Fishing and Processing for the American War Effort

Note: This originally appeared in Pacific Fishing magazine. 

The US entered World War I in April of 1917. The Pacific seafood industry outlined a plan to boost wartime production. The industry proposed the intensive development of existing fisheries, enhanced production capacity through new facilities, the promotion of new fish products, and “waiving protective restrictions in the present emergency” (i.e. ignoring conservation).

The Great War occurred during the Progressive Era, a time in which science, efficiency, expertise and bureaucracy were highly valued across the nation. Hundreds of new federal agencies were created to handle all aspects of life on the home front and to direct the nation’s efforts to supporting troops overseas while still providing for those in the states.

The industry worked very closely with the Bureau of Fisheries to advance the plan. The Bureau got to work promoting mackerel, herring, grayfish and sablefish to boost consumption of these less popular species while attempting to wean the American public from beef and pork--- protein sources that were destined to feed troops. The Bureau strongly discouraged the sale of fresh salmon, preferring that all salmon be canned for use overseas. Even preferable to canning was salting, since there was a shortage of tin. The Bureau of Fisheries promoted “Meatless Tuesdays,” sang the praise of whale meat, and encouraged packers to can grayfish, even though it was soon discovered that it turned rancid in a can. For the duration of the war, the Bureau of Fisheries tried its mightiest to boost seafood consumption across the nation.   

The War Eagle label was printed for cans of reds in Fairhaven, but was used for cans of pinks after Fairhaven was absorbed into Bellingham. From the collection of Karen Hofstad.

The War Eagle label was printed for cans of reds in Fairhaven, but was used for cans of pinks after Fairhaven was absorbed into Bellingham. From the collection of Karen Hofstad.

Economists and bureaucrats sent out lengthy questionnaires to seafood companies to ascertain the real costs of doing business, in compliance with the new Food Control Act. From this information, the federal government determined the price that both company and independent fishermen would receive for their fish during the 1918 season. Company fishermen received 25 cents per pound for sockeyes, while independent fishermen received 30 cents per pound. The economists also set the price that processors could charge for the fish: $7 for a case of red salmon.

As 1918 progressed, canners were required to reserve an increasing amount of that year’s pack for the federal government. At the beginning of the year, the industry figured that the government would want 25% of the pack. But the amount destined for federal use soared from an initial call of 60% of the production to the entire year’s output of one pound cans of sockeyes. The government purchased well over $40 million in canned salmon alone.

The government, thus, became a guaranteed market for salmon, which in turn encouraged investors to build new canneries. New cannery development was particularly intense in Southeast, most likely because there was a guaranteed market for pink salmon. In just Southeast Alaska, thirteen new canneries were established in 1918. Moreover, since the British and European herring producers were engaged in a literal fight for their lives, the number of herring salteries ballooned in Alaska. Scotch cured herring was a popular product at the time, and the most serious of producers brought Scottish lassies north to pack the herring in barrels. Port Walter in Southeast Alaska became a factor in herring fishing and processing.

With such an impressive growth in promotion, production, and products, Pacific Fisherman foolishly opined that “it is safe to predict that there will never again be a surplus over the market’s needs.” But even before the war had ended, Bureau of Fisheries agents reported on the lackadaisical growth of the fresh fish market in San Francisco. The agency reported that no matter how cheap the product, consumers seemed to have reached their personal peaks of seafood consumption. As for salted herring, the quality of the product was not uniformly good. After the war ended, many salteries closed down as consumers again could purchase authentic Scotch cured herring.

The Armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the war. Pacific Fisherman claimed that “the world war has been to a great extent a war of canned foods.” Never before had canned salmon reached so many worldwide consumers, particularly pink salmon. Moreover, the Bureau of Fisheries had just engaged in its largest marketing campaign to promote domestic seafood consumption. But with the end of hostilities, the major purchaser of the product, the federal government, no longer needed so many fish. And although the industry lobbied for limiting conservation and creating new production facilities at the beginning of the war, by the end of the war many had reversed their opinions.

“Conditions in Puget Sound for the last two seasons have strongly emphasized the danger of overfishing, and the more intensive fishing operations in Southeast Alaska during the same period have given rise to general alarm,” reported Pacific Fisherman. Some of the brand new canneries in Southeast quickly announced they wouldn’t be operating the coming summer, not for conservation purposes per se, but because they anticipated oversupply.

World War I grew global markets for seafood, introduced American consumers to new seafood products, and resulted in many new processing plants in Alaska. It was certainly a catalyst for change within the industry.