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Alaska's first commercial fishery: Pacific cod, 1863-1950.

Authors:

Abstract

The historic commercial hook and line fishery for Pacific cod in Alaska, 1865-1990 is reviewed. A historical catch time series is provided, annotated by fishing power increases due to geographic and technology transfers from other fisheries. An unexpected increase in cod weight was discovered. The long observation time series spans regime shifts. It is reasonable that spawning and migration shifts may accompany shifts in abundance. The time series integrates over long-term change, qualitatively if not quantitatively.
Vessel Fishery
Shore Fishery
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#
#
#
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#
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#
0
1,000,000
2,000,000
3,000,000
4,000,000
1863
1866
1869
1872
1875
1878
1881
1884
1887
1890
1893
1896
1899
1902
1905
1908
1911
1914
1917
1920
1923
Number of Fish
Okhotksk Vessel Fishery
Alaska Vessel Fishery
Shore-Based Fishery
0
2,000,000
4,000,000
6,000,000
8,000,000
10,000,000
1926
1929
1932
1935
1938
1941
1944
1947
1950
1953
1956
1959
Pounds
Approximately
Equivalent
At the peak of the fishery over 800 men were employed in fishing for Pacific cod, spread among some 25 shore stations and 24 schooners acting as
motherships. In the shore-base component of the fishery, the men rowed dories 3 to 5 miles out from the shore stations each morning to fish, returning
to dress the catch in the afternoon. The shore-based dory fishery provides a remarkably constant level of fishing power until the advent of the “power”
dory in 1919. Millions of pounds of cod were harvested annually within rowing distance of the shore plants, mostly in the winter and often during the
spawning season, when cod roe was occasionally marketed. Did local depletion occur?
The vessel fishery occurred on offshore grounds, primarily in the
summer, in areas where shore stations could not provide convenient
harbors for the dory fishermen. The large schooners and other
vessels would make one annual fishing trip north from Puget Sound
or San Francisco Bay ports annually, though in good years they
might squeeze in a second trip.
The accompanying photographic display from the John N. Cobb collection traces the evolution of both the shore-based and vessel-based Pacific cod fishery
Fritz Funk
Division of Commercial Fisheries
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, AK 99802-5526
fritz_funk@fishgame.state.ak.us
Phil Rigby
Auke Bay Laboratory
National Marine Fisheries Service
11305 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK 99801-8626,
phillip.rigby@noaa.govs
$0
$50
$100
$150
$200
$250
$300
$350
1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930
ExVessel Price per Metric Ton
0
500,000
1,000,000
1,500,000
2,000,000
2,500,000
3,000,000
Catch (Pounds)
Price
Vessel Fishery Catch
Shore Fishery Catch
Catch declines, even
with high prices
Rowing Dories Used in Alaska Codfish Fishery
0
100
200
300
400
500
1905 1910 1915 1920 1925 1930 1935
Number of Dories
Advent of power
dories (inboard)
Most dories equipped with
outboard motors
Schooners and Large Fishing Vessels Used in Alaska Codfish
Fishery
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950
Number of Vessels
Advent of power pullers
on large vessels
All but 1 mothership has dories
equipped with outboards
Catcher Trawlers
with Factory Ship
0
200,000
400,000
600,000
800,000
1,000,000
1,200,000
1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950
Pounds per Vessel
Catch per Schooner/Large Fishing Vessel
High Prices -
Abundance Decline?
Linear Fishing
Power Increase
Historical Setting
Fishing for cod in Alaska began even before Seward’s purchase in 1867, fueled by extremely high prices for codfish on the
west coast, as high as $300 per ton in 19th century dollars, not adjusted for inflation. The completion of transcontinental rail
systems in the same year of Alaska’s would later tie east and west coast cod markets and supplies together, but in the mid
to late 19th century Pacific cod fisheries were as yet largely undeveloped and Atlantic cod were not yet available on the
West Coast.
Combining Art and Science
Like most long fishery time series, there are “gaps” in the hard data of fishery records and substantial changes in fishing
power and in the very character of the fishery that make it challenging to construct meaningful continuous time series of
information. However, a number of individuals have left rich textual and photographic descriptions of the Alaska cod fishery
to augment the official catch and effort records. In particular, the John N. Cobb photo collection documents this fishery in
ways that scientific information is often unable to capture. In the photographic display accompanying this poster, the
images describe the character of the important eras of the fishery and provide an understanding of the changes in fishing
power through this period. Though these techniques are not quantitative, they do provide the understanding and value
judgements that make the catch and effort information much more valuable as a long-term ecological indicator.
Mining An Old Fishery Time Series for Biological Information
Objective
Using recorded scientific data, textual descriptions and photographic records, we attempted to reconstruct continuous time
series of fishery and biological information that might useful for assessing long-term ecosystem productivity, evaluate
regime shifts and study the effects of localized removals Pacific cod.
The basic catch time series illustrates some of the problems often encountered in fishery data, such as reporting catch in
numbers or weight, but not both. Nonetheless it describes the basic development of the fishery. Many of the peaks and valleys
have explanations in external forces. The Sea of Okhotsk fishery developed first likely because fishing grounds were known in
Asian countries. The shore-based fishery was preferred when safe harbors were located near fishing grounds, due to the
sometimes extreme hazards of dory fishing from sailing mothership vessels. Loss of life was very common.
Large swings in prices explain some of the changes in catch. However, despite the very high prices from 1918-20
and large increases in powered fishing technology (power dories and gear lifters), catch declined dramatically,
strongly implying a reduction in resource abundance or availability.
Average Cured Weight
0
1
2
3
4
1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930
Pounds
Shore stations were distributed mostly along the south Alaska Peninsula and adjacent
islands. The Sanak and Shumagin Islands saw particular concentrations of fishing effort.
Numerous fishing locations were tried experimentally and failed, as the more successful
shore stations persisted on Sanak, Unga and Popof islands, near predictable
concentrations of overwintering cod.
The number of dories fished were recorded in the fishing records and provide a dramatic
description of the peak and ending of the fishery. With the debut of the “power dory” at the shore
stations around 1919, winter catch actually declined. Apparently the powered dories were too
heavy for the fishermen to conveniently and repetitively haul out of the water during bouts of bad
weather, so they remained hauled out for the winter. Having experienced power dory fishing the
men were apparently reluctant to return to the easier-launched rowing dories. Written observations
like that anecdote are essential in interpreting even basic catch records in the face of what would
otherwise have been a massive increase in mobility and fishing power.
Average weights reported in the catch records contain some apparent trends of biologically
significant magnitude. Part of the increase around the turn of the century was attributed to the
vessel fishing exploring new, untapped fishing grounds further offshore, implying the inner banks
may have been heavily fished.
The vessel fishery displays a remarkably linear increase in apparent fishing power from the
beginning of the fishery through 1917. Like the shore-based fishery, the vessel fishery in
1918-10 declined sharply, in spite of the exorbitant ex-vessel price.
Some of the changes in catch are attributable to changes in fishing power, with some of
the watershed events being the introduction of power gear lifters in 1913, a technology
borrowed from Great Lakes net-fishing vessels, and the introduction of outboards to the
dories in the late 1920s.
The Vessel (Schooner) Fishery
The Shore-Based Vessel Fishery
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