Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lowell Wakefield and the Birth of the Alaska King Crab Fishery

The Alaskan king crab fishery began in the late 1940s and rocketed into legend by the 1960s, fueled by a huge swarm of crab, new fishing and processing technologies, a boisterous fleet of enthusiastic fishermen and processors, and the rising affluence of American consumers.

Those circumstances perhaps made the fishery inevitable, but without Lowell Wakefield, the fishery would likely not have happened as soon, or as explosively as it did, and the history of Alaska would be different. While there were other people present at the advent of the king crab era, Wakefield’s vision made the king crab fishery happen the way it did.

Born in 1909 in Anacortes, Washington, Wakefield was the son of an Alaskan salmon and herring cannery operator with plants at Seldovia and Raspberry Strait, on Kodiak Island. He attended the University of Washington and Columbia, but in his early 20s, instead of following his father to Alaska or going into some other business, he became, like thousands of other young Americans scarred by the Depression and the apparent failure of capitalism, a Communist Party organizer and journalist.

In the early1930s he founded and edited the Voice of Action, the unofficial newspaper of the Northwest Communist Party, based in Seattle, and then wrote for the Daily Worker, the Party’s national newspaper. In 1934 he ran for the Washington State Legislature on the Communist Party ticket.

But then, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wakefield joined the Navy. When he came back from the war in 1945, he abandoned the Communist cause and headed for his father’s cannery in Raspberry Strait. He landed there just as the big bang of the Alaskan king crab fishery ignited.

Japanese and Russian fishermen had been catching king crab in the Bering Sea since the 1920s with tangle gear, fences of web laid on the sea floor which the crab walked into. Some of this crab, canned at sea, was marketed in the U.S through the 1930s.

Alaskan processors were aware of this fishery and persuaded a few investors, and eventually the U.S. Department of the Interior, to send a catcher vessel, the Dorothy, and a processing ship, the Tondeleyo, to survey for king crab along Alaska’s coast and put into cans whatever crabs they might find. The ships worked for four summers, 1938 to 1941, carrying a crew of scientists, economists and fishermen. Using trawl nets, they found significant concentrations of king crab in the eastern Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island.

Some of the trawls were conducted in Raspberry Strait, right in front of the Wakefield cannery. The expedition left some of its gear on the beach and during the war Lee Wakefield used it to catch crab, which he canned in his plant. But without knowing much about the crab’s habits, or how best to process it, the American king crab fishery, including the effort in Raspberry Strait, went nowhere.

In 1946, with the crab surveys in mind, Lowell Wakefield formed a new company, Deep Sea Trawlers Inc., with a plan to catch and process king crab in the Bering Sea. With capital raised by selling company stock to friends and with a loan from the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Wakefield built the Deep Sea, a 140 foot steel trawler. Designed for the heavy weather of the Bering Sea, the Deep Sea carried everything necessary to catch, process, and freeze Alaskan king crab. Frozen food was a new thing in the American marketplace, but Wakefield believed that high quality frozen crab meat would taste better than canned and appeal to consumers.

At first the Deep Sea used trawl nets to catch the crab, just as the Tondelayo had done before the war, but the nets mangled the crab as they were towed on the bottom and crushed them under their own weight as the bag was hoisted to the surface. This didn’t matter if the crab meat was canned, but it was not ideal for Wakefield’s vision of high quality crab legs sitting on someone’s plate in an upscale restaurant. The Deep Sea and other pioneer crabbers began experimenting with baited steel traps, called pots by fishermen, which captured the crab live and unharmed.

The early pots were round, like traditional Dungeness pots, but heavy offshore currents tended to move them around on the bottom and they didn’t fish very well. Fishermen adapted and by the early 1950s the Deep Sea and other catcher boats were using square pots, which stayed put on the bottom. New hydraulic power blocks also came into use, allowing the pots to be hauled faster than the winches fishermen had previously used. The Deep Sea also pioneered the use of radar to find its reflective crab pot buoys, allowing the ship to find its gear far from land. At first the Deep Sea’s crew hand-picked the crab meat out of the shells, a labor intensive effort, until one of Wakefield’s engineers figured out a way to use water and compressed air to push the cooked meat out of the shells. This soon became the industry standard.

Even though Wakefield had had figured out how to catch and process the king crabs, he had a hard time selling it. A wholesale market for frozen crab meat did not exist, and his first sales efforts, through canned salmon distributors, did not go well.

Most restaurants chefs thought giant crab legs were too exotic to put in front of customers until Wakefield convinced a single restaurateur in Atlantic City to put king crab on his menu. People liked the taste and identified eating crab as a status symbol of epicurean sophistication. Other restaurants took notice. Wakefield also put the Deep Sea’s captain on the road between fishing seasons, selling king crab out of a freezer in the trunk of his car.

And then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Wakefield hired Lowell Thomas, a broadcaster and film maker who had made Lawrence of Arabia famous, to produce a film about king crab. Called “Adaq, King of Alaska’s Seas,” the color film showed fishermen hauling crab pots off Kodiak, the crab being processed in the Raspberry Strait plant, and Wakefield and his wife and kids eating piles of king crab at their house behind the processing plant. The film was shown like a newsreel before the feature movie at theaters across the country and slowly at first, and then suddenly, demand for king crab grew.

In the years spent figuring out how to sell crab however, Wakefield very nearly went bust. In the spring of 1949, with zero cash flow and his suppliers howling, Wakefield made a deal with his father’s herring company, Apex Fisheries, to pay the upcoming season’s expenses in return for half of any potential profits. That season, with the new processing and fishing innovations lowering costs and consumers beginning to buy the crab, the company made a profit for the first time. By the early 1950s Deep Sea Inc. was consistently in the black and competing fishermen and processors were piling into the fishery. The boom was on.

At first, the new fishery looked like blue skies and hundred dollar bills forever. No one knew how many crabs were out there, but fishermen caught more of them every year, which to some, indicated an endless supply.

Instead, as the 75 year bell curve of Alaskan crab catches reveals, a familiar story played out- the profit driven harvesting of a finite resource. The Kodiak king crab fishery peaked at 90 million pounds in 1966 and closed entirely in 1983. The Bering Sea catch peaked at 130 million pounds in 1980 and was closed in 2021, though fishermen and managers remain hopeful the fishery will reopen in the near future. King crab still walk the bottom of Alaska’s continental shelf, but biologists and fishery managers believe there aren’t enough of them to sustainably loose a modern fishing fleet upon them.

While Lowell Wakefield did not invent the Alaskan king crab fishery, his practical vision bent its narrative arc in a historically significant way. Revered in his own time as the leading innovator, if not the sole creator of the early king crab industry, he died in 1977 at the age of 68.

What remains a mystery, and perhaps a more intriguing story than the timeline history of the crab fishery, is how and when Wakefield’s world view changed from a worker’s rights Communist in his 20s to a free range entrepreneurial resource capitalist in his mid-30s. Did something particular happen to Wakefield during the war to instigate that change or did he simply outgrow a youthful social idealism as he saw the need to make a living and raise a family? We don’t know, though such a transformation was not unique among people of his generation. Should a future historian find interest in the subject and dive deeper into Wakefield’s papers at the University of Washington, perhaps that fuller story will be revealed.

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