Alaska – Quintals of Fish

THE greatest fisheries are far from the tropics because, for one reason, in colder waters there is a rich supply of plankton—that floating and drifting minute pelagic life upon which sea-fish largely feed—and fish not only live under frozen lakes in winter, but even in deep waters under the Arctic ice.

In 1505 we know that there were fishermen from Brittany and Normandy on the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and the English occupation in North America began with fishermen who early sought the banks of Newfoundland, the nucleus of both French and English settlement in America. By 1578 there were a hundred and fifty vessels of France alone employed in the American fisheries. In the old days fisheries were known as the ” New England silver mine,” and Adams said, ” If no precious metals rewarded search, if the beaver retreated farther and farther into the wilderness, if the soil gave but grudging yield, here, at least, was limitless wealth. The industry, thanks to the combination of shoals and icy waters, became the cornerstone of the prosperity of New England, and in the colonial history of that section commerce smells as strongly of fish as theology does of brimstone! ”

Sumner spoke eloquently of the “quintals of fish” to be found in Alaska; and this is still true, as the yearly pack proves. While there is much fiery brimstone of controversy (commercial but not theological!) in connection with the organization and regulation of Alaska fisheries by the Mother Country, yet the salmon pack alone each year is worth from six to seven times the total original cost of ” Seward’s Folly!” Less romantic than the search for gold, but a source to-day of greater revenue than even Alaska gold, the fish farmer on a large scale (who is also a miner of the sea) stakes out his claim with costly ” traps “—because he wishes to prevent a strike rather than discover one! The only creature that can find his way out of this contraption of large piles, thousands of feet of strong wire netting and even more thick, heavily tarred mesh netting, is the canny seal; and he seems to know the combination, for he swims in at will, takes what salmon he wishes, and swims right out, never mazed or losing his way. Also interested in the canneries and traps that dot all of Alaska’s southern coast are the ever-present gulls, which scream and wheel about the silver fish heads poured in pile. Herring and halibut, cod and clams, shrimp, crab and trout all add their quota to Alaska’s fishy catch. One November more than a million pounds of halibut was landed on a Seattle dock from Alaska in one day, and the prospector of Interior Alaska knows no more hardship or privation than does the halibut and cod fisherman of the South Coast. Those who go dawn to these northern seas in little ships must be stout indeed of heart, for though the North Pacific is not winter cold in Arctic extremes, it is wet and foggy, and the life is truly a hard one.

The most important fishery in Alaska is for salmon, and while chinook or king, red or sockeye, pink or hump-back, chum or keta, and coho or silver salmon can all, as Lieutenant Allen ‘found on the Tanana, be taken in season in one day, the advance guard of each usually arrives in the order named; and ling cod of fine quality and size can be taken from our Tanana in the early fall, white fish and pickerel from the near-by lakes, and grayling as soon as the streams clear in early June. But salmon are the romantic fish, and red salmon or sock-eye is the best known, most valuable and most sought of Alaska’s five distinct species of wide distribution. The “silver horde” of Alaska’s streams leap water-falls to reach their desired place, and surely there is something of this salmon trait in the typical Alaskan sourdough’s make-up. He never seems to know when the heights are too great for him—and so, they never are!

What makes the salmon insist on overleaping those tumbling falls to reach their bourne? How do they know there is a lake above, where life may be ended in last rest, after long effort? Migrating seaward as slowly-matured fingerlings in the spring of their third year, they roam the sea, grow large and fatten for three seasons, inaccessible to man. Then, upon reaching sexual maturity in their third sea-summer, they return, leaping high in the air with flashes of silver as they first taste fresh water again—return to the same inland water in which they were hatched—a strange and short life history. They are not taught the way but they come back, unaided, at the very end of life-span, only to seed again their native stream, then perish. Why, then, this frantic lunging effort, with death the only goal?

