"The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down." A. Whitney Brown.

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San Juan Archipelago, 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 650, 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.

09 June 2018


Fishing grounds of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
From a report compiled by the
Bristol Bay Regional Planning Team
For State of Alaska Fish and Game, 1988.
click image to enlarge.

"Fishing being an ancient industry, it is only natural that certain fishing grounds should have become famous. One of them is Bristol Bay, AK.
      These waters form the southeastern corner of the Bering Sea and include the area from Cape Newenham to Cape Menshikoff. Of the six salmon rivers in this territory, five are open for commercial fishing: The Nushagak, the Naknek, the Egegik, and the Ugashik rivers. The sixth river, the Togiak, is fished for 'personal use' only, by the inhabitants of that watershed.

Schooner WAWONA
Captain Charlie Foss.
"In 1914, she cleared Anacortes, WA. 31 March and
arrived at Unimak Pass on 8 April with 23 fishermen.
The largest vessel of the fleet caught 240,000 fish 
(550 tons) almost all were caught from 32-45
fathoms deep." McCurdy's Marine History/Newell
Cod schooner WILLIAM H. SMITH
full of dories sailing north from
 San Francisco, 31 March 1933
for the Alaska fishing grounds. 

      Bristol Bay’s claim to fame rests upon the very solid foundation that from the beginning of commercial fishing in America, it has been the largest producer of red—or sockeye—salmon in the world. Yearly catch has reached into the millions of salmon and the yield to the canners of millions of dollars in one year. Some wonder then that the name “Bristol Bay” has a magic sound in a fisherman’s ear and is spoken with wonder and respect when fishermen get together.
Dories sailing to the fishing grounds
Bristol Bay, Alaska.
On Bristol Bay fishing grounds showing a gillnet
being set and a fresh caught salmon breaking water.
June 1938

From the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society ©

Cod fisherman in the 1940s got their food
from scows anchored in the Bay.
Bristol Bay, Alaska.
"Fishermen going ashore Bristol Bay, AK."
As inscribed verso.

Click image to enlarge.

      The gillnet is the only legal fishing gear in Bristol Bay. It may be used as a drift net, or as a set net—also called “stake net” or “beach net.” Set nets may be used by the local people only, and one must be a resident for a certain time period to operate this in any of the rivers. From the beginning of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay and for some 60-odd years thereafter the fishing was done with open boats, using sails and oars as propulsion, the use of motorboats having been prohibited by law.
      The reasons for this prohibition were not quite clear, it seemed. Some said that it was for the sake of conservation, as powerboats would be so much more efficient than the sailboats. Others again insisted that motor boats were prohibited at the request of the canning companies, as motors cost big money, and had to be repaired and replaced when worn, whereas Squarehead, Finn, and Italian fishermen could be thrown away when worn out, and replaced at no extra cost. Whatever the reason the law was there and had to be obeyed.
      The law prohibiting powerboats was changed finally, and the fishing season of 1951 brought the first power fishing boats to the Bay. They began to take over the field completely and the old sailboat is seen no more on the rivers of Bristol Bay.

      The history of early Bristol Bay fishing is a proud and terrible record of grueling work, privations, sufferings; of heroism and skullduggery, of foresight and initiative. Bristol Bay boasts what is perhaps the most “un-navigable navigable” waters in North America, with dangerous sandbars and banks extending miles out to open sea. The tidal difference is the third largest in the world, creating dry land where, only five hours earlier, there was a navigable channel with twenty feet of water. The currents are unusually strong and erratic—storms are frequent and violent. Such are the waters fished by small, open sailboats—a testing ground that served to divide the 'men from the boys.'
      The rivers of Bristol Bay took their toll, year after year; boats were capsized, sunk, stuck on a sandbar and broken to pieces by the tide when a sudden storm came up. No statistics have been compiled but is common knowledge that hundreds of fishermen found their grave in the sands of wide river mouths.
Bark BERLIN (3223) and others
stuck in the ice of Bristol Bay
One hundred years ago.
Dated May 1918.

Click image to enlarge.
BERLIN escaped back to Oregon...

But in May 1922, BERLIN, age 46 years,
went aground at Ugagak, Capt. E. Wendt of
Portland, OR., and was a total wreck.
She was bringing salmon to Naknek Cannery.
Vessel value $25,000 and Cargo $111,000.
All crew members were saved.
Naknek River, Bristol Bay, Alaska.

In the early transportation to and from the Bristol, fishing grounds was by sailing ships, each canning company operating its own fleet of vessels. The trip from “stateside” —Astoria, Seattle, San Francisco, and other ports—often had unpleasant surprises in store for the fishermen—who, during the voyage, also served as sailors. The Gulf of Alaska is known as rather a rough piece of water, especially in the time of winter and early spring, and the sailing vessels had to take a lashing from wind and waves before reaching the Pass—Unimak Pass, the gateway from the Pacific Ocean to the Bering Sea. And then the sailor might find—drifting ice in the Bering.
      Days and weeks might go by fighting the way to the anchorage at the mouth of the river. A 40-day voyage from stateside to Bristol Bay was far from uncommon and it often happened that as many as 63 days were spent underway.
      The working requirements? Here are excerpts from ‘Articles of Agreements and Wage Scale for the season of 1907 between the various AK Salmon Packers and Fishermen’s Union.’
      ‘...They agree to give their whole time and energy to the business and interests to said Company, and to work day and night (Sundays and holidays, not excepted), according to the lawful orders of the Captain, Superintendent, or whoever may be in charge for the Company, and for the compensation provided, but shall not be required to work for outside parties.’
      ‘...While preparing for fishing or after fishing has closed, the men shall not be required to work on Sundays as a rule, and if they are required to work any time on Sundays, such time shall be given to them during the week. In case of an emergency such as safety of ship or company’s property is in danger, such work to be done at any and all times without giving time back.
Heading home and leaving the ice behind.
Vessel unidentified.
Click image to enlarge.

A cosmopolitan bunch they were, the Bristol fishermen. Italians, Finns, Norwegians, Swedes, constituted the main force, with a sprinkling of Danes, Irishmen, Scots, Germans, Hollanders—men of many races, creeds, and color of hair.
Bark BERLIN crew
homebound September 1918
Bering Sea to Portland, OR.
Click image to enlarge.

Fourteen photos from the archives of
the Saltwater People Historical Society©

Peaceful and easy going, as a rule, disagreements were slow to arise, tempers to flare. Such things did happen —there were black eyes or bloody noses now and again. By and large, peace and good fellowship were the rules of the fishing camps.
       The actual canning work was done by the ‘China gang’, under the command of the ‘China Boss.’ In due time the Iron Chink replaced the Chinese cannery worker. Later still the Filipinos were replaced by natives from the area adjacent to Bristol Bay, Aleuts, and Aleut-Eskimos.”

Above text from Fish and Ships, This was Fishing from the Columbia to Bristol Bay. Ralph Andrews and A.K.Larssen. Bonanza Books.

1 comment:

  1. Fish and Ships, one of my favorite go-to historical fishing books. Originally published in 1959, and now available since 2012 as a print on demand book via Amazon. But there are plenty of used copies available from AbeBooks.com. Get the real thing. A.K. Larssen wrote a second book titled "ABC's of Fo'c'sle Living," used copies still available. First published in a magazine format, Madrona Publishing printed a smaller, sturdier version in the late 1970s. Remains solid advice for greenhorn deckhands. I actually received a "fan" letter from Larssen after having an article published in National Fisherman about the positive suitability of women in the commercial fishing industry.


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