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Thanks for all the fish

Crosscut delves into the vital, sprawling, oft-forgotten heart of Seattle's economy and character: commercial fishing.
Cap'n Sam sets a salmon net in Alaska's Aniakchak Bay.

Cap'n Sam sets a salmon net in Alaska's Aniakchak Bay. Credit: Buzz Hoffman/Flickr

Editor's Note: Seattle's $5 billion commercial fishing industry has defined and sustained this city from its founding. For the next few weeks, Crosscut will explore the still-potent economic impact of the region's fisheries, the surprising history behind them and the complex environmental equations that sustain them. What, you didn't know this city was built on cod?

Few readers likely blinked when Jon Talton, The Seattle Times’  usually incisive business writer, launched a June 8th column with this blithe summary of Seattle’s economic evolution: “We built this city on rock ’n’ roll, and logs, airplanes, software and IPOs.” Some readers may have wondered why he didn’t mention retail. Seattle-born Costco, Amazon and Starbucks, not to mention Nordstrom, REI and Eddie Bauer have changed the way stuff is sold nationwide and worldwide. Fewer likely thought of the $5 billion economic engine that revved before all those other enterprises were even founded, without which they likely never would have come to be, which has helped define and sustain this city from its founding: the perilous, messy, sprawling, highly profitable and increasingly high-tech business of commercial fishing.

It’s easy to forget the gritty, all-too-real trade of fishing in a city and an era enthralled with digital distraction. Starting here, Crosscut sets out to correct that. On Thursday, Crosscut contributor Stephen Dunphy will gauge the enormous, enduring economic impact of the industry Seattle forgot, but which has not forgotten Seattle. In the coming weeks, Knute Berger will recount the amazing, little-known tale of how Washington pushed the U.S. government to acquire Alaska then came to dominate (to this day) its vast fishery. And Daniel Jack Chasan will examine the thorny environmental questions that even the world’s most sustainable large-scale fisheries pose.

For millennia, abundant salmon and shellfish sustained the native peoples along these shores. The pioneer “Bostons” who settled among them took the hint: “The Lay of the Old Settler,” Francis Henry’s paean to pioneer contentment Puget Sound-style, ends on “acres of clams,” not “tons of timber” or “teraflops of data.”

The white newcomers began exporting these fishy resources almost as soon as they started eating them; in 1820, Hudson’s Bay agents sent dried fish back to England. Enterprising settlers began shipping native Olympia oysters from Shoalwater (now Willapa) Bay in 1851, a few months before their counterparts at New York Alki started loading logs for San Francisco. The native oysters have long since been depleted, but the Willapa Bay beds, re-seeded with Japanese imports, are still the most productive in the country.

Commercial fishing has been eclipsed in the public imagination by code and coffee. Credit: Sarah Radmer

The fish and timber industries grew in tandem after that, one and then the other in first place. Fish canneries as well as sawmills dotted the waterfronts around Puget Sound and clustered thick as spawning salmon on the Columbia River. The Columbia runs, the greatest south of Canada, were fished so hard that the catch peaked and began to decline after just 30 years, in 1895. The Puget Sound catch topped out 18 years later, at 2.3 million cases of canned salmon, nearly four times the Columbia’s peak.

By then of course the fishers and canners were fattening on Alaska’s even more abundant stocks. Alaska fish — not salmon but humble cod — were an unsung factor in the controversial decision to purchase that enormous wildland. As Knute Berger will recount, their allure prompted Washington’s territorial legislature to lend its unwitting but influential endorsement to “Seward’s folly.” Furs are more commonly credited as an inducement, but even they came from the so-called “seal fishery,” the lucrative harvest of Bering Sea fur seals. Alaskan and Yukon gold would soon fund Seattle’s rise to metropolitan stature and wealth. But the sea’s riches were what drew people there in the first place. The sea made the gold rush possible.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 8:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Crosscut is to be commended for addressing this important and underappreciated part of Seattle's history, economy and mystique. Assigning your best writers to this fascinating subject gives one hope that there is still a living, beating heart somewhere inside Crosscut. The seemingly endless vapid wonkiness and superficiality of recent political "news" is enough to make one consider resubscribing to the Seattle Times.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Amen