Of the great cannery industry of Southeastern Alaska, and of the regulations concerning fisheries promulgated by the Federal Bureau of Fisheries, there is this to say: The organized salmon industry was undoubtedly at one time courting complete disaster by the methods employed, and could only be saved by being subjected to close supervision under well-devised regulations. To meet this emergency Congress in 1924. enacted a law (The White Bill, favored by the majority of Alaskans) granting very wide powers to the Bureau of Fisheries, and looking to the protection of fisheries in Alaska: ” for the purpose of preventing further depletion of the salmon runs and of restoring them as nearly as possible to their former condition of abundance . . . to insure year after year adequate spawning in each of the multitudinous streams through the vast extent of Alaska.” As there are more than a thousand salmon streams here, and Alaska furnishes more than two-thirds of the world’s canned salmon, the magnitude and complexity of the general problem are apparent. Almost insuperable difficulties have arisen in the way of just local administration, how-ever, and it is very hard for any mere layman to decide just who is right. Very often one faction will assert a thing to be an incontrovertible fact—but this assertion will be denied with equal assurance by the other side!

The controversy in Alaska regarding fisheries seems to hinge on the fish trap. The large and mainly non-resident cannery interests strongly support its use, while local people generally favor its prohibition. The arguments supporting the use of this appliance for catching salmon are, first, that salmon are delivered by the fish trap as needed, not too many or too few for the capacity of the cannery; second, they are delivered in better condition; third, seines cannot supply the quantity that the industry demands; and, fourth, a fish trap will not go on a strike, whereas fishermen may! The argument that trap-caught fish are cheaper is no longer seriously pushed, for the testimony on this point is very conflicting, even as gathered from cannerymen themselves.

The arguments against the fish trap of course follow along the lines laid out by its proponents: first, the fish trap, because too efficient, is depleting the supply of seed-salmon, which soon will be insufficient in quantity; second, the condition of the salmon when delivered to the cannery is entirely within the power of the buyer, the canneryman, to control; third, at one time no fish traps were used in Alaska and yet the seines and gill nets furnished an adequate supply of salmon; and, fourth, conceding the argument of cannerymen as regards the possibility of strikes, fishermen assert that as a matter of governmental policy this is not a legitimate argument, one not used against other lines of industry.

To those who claim that the salmon pack of Alaska could not be put up without traps, the anti-trap men point out the Province of British Columbia, adjoining country very similar to Southeastern Alaska in topography and weather. No fish traps are allowed there, and yet a large and steady supply of salmon (one and one-half million cases) is annually obtained from seiners and gill netters; while to those who claim that a better quality of salmon is obtained from traps, Alaskans point out that British Columbia does not use traps at all and yet secures a better market price for her product.

Granted that the fish in these colonial waters exist solely to provide (as both French and British ministers in the old days claimed for the Newfoundland banks) a maximum present food supply at cheaper cost, for the people of the Mother Country as a whole, then most of the Federal rulings and regulations, though admittedly arrived at by methods of trial and error, are well devised to meet this end. But if you grant (as do all Alaskan natives, most local white fishermen and many of the cannerymen themselves) that the seine is a better conserver of fish supply than the fish trap, and if you grant that it is the instinctive wish of American colonials and natives alike to be ” masters in their own house “—then the industry as now organized is in a position highly inimical both to colonial sentiment and settlement.

One of our most truly representative Alaskans said to me only last night: “The present rulings leave out the human and typically Alaskan element, entirely. Expensive fish traps, catching a maximum haul, are only possible to big concerns; while traps are in operation, the individual, the native of South-eastern Alaska who has always depended on salmon as his main source of food supply, is simply left to starve. The United States Government asks the native Alaskan to live as a white man, and elevate himself and his children to the white man’s standard of life—based on cleanliness, health, education, and responsible work. In the same breath the Government, by allowing commercial fish traps on the main salmon streams, takes from the southeastern Alaska native the one occupation he has been trained through centuries to follow, and colonial cousins have always met a cool reception when they come asking for `rights’ !”

The whole trouble is that there are at least three sets of interests at work here commercial fishing, game fishing, and plain family ” grub ” fishing—and one man’s meat is often another man’s lack of meat. British Columbia can well he studied in this connection and its policies may one day be adopted here, if the single end of developing Alaska as a future state of our Union shall ever be the purpose of our home government. British Columbia, a self-governing province, has built up careful policies which appear to be satisfactory both to its cannerymen and fisher-men; whereas Alaska is now in the midst of a bitter controversy, with relatively impotent territorial citizens on the one side and financially powerful non-resident cannery interests on the other.

