Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Canning Salmon at Excursion Inlet, Alaska: The First Century

By: Jim Mackovjak, Gustavus, Alaska
The first cannery in what was officially known as the Icy Strait District of Southeast Alaska was not at Excursion Inlet, but at Bartlett Cove, in Glacier Bay. The Bartlett Bay Packing Company operated for only three years, 1889 through 1891, before it was closed because of overcapacity and consolidation in the industry. In 1900, the Western Fisheries Company constructed and operated a cannery at Dundas Bay. The cannery operated almost continuously under various ownerships until it was permanently shuttered in 1931.[i]

The story of today’s cannery at Excursion Inlet began at Haines in February 1906 with the purchase by the Bellingham, Washington-based Pacific American Fisheries Company (PAF) of the Alaska Fisheries Union salmon cannery. A second cannery, that of the Astoria & Puget Sound Canning Company (APSC), was also located at Haines.

PAF’s purchase of the Haines cannery—the company’s first venture into Alaska’s fisheries—seems to have been untimely, because that year there was a great shortage of sockeye salmon in Lynn Canal. Of the five species of Alaska salmon, sockeye were by far the most desired by canners. The Canal’s principal sockeye streams, the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers, had been, in the words of a federal fisheries official, “fatally overfished.”[1] [ii] To secure sufficient salmon to operate their plants, the operators of the two canneries at Haines brought in trap-caught fish from Icy Strait, nearly a hundred miles away. With Lynn Canal’s salmon runs depleted, there was little incentive to maintain operations at Haines, but very good reason to move closer to their salmon traps. The cost of transporting salmon would be reduced, and, since fish in transport at that time were not iced, spoilage would be reduced as well. PAF acquired a cannery site on the northeast shore of Excursion Inlet, in what the company called the “justly famous Icy Straits fishing district,” in 1907. The following year, it erected a cannery building, and, with the canning equipment from the Haines plant, began canning salmon. PAF was not alone in its new location: APSC, its former neighbor in Haines, also established and operated a cannery at Excursion Inlet in 1908, at a site just south of the PAF cannery. APSC’s “Glacier Cannery,” as it was called on the trade tokens it issued, did not operate in 1909, but resumed regular canning operations the following year.

In about 1910, Hoonah residents Steve Kane and Oliver Hillman constructed a water-powered sawmill on the west shore of the Inlet, in what became known as Sawmill Bay. Most of the material cut was used to build and repair salmon traps.[iii] The sawmill operated until 1928, and was then dismantled and moved to Hoonah.[iv]

Both of Excursion Inlet’s canneries, it seems, depended almost completely on traps for their supply of salmon. The traps, PAF wrote, allowed a canner to “maintain absolute control of the size of his catch at all times.”[v] Government officials looked favorably on fish traps, mostly because they were stationary and easy to monitor, as opposed to vessels that could enter the mouth of a stream and leave with a load of fish with no one the wiser.[vi] Fishermen resented the traps, which they felt caught too many fish and deprived them of a market for their catch. Robbing them, often with the complicity of paid-off watchmen, was considered good sport and an honorable occupation. Icy Strait was considered a fertile ground for “fish pirates.”[vii]

There were few restrictions on salmon fishing before the passage of the White Act in 1924,[2] but PAF, nevertheless, managed to run afoul of federal fisheries regulators: Out of a total of 53 indictments of fish trap owners for violations in Southeast Alaska in 1908, PAF accounted for 23. (APSC had 1.) [viii] Over the following decade, the PAF cannery annually operated 16 to 19 traps.[ix] In 1914 there were about 180 salmon traps in all of Southeast Alaska. Of these, fully 20 were between Excursion Inlet and Point Couverden.[x] PAF’s most productive trap, however, was at George Island, in Cross Sound.[xi] The company also operated a pile trap at Pt. Gustavus, at the entrance to Glacier Bay. For a number of years, the trap was operated under a permit from the National Park Service.

A by-products plant was erected at the PAF cannery in 1916 to reduce fish waste into fertilizer and fish oil. The following year, the APSC cannery burned, but was rebuilt in time to operate the following season. In 1918, the PAF cannery had six can lines that could be operated simultaneously. Four were 1-pound tall lines, one was a 1-pound flat line, and the last was a ½-pound flat line.[xii]

The PAF and APSC canneries both canned salmon each year through 1931. The PAF cannery did not operate for the 1932 or 1933 seasons, but resumed canning for the 1934 season.[xiii] The pack at the APSC cannery in 1932 was 80,500 cases.[3] In 1935, PAF closed its cannery and with APSC began joint operations as Consolidated Fisheries.[xiv] Though its cannery would never operate again, PAF still owned 8 salmon traps in the area.[xv] In 1937 and 1938, Consolidated Fisheries was listed as operating 10 floating traps and 3 pile traps, and almost certainly purchased some fish from seine boats.[xvi] In 1939, only the APSC cannery was listed as operating, but it may have also canned PAF fish under contract.[xvii] In 1941, the APSC cannery’s pack was nearly 160,000 cases.[xviii]