afreeman

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for a great start to the important topic of local fisheries. Reading the article brings up a question I have had for years. I have read a number of places that the Columbia River had the largest salmon runs in the North America or the world, but I had some doubts. This article says the Columbia River salmon runs were the largest south of Canada, but yet it says the Puget Sound salmon catch reached a peak 4 times the size of the Columbia's peak. I realize that it is likely impossible to know exactly since records of actual salmon runs and salmon catches back then were incomplete. But what do the incomplete records tell us about the size of the Columbia salmon runs versus Puget Sound salmon runs versus Canadian versus other world salmon river runs?

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

It's great to see Crosscut writing on this topic, and hopefully it will bring some of our neglected heritage and industry to light. I would warn against getting too preoccupied with your stereotypes though, this white collar, tattoed, occasional-SLU-cocktail-sipping Seattilite spends his weekends covered in fish guts, scales, eggs and sun burns working to fill the family freezer from Puget Sound. And I'm not alone. It's not my grandfathers commercial fishing, but it's an important part of our Seattle identity and one that is a lot more common than many in this city realize.

Also - NO PEBBLE MINE. There isn't a single bigger threat to our Northwest fishing industry, jobs, and heritage right now. Hopefully you'll delve into it. Here's a pointer: www.savebristolbay.org

CGBallard

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

To clarify; the widespread habitat destruction and alteration of west coast watersheds over the last 100 years, and continuing today, is a bigger threat to our salmon. But the Pebble Mine is a threat we can stop before it starts!

CGBallard

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

It's difficult to compare Columbia River salmon runs and Fraser River runs because the predominant species are different. The Columbia was the world's largest producer of Chinook salmon, along with many Coho and some Sockeye and Chum. The Columbia has been rebuilding and it is still probably the largest producer on the West Coast of Chinook with yearly returns over 1 million Chinook It provides a major portion of the Chinook caught in the SE Alaska troll fishery, along with harvests in BC and in Washington and Oregon.

The Fraser was, and still is, a huge producer of Sockeye, along with large numbers of Pink salmon, and lesser numbers of Coho, Chinook and Chum. One reason the Puget Sound catch topped off in 1913 is because the famous Hell's Gate railroad slide occurred that year in the Fraser canyon and disrupted the biology of those runs. The Fraser sockeye are a four-year fish with a dominant year, a sub-dominant year, and two off years for each lake in the Fraser system that produces Sockeye. Up until that time, all four cycles on the Fraser peaked in the same year. As they rebuilt afterwards, they redistributed so that every year has at least one dominant run, but some lake systems are bigger than others, such as the Adams that had a modern-day record in 2010 of over 25 million sockeye, so there is a lot of variation between years. And of course the Pinks only return to the Fraser in odd-numbered years.

Understanding salmon in the Northwest is very complicated, and a casual coverage is as apt to mislead as it is to enlighten. The history is complex, the conservation is complex, the harvest is complex, the utilization by various user groups is complex. Hopefully this series will do a good job of telling the story. The subject deserves more discussion and credit than it usually gets - we still often take our salmon for granted.

fallcreek

Posted Thu, Sep 5, 3:02 a.m. Inappropriate

fallcreek - excellent comment!

s_calvert

Posted Thu, Sep 5, 10:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank God Crosscut is writing about a story that most Seattleites should know, but don't. We buy salmon, cod, halibut, crab at the store, in the restaurant, at the farmers' markets, and have no idea where it comes from. We breathe in the salt air, take in billions of dollars as a state in salaries, boat-building, boat repairs, welding, marine biology, and flyfishing guides; and sell fish and seafood to the rest of the world. We have ports and ships and shipyards and unions for a reason here. We build things. Time to have heart-to-heart talks about where we are headed. Don't assume there's a shared vision. Glad Crosscut is asking us to pay attention.

Posted Fri, Sep 6, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Looking forward to the series - thanks.

Treker

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