“The trap destroys itself by its very devilish efficiency,” say my Southeastern Alaska friends. ” Gold dredging is efficient when the dredge takes out all the gold, but the proper gear for catching fish is that gear which will allow enough fish to escape, to seed the creeks properly for the coming years. It is part of the Magna Carta and of all reasonable fish legislation that people who live on the upper streams have an equal share in the fish catch with the people who live on the lower end of the streams. But the fish which come into Inian Passage and go into the traps there, are on their way to spawn in the Chilkat River; and the upland owners on the Chilkat believe they are entitled to some of the fish that ` God told to come back and spawn in our river.’ But as long as the fish traps flourish unmolested in Inian Passage, the natives simply will not get any salmon, and the traps are as surely driving out the fishing white population from the Territory as they are starving out the Indians.

” A trap can hook one end to the shore, run out into the ocean a thousand feet or more and stand all summer; but a seine fisherman cannot hook one end of his net to the shore for ten minutes without danger of prosecution and jail. In British Columbia even the canners admit it is against public policy to use fish traps, and the B. C. catch is 100 per cent. movable gear; but today practically no white seiners are left in Southeastern Alaska. The prospector used to make a grubstake by fishing and then go into the hills in winter. There are no prospectors near here, now. The Scandinavian seiners have gone into trolling, but with the new regulations affecting that, they are reduced to hard straits. Only the Indians are left to seine, and they—poor souls—cannot leave the country! If it is the Government’s policy to depopulate this section of the colony, then they are going about it very efficiently under the new fisheries rules—yet the home government constantly twits us with having a small population! The canners buy all their supplies outside Alaska, and hire three-fourths of their help outside Alaska under the yellow-dog contracts; a large percentage of such help is Asiatic, hired at slave’s wage and paid off—not in Alaska but in Seattle or San Francisco. They bring nothing to the country and they take all they dare from it.

” Doesn’t Uncle Sam realize that the residents of this Territory have a greater interest than any one else in the perpetuation of the fish business? Then why doesn’t he, who should be helpful to us, give up this harsh attitude toward his colonials—or is that too much for us to expect, from any Mother Country toward a new, raw land? But surely our Uncle Sam can consult vitally interested Alaskans before he issues regulations regarding our major industry here, and not just talk to our commercial clubs. What do the business men of the towns know about practical fishery? Nothing. And the Government holds fish hearings in Seattle, and then says, ` The public had an opportunity to present its case.’ How many of our native or small white fishermen, do you think, can afford to make a trip to Seattle and talk there to Uncle Sam about this trouble? We believe as thoroughly as any one—and more so—that the industry should be stabilized, and because of this belief we all supported the White Bill; but we do not believe that this should be done at the expense of Alaska’s population. We too are interested in industrial efficiency, but we are even more interested in living! We want to conserve both fish and population, but the Fisheries officials say frankly and openly, ` The population of Alaska is no concern of ours.’

” Until the Fisheries take the human element here into account and look on us as a colony of human beings—as Americans, not merely as a fat fish-pond —the people of Southeastern Alaska will feel the same bitter enmity that our own ancestors in Boston felt when they dumped tea overboard, one night, until it spilled like seaweed on the beach! Back in Washington they apparently do not understand why the feeling against fish traps is so strong, here. Apparently they do not understand that with large groups of our people in this section it is a question of starve or not to starve. There is nothing else these people can turn to for a livelihood.”

Who are to be heard in this matter, and what end is to be sought: optimum present pack, optimum future supply, or optimum colonial development? Years ago there was a notion of government for colonies called ” The Mercantile Theory.” Under it the ideal empire embraced the home country (” the source of credit, the seat of manufactures, the selling agency to the world for the whole empire, the center of administration, and the protective power to guard the system “) and the colonies, planted where they could send home raw products and existing for this purpose solely. ” Such a system,” Adams says, ” presupposed that every part would be willing to subordinate itself to the theoretical needs of the whole. . . . But its logic, seemingly so perfect, left out of account the fact that colonists were human beings (who would surely develop their own local interests, troubles, aspirations) and not insensible parts of a great machine. .

New England did not fit into this elaborate and delicately adjusted trade-machine.”

Because New England didn’t—and couldn’t—men like ” Sam ” Adams and John Hancock talked about Stamp Acts and Tea. But the Alaska Native Brotherhood today talks about seines and weirs, gill-nets and fish traps, ” the hook-off ” and ” the dead-line.”