Kenai Peninsula Rich In Commercial Fishing History

Feb 20, 2017

The Arctic Fishing Company’s cannery at the mouth of the Kasilof River is seen in about 1890.
Credit Alaska and Polar Regions Archives of UAF

Commercial fishing has had a century and a half impact on the western Kenai Peninsula, though it’s unclear why the first fishing vessel sailed up Cook Inlet in the first place.

Local fisherman Brent Johnson gave a presentation for the Kasilof Regional Historical Association Feb. 2 on the history of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet. He grew up commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and still operates a set-net site in Clam Gulch.

The Washington, captained by Joshua Slocum, headed to Kasilof in 1871. They went to work doing what the Kenai Peninsula has been famous for ever since — catching fish.

“They just had this one tiny problem. And hat is that a wind came up and the anchor drug and the ship beached,” said Johnson.

The Washington is added to the list of ships lost over the years to the difficult waters of Cook Inlet. Capt. Slocum recovered enough wood to build a new boat, took it to Kodiak and came back with another ship to take their catch to San Francisco to sell.

“So, the question that I have is, why in world did Joshua Slocum go to Kasilof? And it just strikes me as extremely peculiar,” said Johnson.

He thinks part of the answer is the variety and abundance of salmon not found in nearby waters.

“There just ain’t any king salmon all the way from Seward until you get to Anchor Point, but once you get up to Anchor Point you start finding sockeye salmon of a greater number and you find king salmon,” he said.

Whatever the reason for that first nibble of interest, commercial fishing soon took off. The first saltry in the area was built in 1973 in Nanwalek. The first cannery in Alaska was built in 1878 in Klawok.

“Canneries came to Alaska and they started coming faster and faster like all these sort of things do,” said Johnson.

By 1889, canneries in Alaska produced more cases of salmon than Washington, Oregon and California combined. That turned out to be too much of a good thing.

“The canneries were so successful, that they produced so many fish that the market couldn’t absorb them. And so that produced a glut, if you will," he said. "The price didn’t go good, the people that were making lots of money didn’t make as much money as they like to make."

The Alaska Packers Association took steps to prevent a glut by consolidating and closing some canneries around the state, leaving one cannery in Kasilof and the cannery in Kenai sitting idle.

Things were changing out in the water, as well. Fish traps and set-netting were the most-productive fishing types, but not for long. In 1947 there were four known drift-netters in Cook Inlet. In 1948 there were 70.

“Between 1948 and 1951 there gets to be 600 drifters. So in that short time it just goes ‘Zoom,’ like that, are you with me? This is out of the blue. This is with people writing annual management reports saying, ‘Hey, somebody, do something about this,’” said Johnson.

In 1959, fish traps were outlawed, as they were seen as being too efficient in catching fish. But Johnson says that didn’t do much to limit the overall catch in Cook Inlet, only redistribute it.

Another big change to the area’s commercial fishing industry came in 1964, when the start of the fishing season was delayed to June 25. It was a way to address a growing problem with shrinking king salmon returns. But it was hard to tell the impact of the delay. Since the White Act in 1924, fisheries were supposed to manage for 50 percent escapement.

“Kasilof River and the Kenai River were particularly hard to tell if you have half the fish in there when you can’t even see one of them,” he said.

The advent of sonar technology in 1968 in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers helped paint a better picture of fish returns, and it wasn’t a great sight.

“They went, ‘Holy smokes,’ and they said, ‘Let’s build this up a bit.’ And so the fisheries sucked, in 1971, 72, and 73, bad. There was nothing good to be said about it, except for that built the runs up to escapements of the 300-, 400,000 range, and those produced much better returns,” said Johnson.

Economics is just one way commercial fishing has influenced the area. But it’s also had a big impact on the population, not only in numbers but in the families who settled here generations ago.

“This is true about so many people that have come and gotten involved in the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet. Is that once they were here, they had children and they did different things and they left a legacy that is very long and we could talk about for a real long time,” he said.

The Kasilof Regional Historical Association holds regular presentations. To find out the next speaker, visit the KRHA page on Facebook.