The Pacific Seafood Industry Responds to World War I, Part One

Note: This article was originally published in Pacific Fishing

This April marks the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. The war had started in Europe in 1914, when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo.

The Great War scrambled the geopolitical world, created and extinguished countries, and sent Northwest woodsmen to the forest to log for the war effort. The Pacific Coast seafood industry also played a part, as the industry endeavored to not just survive, but thrive, through the conflict.

Several months after the battle began in Europe, the Association of Alaska Salmon Canners and the Puget Sound Salmon Canners Association jointly published a promotional booklet called “Canned Salmon, the Ideal Army and Navy Ration.” They paired this with a Bureau of Fisheries bulletin with the yawn-inducing title of “Canned Salmon, Cheaper than Meats, and Why” and promptly sent the marketing materials to foreign embassies and militaries around the world.

Although the initial response to the mailing seemed tepid, within the next couple of years canned salmon was an essential food for overseas troops and European civilians. Eventually, canned salmon became part of the so-called “iron rations,” which fed troops who were on the go or at battle – the WWI version of today’s MREs.

An advertisement printed in Pacific Fisherrman in 1918, showing troops eating their "iron rations."

An advertisement printed in Pacific Fisherrman in 1918, showing troops eating their "iron rations."

The trade magazine Pacific Fisherman claimed: “Reports from the front show that the fish ration is greatly enjoyed by the soldiers; and the progress of recent fighting would certainly not indicate any loss of vitality on the part of the British troops.”

At the onset of the war, canners knew that the shelf stability of their product made it an exceptional option for feeding servicemen. It wasn’t until the realities of 20th century warfare were known that canners could also claim that “canned food fills every military requirement – it is portable, imperishable, and gas-proof.”

In the spring of 1917, the United States entered the war. Several factors contributed to the declaration of war, including the interception of a telegram in which Germany enticed Mexico to join the fight in exchange for the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexican control if Germany was the victor.

Immigrants and foreign nationals rushed to prove their allegiance to the United States, including those who were within the fishing industry. Pacific Fisherman reported that a good number of the Puget Sound purse seiners were “Southern Slav,” who hailed from the part of Austria-Hungary that today corresponds to Croatia. This meant the seiners were from an enemy nation. They held a meeting where as “practical proof of their loyalty the purse seiners passed a resolution … offering the use of the 400 boats of their fleet for naval use.” Later, these purse seiners created their own association and demonstrated their support of the American war effort by buying $3,000 in war bonds.

The number of foreign-born individuals engaged in the seafood industry at the time was very high. Most processing workers were from Asia, and many fishermen were recent European immigrants. Alaska’s entire white population was nearly a third foreign-born.

The United States had an insignificant standing military at the time, so a draft was authorized. Not everyone was eager to enroll in the selective service. In November 1918, Pacific Fisherman reported that “a number of fishermen” were among those who had started the naturalization process but then “renounced their intention to become American citizens in order to escape military service.” Washington State Fish Commissioner L.H. Darwin told his deputies to seize the boats and gear of any fishermen found to have done this.

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

Hyper-patriotism characterized the United States during the war. Civil liberties were slashed. Anti-sedition laws made even uttering unpatriotic statements illegal. It is in this context that the seafood industry calculated its response to the war. Support for the American war effort was both patriotic and opportunistic on the part of the seafood industry. Pacific Fisherman assured readers and the federal government that “the fisheries of the country stand ready to take up whatever burden may be assigned to them.” Industry leaders were most dedicated to upping production, which was not just good for their profits, but also the objectiveof the Food Administration.

Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield appealed to American businesses, writing, “The production of food is a vital and present duty resting on every man and woman who can help it along. Without food workmen cannot work, nor can armies fight. The food supply of the country must be increased.”

Food was needed for the American and European troops and citizens, and while it was not feasible to markedly increase the amount of U.S. livestock, the waters of the Pacific promised a cornucopia to ease wartime food insecurity. How did the seafood industry intend to feed the nation, now that the United States was embroiled in war? Check back next month to find out.