World War II brought big changes to Excursion Inlet. In August 1942, construction began on an army shipping base just south of the APSC cannery. To produce an adequate supply of canned salmon with a minimum utilization of critical materials, manpower and, shipping facilities, a 1943 government directive ordered canneries to consolidate operations. As had been the case during previous years, the APSC cannery canned fish for PAF, an arrangement that seems to have continued after the war was over.[xix] The salmon pack at the APSC Excursion Inlet cannery for the years 1945-1947 averaged about 44,500 cases annually.[xx]

In the spring of 1948, the venerable APSC cannery at Excursion Inlet was destroyed by a fire that was said to have started from an oil stove in the watchman’s quarters. Also burned were three warehouses, the oil dock, and a shed that contained 150,000 feet of steel cable that was essential to trap operations.[xxi] This fire ended APSC’s canning history at Excursion Inlet.

Salmon were not canned again at the Inlet until 1951. In January of that year, PAF purchased a 180-foot by 400-foot former Army warehouse building at the Inlet, and not long thereafter entered into a joint venture with the Columbia River Packers Association (later Bumble Bee Seafoods) to form Excursion Inlet Packing Company (XIP). The new enterprise quickly began moving canning machinery into the warehouse building. Though XIP managed to can a few fish that season in the cannery, its pack was mostly made aboard the floating cannery, Neva.[xxii] Full canning operations began with the 1952 season and continue to this day in a building that has proved admirably suited to the purpose.

XIP began operations with one pile trap (Point Gustavus) and five floaters (two at Dundas Bay, one at the southwest end Pleasant Island, one just west of Pt. Adolphus, and one at what is locally-known as Trap Point, on Chichagof Island just east of Port Fredrick).[xxiii] Stan Tarrant, president of PAF, wrote in 1951 of the need to build up a seine fleet of local fishermen, but little seems to have been done.[xxiv]

Ole Syre was the XIP cannery’s first superintendent. Syre had first come to Excursion Inlet in the early 1920s to be superintendent of the APSC cannery, a position in which he remained for about 25 years. In 1957, his son, Bob became superintendent of the XIP cannery. Bob had first come to Excursion Inlet in 1927, when he was nine months old. From that year through 1946, he spent every summer at the Inlet. The young hero of the book Pirates of Icy Strait, a tale of the thwarting of fishermen who were robbing the cannery’s fish traps, seems to have been based on his experiences as a boy.

The canned salmon industry in Alaska had changed little between the time Syre was first brought to Excursion Inlet and when he was made superintendent. It faced a major upheaval, however, with the advent of Alaska’s statehood: fish traps were outlawed in State waters. If the cannery was to continue operating, it would have to secure a reliable supply of fish from independent fishermen. In 1959, the year of Alaska’s statehood, XIP had only five seiners that regularly supplied fish, and none were particularly productive. Fortunately, XIP was able to “buy” a seine fleet from the Pelican Packing Company. A poor salmon run prediction may have precipitated the sale.

The 1960 canning season was a good one at Pelican, and the one-line cannery managed to put up 120,000 cases. The prediction for the following year’s salmon run in northern Southeast Alaska, however, was dismal. Faced with the possibility of operating at marginal capacity, Pelican Packing chose to contract XIP to custom can its fish. Unlike most canneries, Pelican Packing owned no traps, and had based its operation on seine-caught fish from Cross Sound and Icy Strait.

The fish were of excellent quality—they were fresh from the open ocean, still feeding, and showed few signs of the deterioration in appearance and flesh quality that occurs as salmon approach their natal streams. The Cross Sound/Icy Strait fishery had one major drawback: It was an “intercept” fishery. The fish being caught were bound for streams throughout the northern half of Southeast Alaska, and Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) managers could not determine which stocks were being caught. This uncertainty did not mesh with the Department’s efforts to ensure sufficient spawning populations in each of the region’s principal salmon streams.

Many of the seiners who fished for Pelican Packing were Hoonah Natives. The men were legendary in their ability to fish the fast-flowing, often turbulent waters of the Inian Islands area. And they caught a lot of fish. The principal reason they fished for Pelican Packing was because they had no good alternative; Pelican Packing owned the mortgages on their boats.

In 1961, XIP bought out Pelican Packing Company, including the mortgages on the Hoonah seine fleet. A.W. Brindle, of Ketchikan-based Wards Cove Packing Company, financed the purchase and became one-third owner of XIP. The Pelican cannery’s equipment was moved to Excursion Inlet.

