Editor's Note: Part two of our "Thanks for all the fish" series, which looks into the billion-dollar commercial fishing industry that has defined and sustained our fair city since its founding. Today, Steve Dunphy explores the still-potent economic impact of the region's fisheries. What, you didn't know this city was built on cod?
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Seattle’s economy was based on natural resources and the processing of them. Timber from the region’s vast forests was turned into lumber. Wheat and produce were milled and canned for consumption elsewhere. Coal from places with names like Black Diamond fueled industry and was exported to other areas. Fish from Alaska was processed in the canneries that lined the waterfront.
As late as the 1960s Seattle remained dependent on resource-based industries — despite the fact that a modest builder of commercial aircraft had recently introduced a global game-changer called the “jetliner.” In 1962, as the Seattle World’s Fair prepared the region for its debut on the international stage, dozens of sawmills still operated from Everett to Tacoma.
Today most of that resource-based industry is gone, eclipsed by coffee, software, biotech, computer games, sophisticated retail operations, global trade and, of course, aerospace. But one of those original industries still flourishes: fishing. Despite all the changes the Seattle economy has been through in the past century, this one industry has endured. As one fisher put it: “The salmon still swim the same way.”
What makes the fishing industry here unique is that it still reflects at least some of the characteristics that made it important a century ago. It remains the mainstay of a “thick layer of highly paid blue-collar employment,” writes Michael Luis in his book on Seattle history, Century 21 City. A fishery worker can still make a good salary without a college degree; a college student can amass $40,000-plus as a part-time summer worker. Hard work, to be sure — and dangerous — but the potential to make a good living is still there.
How big is the commercial fishing industry?
Trying to answer that question is difficult because the industry is so varied and complex. There is fin fishing, the largest part of the industry and the one this story will focus on, especially the Alaska piece. There is the shellfish industry, exemplified by companies such as Taylor Shellfish, which employs about 500 people and farms nearly 11,000 acres of shellfish beds in Washington and British Columbia. There is a thriving sports fishery in Puget Sound and along the coast, which supports charter boats, bait shops and retail institutions such as 67-year-old Patrick’s Fly Shop in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. And there are also tribal fishing operations, which grew out of the famous Boldt Decision, the historic 1974 ruling that reaffirmed the rights of Washington's native tribes to fish in their traditional places.
One estimate values the commercial fishing industry at nearly $6 billion overall, employing more than 10,000 workers. In addition to the traditional fishing jobs — captains, deck hands and the like — there are shipwrights and welders, pipefitters and engineers, specialists in engine/propulsion repair and experts in bilge cleaning, chandlers, insurance brokers, restaurant owners and workers and the teams of people who manage and maintain the fishing ports. Fishermen's Terminal in Magnolia, home to Seattle’s fishing fleet, provides moorage, of course, but also showers, laundry and storage facilities. A 2007, Port of Seattle study showed that fishing-related activity at Fishermen’s Terminal (Terminal 91) and the nearby Maritime Industrial Center generated 5,607 direct jobs and total revenues of more than $800 million. And that’s not counting the commercial value of the fish.
Characters, companies and change
Commercial fishing in the Pacific Northwest includes David Harsila (above), who owns two boats that fish the waters around Bristol Bay, and Kenny Down, President and CEO of Blue North Fisheries, a multi-million-dollar fishing and trading company. There is Marco Global, which revolutionized purse-seine fishing with the invention of its net-hauling “Powerblock” in the 1950s and remains a major supplier of fishing and marine equipment. On the north side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal there is Icicle Seafoods. One of the region’s largest seafood companies, Icicle began in the winter of 1965 when a group of local fishermen and cannery workers purchased the Pacific American Fisheries cannery in Petersburg, Alaska.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!