Groundfish Parade Shows Support for Trawl Industry and Inequities of Seafood Industry

Note: An edited version of the article below was published in the September issue of Pacific Fishing. The parade was highly controversial in Kodiak and inspired serious ire in many. The impressive participation on the part of local processing workers is what caused much of the anger. Some of the upset individuals  felt that the processing workers were unwittingly being used for political purposes. 

Local media barely reported on the event, even though over 1/3 of Kodiak city residents participated. The Kodiak Daily Mirror ran three photos without an article, and KMXT didn't report on it, at all. [When questioned about this, KDM said they didn't have a reporter assigned to the story and the news director at KMXT basically said he didn't want to attend the parade.]

As a historian, I spend considerable time looking for news stories that document the experiences of minorities both within the community and within the seafood industry. Let me tell you--- it's hard to find information on Kodiak's Asian community, even though the population of Asians and Whites has been close to on par since the 1990s. This is upsetting. But then an event like this Groundfish Parade occurs, one in which a significant number of Asians participate, and there is minimal media coverage. This is exactly why it's so hard to locate historical information on local Asians. In my mind, this lack of coverage is symptomatic of the racial segregation within Kodiak and, perhaps, anti-trawl bias within the local media. 

Wearing a red baseball cap that read, “Make Trawling Great Again,” Trident CEO Joe Bundrant threw a chocolate pie in the face of North Pacific Fisheries Management Councilmember Duncan Fields at the end of the Groundfish Parade in Kodiak on June 11. In an effort to raise money for charity (and a harmless way to exact a bit of fun revenge on fisheries political opponents), others like Joe Plesha, General Council of Trident Seafoods, got a face full of whipped cream and graham cracker crust. The event was organized by the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association and Groundfish Data Bank.

Now, this alone made the parade worth attending. But it is what occurred beforehand that made it a day for the history books. Marching behind a sign that read, “Save Kodiak’s trawl fishery/ we are the working waterfront,” over one thousand processing workers, trawlers and their supporters paraded from Fishermen’s Terminal, passing the processing plants along Shelikof Street, and stopping in front of the Kodiak Island Convention Center, within which the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council was meeting.

Within, the Council deliberated the alternatives presented to reduce bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska. Outside, the typically invisible processing workers came out of the corrugated metal buildings in which they labor. Within, jargon proliferated (“how to address sideboards for non-exempt AFA CV’s?”). Outside, Tagalog and Spanish were as common as English. Within, a group of white middle-aged men and one woman heard testimony about observer coverage and the impact of monetizing groundfish quota in the Gulf. Outside, hundreds of Asian Americans and Latinos walked with their families, holding signs like “Governor Walker don’t take away my job.”

An economic report recently commissioned by the Kodiak Island Borough illustrated that in 2014, 1952 jobs in Kodiak were derived from groundfish, more than all other locally-executed fisheries combined. Yet economic prowess does not indicate that all trawlers boast of their occupation around town. During the Groundfish Parade, the town’s trawlers unabashedly displayed their affiliation.  A makeshift float within the parade included an ATV with a handmade cardboard sign attached to it reading, “We are trawlers and proud of it.” Parade participants wore buttons that said “I Heart Trawlers.” This is an incongruous sight in Kodiak, where vocalized public support of the trawl industry happens as often as a stretch of sunny weather in February.

Rallying to maintain trawl-landings in Kodiak and the subsequent access to work and overtime pay brought some of the plant workers out to the parade. The door prizes and free meal enticed others to take part. Those who participated in the parade were given tickets for door prizes; Glenn Reed of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association called out the winning numbers. Kids prizes included new bikes; adults hoped to receive a big screen television or plane tickets. “We are in the community, we do what we can to make a living,” said a Latino processing plant worker named Roman as he awaited the next round of door prizes.

As bigwigs in the Alaska fishing industry tried to outbid one another to fling a pie in the face of Glenn Merrill of NMFS, I hoped that none of them would beat out the minimum wage earning processing workers for the good door prizes.

Looking ahead at the hundreds of people who stood between her and the Filipino pancit and pollock burgers, a woman said, “If there isn’t enough I’ll just go to McDonalds.” One of the signs in the parade read, “Trawlers feed the world.” Indeed, the Filet-o-Fish available up the road at McDonald’s could have been landed at Kodiak and processed by one of those in line.

