Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Early Years of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery


Paddy Mullan, 1966
As the King Crab fishery peaked in the mid-1960s, everyone in Kodiak knew that something extraordinary was happening. Millions of pounds of crabs were coming across the docks, new state of the art crab boats arrived every week, thousands of young people were suddenly in town, and fortunes were being made and spent with equal abandon. But while the work was lucrative- $50,000 crew shares were not unheard of- the fishery was extremely dangerous too, and boats and men were lost at sea on a regular basis every winter. These elements of youth and money and danger made Kodiak an exhilarating place to be.

And then, in 1982, it ended. The crab went away, for reasons still not fully understood. People moved on to other fisheries, to other occupations, or off the island. The fishermen got older and started having kids. The town quieted down. But the stories remained, filtering through the collective memory of Kodiak and other fishing communities along Alaska’s Gulf coast and down to Seattle, stories of huge catches and crazy paychecks, of wild behavior and hard, hard work, of being young and invincible, of a fishery that seemed at the time to be forever.

For many people in Kodiak, whether you were here to see it or not, this classic American boom and bust story is our community origin myth, the accepted version of Kodiak’s history of the last fifty years.  

But what happened before all those crabs started getting caught in the 1960's? How did the boom begin? Like many grand events, it started out small, with a few people laboring in obscurity, dreaming of something bigger. Hard work, new technology, government support, and the rising affluence of America after World War II all played a part. 

The Early Years, 1920-1938.

King crabs in three species live across the top of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea from Japan to British Columbia, and people have been eating them for thousands of years. No one tried putting crab meat into cans however, until the Japanese pioneered the technology in the 1880's, initially from their home islands, and eventually using factory ships in the Sea of Okhotsk and the western Bering Sea. In 1930 the Japanese began fishing for king crabs on American side of the Bering Sea as well. The first canned Japanese crab arrived in the U.S. in 1906, and by 1939 the American market was importing 400,000 cases of king crab meat a year from Japan. The fact that some of this crab meat was caught in Alaska did not go unnoticed by the Alaskan canning industry.

King Crab processing workers, 1930s. 

Alaskan salmon processors had been looking for another way to make money with their plants for years. The Alaska Packing Company put up an experimental pack in Seldovia in 1920 and through the ‘20s and ‘30s fishermen and canneries from Hoonah to Kodiak  harvested, processed and sold canned king crab meat  in ever larger amounts, with varying success.

One of the pioneers in this effort was “Kinky” Alexander, a salmon cannery man, who experimented with king crab at plants on Kodiak Island, at False Pass, and at Seldovia. In the mid ‘30s, Pacific American Fisheries set Alexander up with an experimental cannery in Seldovia to work on ways to process king crab and shrimp more efficiently.

L.G. Wingard, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries
Photo: University of Alaska Archives
Alexander’s work got the attention of Lemuel G. Wingard, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Alaska. In 1938, Wingard persuaded private investors to back a crab finding and processing expedition to Alaska with the Tondelayo, a steel hulled 113 foot former San Francisco lightship. Wingard hired Kinky Alexander to refit the ship with canning equipment and it headed north in August 1938.

Through the fall of 1938 the Tondelayo worked from Seldovia to the Aleutians, canning king crab caught by local salmon fishermen and a few Puget Sound trawlers who came north for the venture. While the expedition proved that king crab could be caught and processed on a fairly large scale, the venture was a bust for the investors, discouraging further private financing in a possible king crab industry.

1940: The Feds Step In

Touting the 1938 expedition as proof of concept, Mr. Wingard then persuaded various Congressmen and Senators, and even President Roosevelt, to support a much more ambitious crab survey using $100,000 in Federal money. Reportedly, Roosevelt was skeptical until the Secretary of the Interior brought in some whole king crabs. The crabs were impressive and Roosevelt okay'ed the funding.

