Monday, March 8, 2021

Two Men and Three Centuries of Alaskan Shipwrecks

Warren Good arrived in Kodiak in 1972 and like a lot of other young men in those years, went crab fishing. Kodiak was booming, deckhand jobs were easy to get, and fishing was grueling but fun, if you liked hard work. And the money was good— it was not unheard of for 21-year-old deckhands with a scant year of nautical experience to make $100,000 in a single four-month king crab season. The dark side of the high times was the casualties.

In the years before the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 commercial fishing was far and away the most dangerous job in America, and the deaths of Alaskan commercial fishermen drove that statistic. 

Sometimes the accidents were the result of simple bad luck, but often they were the predictable product of inherently dangerous work, lax safety regulations, and enthusiastic but inexperienced fishermen making poor decisions. Catastrophic mechanical failures, fires, breached hulls, groundings, capsizings, men swept overboard, and ferocious winter sea conditions were common, and these often occurred in “cascading event,” scenarios, where several bad things happened at the same time. Too often, with the small leeway for human error in such circumstances, people died.

Warren Good off Kodiak Island, 1970s. 

Warren Good reveled in the money, the work, and the high adventure, but in the early 1980s, as he watched people and boats he knew disappear, he wondered if anyone was recording the particulars of these events in a systematic and publicly accessible way. The Coast Guard and insurance companies kept their own lists of losses for their own proprietary reasons, but as far as Good knew, no one else was tracking  the names of the lost boats and their dead crewmembers except for friends and families.

At the same time, no one seemed to recognize Alaska’s commercial fisheries as part of the larger fabric of Alaskan and therefore, American history. Perhaps that was because the fishing boom and the losses that went with it were happening in the present and people were too busy living it, but Good wondered if anyone had ever tried to list all the other marine disasters that had happened in Alaska before the 1970 during the World Wars, the Gold Rush, the whaling days, all the way back to the 18th century Russian fur hunting era.

With the vague notion that if a comprehensive list of Alaskan shipwrecks didn’t exist it was something the world needed, he began researching in Kodiak’s A. Holmes Johnson Library between fishing seasons. There he found an Alaska Packers Association list of Alaskan marine accidents on microfiche, donated by a Washington state historical society and apparently sent to every library in Alaska. The APA list was itself culled from an old Customs Service publication. Good cross referenced the names and dates on that list against citations in books and newspaper articles and began keeping a file. He took photos too of the boats and fishermen on Kodiak’s waterfront in that present moment of the 1970s and 80s, knowing they would not all be afloat or alive in some near and uncertain future.

At some point he realized he was on a mission to document all the vessels which had ever untied from an Alaskan dock and never come back. As far as he knew he was alone on his own crusade.

But Good was not alone. A Federal employee named Mike Burwell was doing the same work in Anchorage as part of his job with the U.S. Mineral Management Service (MMS), a division of the Department of the Interior.

Mike Burwell in Kodiak 2011

In the mid-70s MMS was planning to lease millions of acres of underwater real estate in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea to oil companies. Being a Federal agency, MMS was required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act “…to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties.” As a first step in that direction an MMS employee named Everett Tomfelt wrote a technical paper listing a few known Alaska shipwrecks. Burwell, an MMS technical writer, was asked to edit the paper but soon was passionately researching and expanding the list himself. He began with the same Customs Service shipwreck list that Warren Good was working on in Kodiak.

In 1992 MMS published Tomfelt and Burwell’s shipwreck list. The list was mentioned in an Anchorage Times article but except for a few Alaska historians it remained virtually unknown to anyone outside MMS and the oil industry.

For two decades Good and Burwell researched and catalogued many of the same shipwrecks from the same sources, including books, newspaper stories, Coast Guard reports, and court documents from lawsuits against insurance companies. Until computers and the internet arrived in the mid-90s, everything was on paper or microfiche. Burwell catalogued his list temporally, by year, month and day, while Good catalogued his alphabetically, by ship names.

At some point in the early 2000s they became aware of the other’s work but continued to work independently until Burwell uploaded his database onto the MMS website and retired to Arizona in 2011. By then his list had grown to a 600 page table of shipwrecks from 1729 to 2000. That same year Good, who had stopped fishing in the 1990s and moved to Florida, put his own database online as the Alaska Shipwreck website.

The MMS/BOEM database has not been updated since Burwell left the agency in 2011, but since then, he and Good have worked together to update the Alaska Shipwreck website archive. It now includes thousands of documents, articles, photographs, Coast Guard records, obituaries, and marine charts. Good also has a modest collection of physical artifacts and ephemera including crew share contracts and pay stubs, old Kodiak bar and restaurant menus, photographs, slides and film negatives, and hundreds of 19th and 20th century books and magazines.

The two men continue to research independently, Burwell compiling his findings by date and Good alphabetically, but the combined database is now searchable by both year and ship name. Burwell sends Good his findings, which Good “scrubs,” to crosscheck information he may already have, and then he uploads the data to the Alaska Shipwreck website. The website itself generates hundreds of inquiries every year from other researchers and relatives of lost mariners. Good answers all of these, often with arcane details not listed on the website. The cost of doing the research is not inconsiderable, including hardware and printing costs, newspaper subscription fees, and for Good, website expenses.

While paper records have their own preservation issues with floods and fires, Burwell’s hard drives have failed, Good’s have been hacked and destroyed by lightning. They keep each other’s files backed up, which has saved the day, but the threat of future mishaps is never far from their minds.

Lately, mortality being what it is, they’ve also started wondering what happens when they can no longer do the research themselves. Both men are in their 70s and their “somewhere down the road,” plan options include handing the database and files over to some Alaskan state agency which can safeguard it and continue the research, though no one in the state bureaucracy has expressed much interest in this scenario. Another possibility is for a private institution to take over the project, but so far, this idea has also not elicited any takers with the necessary resources.

