Thanks for all the fish

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

Industries have come and gone since then. Sawmills no longer line the waterfront in Seattle or even in Everett, the definitive Milltown. Tacoma has lost its aroma. But Seattle hasn’t entirely ceased being a city of broad shoulders. Unbeknownst to many of the urbanites sipping mojitos along the south shore of Lake Union, across the lake and out the ship canal grease-stained guys are still welding and hammering and cutting steel, fixing pumps and refrigeration units and readying the boats for another season. Most will go to Alaska, which has the fish but not the roads and rails to ship them on, nor the human and physical infrastructure it takes to build and maintain the fleets that catch them.

No pocket protector for this deckhand. Credit: Sarah Radmer

The fishing trade doesn’t exactly fit the prevailing Seattle stereotype. It’s hard enough for T-shirted coders and tattooed rockers to identify with pocket-protected Boeing engineers — but a bunch of rain-slickered, gut-spattered yahoos defying some of the world’s worst weather so McDonald’s and a zillion cheap sushi counters can have a never-ending supply of battered fish filets and extruded fake crab?

Besides, the prime fishing grounds are far away. There was no marine equivalent to the War in the Woods, that epic battle over logging the region's remaining ancient forests. Impressive though they are, Steller sea lions never made headlines the way spotted owls and marbled murrelets did. Each new urban wave in Seattle seems a little more detached from the sea that once defined life here. When we use “the Puget Sound” to refer to the region, we are often forgetting the actual water body that lends the region its name.

That will never do. It's time we got our sea legs back.

Tomorrow: Steve Dunphy explores the economic impact of Puget Sound's sprawling $5 billion commercial fishing industry.

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