large corporations, such as Weyerhaeuser, getting into the aquaculture business, fearing that not too far into the future the corporations will put pressure on state governments to eliminate the independent fishermen, claiming, “they are our fish.”
      Terry Jackson expresses the same concerns about corporate aquaculture and “changing the fishes’ cycle so they come back in the winter when you couldn’t possibly fish for them.”
      Friday Harbor is not the Morfords’ home, but they’ve been wintering here for three years now, aboard their 70’ east coast sailing schooner, the HELEN McCOLL.
      George has been fishing in Washington for 24 years. He started out fishing in Alaska in a 20’ double-ender with a 7½ hp engine, accompanied only by his dog. He hand trolled then, using rod and reel similar to that used on party fishing boats.
      He says, 'when I first started fishing there weren’t very many fish. It was after the dams had cut the runs, and before the hatchery programs really got started. Trollers were really funky, a real humble kind of fishing.'
      'But in the ‘60s the hatcheries started producing, trollers started making money, and then the price of fish went up and they made even more money. So in the last few years a lot of people have gone into trolling with very expensive gear.'
      It’s more expensive than ever to get into any fishery now, whether trolling, gillnetting, purse seining, or reefnetting. According to Phil Martin, gill net licenses are going for $15,000 now, available only from another fisherman because the state has put a moratorium on new licenses. It would probably take $50,000 or so to get a good used gill net boat and a couple of nets, he says.
      But people keep getting into fishing, and not even the 1974 Boldt decision is discouraging them. That decision allotted 50 percent of the salmon catch to members of certain Indian tribes because of 19th C. treaties with the U.S. government allowing members of the tribes to fish 'in common with' other citizens of the territory.
      The decision was at last argued to the U.S. Supreme Court on 28 February, and a ruling is expected in June.
      One other change may be coming to the local fishing industry, though very slowly. One by one, some of the local fishermen are gearing up for commercial fishing of other than salmon: herring, bottom fish, crab, even dog fish. There isn’t the money in these other fisheries that there is in salmon, but some say it’s coming.
      Probably a fair number of fishermen will do whatever seems necessary to stay in some sort of fishing because, in the words of one of them––probably speaking for all––'I like the freedom and independence of it.”
Above text by Louise Dustrude, Friday Harbor, WA.
Fishing Then and Now, The Island Record, 1979

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