Bob Syre saw the need to upgrade the Hoonah seine fleet and soon contracted for the construction in a Seattle shipyard of three new seiners, the Gypsy Queen, Ocean Queen, and Vagabond Queen.[xxv] Under Syre, the company also established a freezing operation and began buying halibut and troll-caught salmon. It also began processing salmon eggs into caviar for the Japanese market.

In 1965, PAF was liquidated and its share in XIP purchased by the two remaining partners. In 1974, the salmon seine fishery in Cross Sound and Icy Strait was terminated by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Up to 400 vessels had annually fished the area. For the cannery at Excursion Inlet, a substantial portion of the fish lost by the closure was made up by fisheries at the Hidden Falls and Douglas Island salmon hatcheries, which came on line during the late1970s. Bumble Bee Seafoods pulled out of the XIP partnership in 1983, and Wards Cove Packing became the sole owner of the Excursion Inlet cannery.

Bob Syre remained superintendent of the cannery until 1991. In 2003, the Excursion Inlet Packing Company was sold to its current owner, Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods (formerly Washington Fish & Oyster).

Of the seven canneries established over the years in the Icy Strait district, only one, Excursion Inlet, remains.[4] It has persisted for a century, through two world wars, the Depression, through good salmon runs and poor ones, through the elimination of salmon traps and other huge changes in the structure of Alaska’s salmon fishing industry. It is among Alaska’s most successful fish processing operations.

[1] The runs later recovered under more restrictive management.
[2] The legislation gave the Secretary of Commerce broad powers with respect to control of the time, place, and method of commercial fishing. 
[3] A case equals 48 1-pound tall cans.
[4] Bartlett Cove, Dundas Bay, Hoonah, Port Althorp, Pelican, and Excursion Inlet

[i] John N. Cobb, Pacific Salmon Fisheries, Bureau of Fisheries Doc. No. 1092, Fourth Edition (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1930), 445; “Chronological History of Salmon Canneries in Southeastern Alaska,” in 1949 Annual Report, Alaska Fisheries Board and Alaska Department of Fisheries, Report No.1, pg. 31.
[ii] Howard M. Kutchin, Report on the Salmon Fisheries of Alaska in 1906, Bureau of Fisheries (Washington: GPO, 1907), 27.
[iii] “Saw Mill Notice,” Daily Alaska Dispatch (Juneau), March 13, 1911.
[iv] Frank T. Been, “Inspection of Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska, August 1 to August 27, 1939,” 32. Report on file at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Gustavus, Alaska.
[v] The Shield, May 1957.  Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[vi] Barton Warren Evermann, Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1913, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 797 (Washington: GPO, 1914), 46.
[vii] Ward T. Bower and Henry D. Aller, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Sea  Industries in 1920, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 909 (Washington: GPO, 1921), 29.
[viii] Fisheries of Alaska in 1908, Bureau of Fisheries Doc. No. 645 (Washington: GPO, 1908), 33; Act of June 6, 1924.
[ix] “Hoonah Packing Company,” The Shield, Vol. 1, No. 8 (December 1918): 58. Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[x] E. Lester Jones, Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914, Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries (Washington: GPO, 1915), 6, 14.
[xi] Bob Syre, personal communication with author.
[xii] “Hoonah Packing Company,” The Shield, Vol. 1, No. 8 (December 1918): 58. Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[xiii] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1934, (Washington: GPO, 1935): 30.
[xiv] Robert Syre to Steve Langdon, April 4 and July 18, 1997.
[xv] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1934, (Washington: GPO, 1935): 33.
[xvi] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1938, Appendix II to Report of Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1939 (Washington: GPO, 1940), 125; A. Morris Rafn (Bureau of Fisheries), Juneau District Annual Report, 1937, pg. 19.
[xvii] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1939, Appendix II to Report of Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1939, (Washington: GPO, 1941), 135.
[xviii] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xix] “Concentration Program Announced for Alaska Canned Salmon Industry,” Pacific Fisherman (April 1943): 11-14; “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xx] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xxi] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xxii] Stan Tarrant, Pacific American Fisheries, operating recommendations for 1951 salmon season, February 26, 1951; “Excursion Inlet—Back on It Feet Again,” Pacific Fisherman (September 1952): 19; Seton H. Thompson, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries: 1951, Statistical Digest No. 31 (Washington: GPO, 1954), 35.
[xxiii] Seton H. Thompson, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries: 1952, Statistical Digest No. 33 (Washington: GPO, 1954), 33.
[xxiv] Stan Tarrant, Pacific American Fisheries, operating recommendations for 1951 salmon season, February 26, 1951.
[xxv] Robert Syre to Steve Langdon, April 4 and July 18, 1997.

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