Two thousand plates of food were served at the end of the parade. The organizers succeeded in demonstrating that trawlers do feed and fuel Kodiak’s working waterfront. Yet, the quality of that meal depends mightily on where one sits at the table. Moreover, until the NPFMC takes action, bycatch in the trawl sector will continue to impact the stability and growth of other fisheries, affecting others abilities to feed themselves. 

Through the Ashes: The Story of Kodiak's Halibut Industry

Note: This piece was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Pacific Fishing. To learn more about this early halibut prospecting trip and how the eruption at Katmai impacted Kodiak, listen to the Way Back in Kodiak episode, "Prospecting for Halibut."

"It looks like I’ll be taking the Tustumena," my friend told me over the phone this last October. She was travelling to Kodiak bearing the ashes of her longliner husband, who had died the year before. She had intended to fly to the island, but volcanic ash turned Kodiak’s unfettered atmosphere into what seemed a hazy watercolor. A fierce easterly wind whipped up century-old ash from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula, propelling it across the Shelikof Strait, circling the bays of Kodiak Island, obscuring views and halting air traffic. Ash from the 1912 eruption at Katmai, the largest eruption of the 20th century, was making life difficult on the Emerald Isle again.

I quickly noted the irony in this situation. You see, the story of Kodiak’s commercial halibut fishery had its beginning in those very ashes. And now, 102 year later, it was this same ash that hearkened back to the founding of Kodiak’s halibut industry that was preventing the scattering of this halibut fisherman’s ashes in waters that seem increasingly bereft of halibut.

Back in 1912, ash from the Novarupta Volcano near the village of Katmai fell thick on Kodiak for three days. It was the beginning of June, a time when the sun barely sets, but no light was visible as the villagers breathed burning, sulfurous air.  

This is ash, not snow. W.J. Erskine could be the man to the right, or he was the photographer. The men are standing in front of Erskine's house, which is today the  Baranov Museum  in Kodiak. Image courtesy USGS. 

This is ash, not snow. W.J. Erskine could be the man to the right, or he was the photographer. The men are standing in front of Erskine's house, which is today the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. Image courtesy USGS. 

The entire village of 500 or so groped blindly through the thick fumes towards the town wharf, stumbling over the more than three feet of ash that had accumulated. The village crowded on the Revenue Service Cutter Manning which happened to be at dock. Villagers feared that another ash-induced land slide would sweep the town into the channel on which it rests. They believed that their only hope for survival was to be found at sea. Before setting out, the villagers ate boiled halibut and potatoes cooked in massive tubs. It was the first meal in days for some of them.

The boiled halibut that ravenous volcanic refugees ate a century ago had been caught during a halibut prospecting trip. Those fillets had been used to quantitatively prove that Kodiak had enough halibut to warrant a commercial halibut fishery.

The US Bureau of Fisheries research vessel,  Albatross.  Image courtesy NOAA. 

The US Bureau of Fisheries research vessel, Albatross. Image courtesy NOAA. 

The year before, in 1911, Kodiak businessman W.J. Erskine worked with the Alaska Packers Association to set up a test fishery. He enticed the Hunter and Metha Nelson, two schooners from San Francisco, to come to Kodiak to verify what the Bureau of Fisheries vessel, the Albatross, had recently uncovered: halibut fishing grounds around the archipelago. Of course this wasn’t news to Kodiak Islanders, who had been fishing and eating halibut for thousands of years, but the archipelago’s distance from any population center meant that Kodiak halibut just fed locals.  Erskine wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to deliver Kodiak halibut to the San Francisco market, nearly 2000 miles away. The Metha Nelson was one of the first fishing vessels to be equipped with an on-board freezer on the Pacific Coast. Erskine was wagering that San Francisco residents would eat flash frozen halibut as an alternative to the halibut that was shipped on ice from Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound.

That 1911 season was short but decent. Erskine likely had high hopes for the 1912 prospecting trip, but it was destined to be a rough season. The engine wouldn’t run and then the engineer died. Their seine was too short to catch bait. After procuring a longer seine and bait herring, they finally started fishing. But then, just 90 miles away, a volcano blew its top.

Nonetheless, at the end of the season the Metha Nelson returned to San Francisco with 140,000 pounds of frozen halibut, which the Alaska Packers Association was able to sell. Erskine’s experiment was successful. After Katmai’s eruption, Kodiak might have been a wasteland of ash, but there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for this ravaged island. There was hope in halibut.