Beginning in August 1940, the Tondelayo and the halibut schooner Dorothea caught and processed crab from Kodiak to False Pass. They experimented with trawl nets, crab pots, and tangle gear, or “diver” nets. The 200 fathom (1,200 feet) tangle nets were six feet high and were laid like fences on the bottom to snare perambulating king crab.

Early on however, it became apparent that the cork floats which held the nets upright on the bottom were being crushed by the depths to which they were being submerged. Without the necessary buoyancy the nets were lying flat on the bottom and the crabs were walking right over them. The bartenders and fishermen of Cordova solved the problem by donating a supply of recently emptied beer bottles, which, when sealed up, made excellent tangle net floats.

The Tondelayo and the Dorothea came north again the following March, this time accompanied by the 63 foot seiner Champion and the 54 foot seiner Locks. The 1941 expedition surveyed from Southeast Alaska to St. Laurence Island, finding notable king crab populations in the southeastern Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island. In December 1941 however, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and six months later bombed Dutch Harbor, and invaded Kiska and Attu. Further Federally subsidized king crab surveys would happen after the war, but combat operations put an end to those efforts for the duration.

Lowell Wakefield and the Deep Sea

Lowell Wakefield
Fishermen and processors kept thinking about king crab however. Using tangle gear left behind by the Tondelayo, Wakefield Fisheries continued to produce a few hundred cases of crab a year through the war years at Port Wakefield, on Raspberry Island, north of Kodiak. The product sold fast, perhaps because the usual supply of Japanese crab meat was interrupted by hostilities. Lowell Wakefield, the head of the company, began to hope that a winter king crab fishery could keep the plant operating year round, making money for the company and providing winter employment for local residents and fishermen.

The Deep Sea.
When the war ended in 1945, Wakefield outfitted a trawler, the Bering Sea, with nets and processing equipment to go after king crab. In 1947, using what he had learned with the Bering Sea, he gathered a group of investors and a Federal loan to finance and build the Deep Sea, a revolutionary 120 foot steel vessel specially designed to catch and process king crab in the Bering Sea. The venture ran in the red for the first few years, but eventually made money for all involved. The Deep Sea worked in the Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island well into the 1960's, and as an anchored floating processor in Akutan until the late 70's. In 2012 it burned at anchor in Puget Sound and was scrapped.

King Crab aboard the Deep Sea
(Photo: Bryan Nixon)
The Deep Sea pioneered the use of compressed air to get crab meat out of the shells, and froze the cooked crab meat, rather than canning it. Freezing was a breakthrough idea- the meat tasted better than canned crab, and Americans were buying refrigerators with freezer compartments as fast as they could be built, encouraging the consumption of new products like frozen crab. The American shipping and retail infrastructure was also rapidly improving too, allowing timely shipments from Alaska to supermarkets across the country. Frozen crab meat was an idea whose time had come.

The Fishery Matures

By 1950 fishermen had largely given up on tangle nets, which damaged the crab legs, and in a frenzy of experimentation went from four-foot round pots to larger square pots, which fished better and could be stacked more efficiently on deck. By the mid-1960's, seven-by-seven foot square steel pots were the fleet standard.

From the beginning of the fishery boats had delivered their crab stacked alive in dry fish holds, but the crabs had to be butchered alive and lived only a few hours out of water, which limited the distance a boat could fish from a processing plant. To allow for longer trips to further way fishing grounds, fishermen began spraying seawater over the crab and eventually built steel crab tanks into the hulls which, when filled with fresh circulating seawater, kept crabs alive for up to two weeks.

By the mid-1950's, with these technical innovations in place, a vast potential American market, and an apparently limitless biomass of king crabs, the boom was on. 

As it turned out of course, the biomass was not unlimited and the Kodiak king crab fishery peaked at 90 million pounds in 1966. Commercial catches declined steadily thereafter until the last year of the Kodiak commercial king crab fishery in 1982, when the fleet caught just under nine million pounds. While the Bristol Bay king crab season still goes on, the guideline harvest level for this year’s fishery, which starts this week, is 10 million pounds.

This story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director, Toby Sullivan, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, October 14, 2014.

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