The Alaska Shipwrecks database can be found here:

Thursday, February 18, 2021

100 Years of Counting Fish at the Karluk Weir


Counting salmon at Karluk Weir,  Sept. 1948
The first salmon counting weir in Alaska was constructed on the Karluk River in 1921, and every summer since then the weir has provided a remarkable stream of information which has been vital to understanding salmon and successfully managing them.
The original Karluk weir was a series of wooden tripods set across the river with planks laid horizontally between them on the upriver side. Spaced a few inches apart, the planks allowed water to flow downstream but prevented fish from swimming upstream. A narrow open section allowed biologists to count salmon as they swam through.
For much of its length the Karluk River is about a hundred yards wide and three feet deep, a modest stream compared to other great salmon rivers. But Karluk Lake, where the river’s sockeye lay their eggs, is an overachiever, and its huge numbers of returning spawners drew the early attention of the commercial canning industry.
The first cannery at Karluk put fifty-eight thousand red salmon into cans in 1882, and by 1901 four million Karluk sockeye salmon were processed, a number which has never been equaled.
The fish were caught with hand hauled beach seines, a crude technology by today’s standards. But the nets were pulled across the opening to Karluk Lagoon relentlessly, one behind the other like the spokes of a giant paddle wheel, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they were deadly effective. Single haul catches of 30,000 fish were not unheard of, and a single haul in 1896 took 75,000 fish.
This kind of unbridled resource extraction was common in the 19th century, and even celebrated, from salmon and buffalo to whales and dodo birds. Most people then believed God would keep putting fish and whales in the water no matter how many were taken by humans. As British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley put it in 1833, “I believe then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible… and any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.”
But as salmon runs in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest declined, it began to dawn on biologists, and even some canners, that the more salmon they took the fewer seemed to return in following years, and that some minimum number had to get upstream for a run to continue. 
With this vague notion in mind the Federal government began instituting various restrictions and even the canners themselves decided to close the Karluk fishery a few hours a week in the 1890s. Still, by the 1920s, Karluk sockeye catches had fallen to fewer than a million fish a year- still substantial, but far below the record 1901 season.
At the time no one knew how many spawners it took to sustain a particular run, or even how many salmon actually went up the Karluk or any other Alaskan river. It was also not fully accepted that salmon migrate quite specifically back to the streams where they had spawned.
In this information vacuum, Federal salmon managers were pulled between conservation minded biologists with unverified hunches and processors who wanted to can more fish. Since Congress wrote Alaska’s fishing regulations and the processors had the political power to bend Congress to their point of view, regulations remained weak and salmon runs kept declining.
In 1918 however, a Russian fisheries professor named Fedor Baranov wrote a formula which calculated future fish catches as a function of initial fish population and pressure on that population from natural mortality and past human fish catches. This revolutionized fisheries management theory but came with a catch- it required knowing how many fish there were to begin with. But since fish usually swim where they cannot be easily seen or counted, this was not a simple thing to determine.
Fish populations can be estimated by tallying catches and doing surveys with hooks or trawls or pots or today, sonar. But catches and surveys provide only a statistical estimate of how many fish there were before the catching started, and if this initial population of fish is overestimated, or the estimated percentage of that population which can be sustainably caught is too high, they can be overharvested, leading to a population crash. If you’ve lived in Kodiak long enough you’ve seen several once abundant fisheries managed this way go bust, including shrimp and king crab.
But salmon, unlike almost all other marine fishes except for eels, migrate up rivers, and when channeled through weirs can be counted with great accuracy. This allows Baranov’s formula to be successfully applied, and the weir counts on the Karluk allowed salmon biologists to do just that.
Once they knew how many fish swam up the Karluk in any given year, biologists could add the number caught by fishermen and then compare that total number to the number of fish returning in following years. This gave them a very good idea of how many spawners it took to produce a given number of returning fish, and therefore how many fish had to escape past fishermen to maintain a long-term run. And because salmon can be counted every day as they pass through the weir, fish managers could track daily fish counts against the historic data to sustainably manage the fishery day by day.
Hundreds of weirs were eventually installed in rivers all over the state and since 1959, when ADF&G managers began using weir data to manage salmon, that system has proved remarkably successful, first to rebuild Alaska’s salmon runs, and then to maintain them.
Weirs make it relatively easy to manage fishermen and overfishing has been regulated out of existence in most areas of the world where salmon historically returned in great numbers, including Alaska. However, the incremental destruction of spawning habitat with dams, roads, parking lots, houses and irrigation systems is exquisitely hard to manage and is now the main threat to remnant salmon populations in Northern Europe, Japan, New England, and the Pacific Northwest.
Indeed, as Alaska’s urban population grows, this may be happening now in the Mat-Su Valley. Even as commercial fishing in Cook Inlet is constrained, growing suburban sprawl, plus predation by invasive pike introduced by humans, may be driving the decline of salmon numbers there.
Weirs helped Alaskans keep our salmon runs strong for a long time, and in places where the human footprint on spawning lands is slight, they will continue to be useful in controlling fishing effort. In the coming centuries however, as humans take more and more land away from salmon in Alaska, and as chemicals from our global civilization drain into the ocean salmon swim in, how we keep salmon runs alive in Alaska remains to be seen. 

This article first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror January 13, 2021

 Key Sources:

Gard, Richard, and Richard Lee Bottorf, A History of Sockeye Salmon Research, Karluk River System, Alaska, 1880-2010, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2014

Orth, Don, The Overfishing Problem,


Roppel, Patricia, Salmon From Kodiak, Alaska Historical Commission, 1986

Fedor Baranov