But that hope was not realized for decades. It was king crab, not halibut, that turned Kodiak from a summertime salmon town to a year-round fishing port, and it wasn’t until the 1960s. Kodiak also turned to shrimp in the 1970s, turning Kodiak into the "King Crab Capital of the World" and a world-class shrimp port. But then the crab disappeared, and the shrimp disappeared. Many Kodiak fishermen turned to halibut, fishermen like my friend’s husband. He and other highliners really struck gold in 1995 when halibut was rationalized and those with historically high catches were granted private stock in a public fishery resource. But, not totally unlike the boom and bust pattern evident in the crab and shrimp fisheries of the region, halibut harvests have declined over the last decade. It takes commercial halibut fishermen longer to catch their quota, sending the cost of fishing up.

But, just as the ash-ravaged landscape of Kodiak eventually was overcome again by green, biologists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission report that halibut stock is rising after a decade of decline. Perhaps, like those Kodiak villagers one hundred years ago, who, blinded by ash, sought salvation at sea, Kodiak halibut fishermen too will be in the clear. 

Charting Packers Spit

Sixteen years passed since I had last slept in Uganik Bay, on the west side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Yet there is something about the summers of childhood that stretch on and on. They persist in dreams. Perhaps they are the soil in which our character takes root. No, we are fishermen, not farmers; they are the redd in which the roe is spawned.

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled. 

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled. 

This I knew: on the chart, Packers Spit swooshes out like a reverse comma into the East Arm of Uganik Bay. But would I remember its three-dimensional form as we made our approach? I was sitting in an aluminum skiff, and in my lap were my stepdad’s ashes. It was summer solstice and, coincidentally, it was Father’s Day. The day before I spent conducting oral histories with fishermen, but today I wasn’t the historian. I was the daughter of Shutup Joe, Pam and Clifford, and I was returning to the fish camp where I spent summers as a kid, the place where my parents go after they die.

When the float plane that delivers mail twice a week dropped me off on the beach, Clifford’s ashes weighed more than the produce that I carried as my food contribution for the remote fish camps that were to host me. I was flippantly eschewing the line between the personal and professional as I set out to document the bay through oral history and, for myself, convert places on the chart to places that I’ve stood. There was no practiced disinterest, no professional distance here. In August of 1982, my father was fishing in the bay when he received a message delivered via FM radio: “Come to town to meet your new girlfriend.” The girlfriend was me. When I was planning this project, I went to the home of Floyd, one retired Uganik fisherman, and saw a framed portrait of my stepfather’s father hanging on the wall. I learned it was my grandfather who had taught him and many others in Uganik Bay to setnet for salmon- a type of fishing in which one end of the net is affixed to land and the other juts into the sea like a hook.

Floyd and other Uganik old timers took out their charts to show me fish camps, and I tried to imagine the landscape but I couldn’t clearly grasp in my mind. I became familiar with their index fingers as they pointed out capes and crannies of coast line. Their fingers jumped from small islands to miniscule outcroppings that were an eighth of the size of their fingernail yet managed to hold a lifetime of their summers. Like tracing constellations across the sky, these fingers indicated fish camps instead of stars, old canneries instead of planets. Miners Point, Trap 6, Daylight Harbor, Gull Light, Packers Spit- the utterance of names over lips as they pointed at each place reminded me of the devout performing a daily rosary, with familiarity and with respect.

I opened my own atlas of Alaska and ran my finger countless times along that comma of land that constitutes Packers Spit, rubbing to conjure memories. Many times I’ve flown over it, heading to another destination but sneaking a glimpse of the rotting hull of my father’s last salmon seiner, a speck high and dry in the lagoon. In archival collections for the Alaska Packers Association, the company from which Packers Spit derives its name, I encountered plats on which buildings like “China House” are noted. The salty marsh that never had a name when I was a kid was marked as Mathew’s Lagoon. It was known as Uganik Fishing Station then, according to the 1893 land commissioner’s report. I tried to recall where the nubby pilings protruded from the sand and correlate them to the cannery building hand-drawn on the old survey. But the sad truth was that after so many years, Packers Spit was more familiar to me as a birds-eye landform than an actual landscape.

Even though I couldn’t remember it before that moment, it was a startlingly familiar site as we neared Packers Spit’s sandy beach on Father’s Day. The crewman jumped over the bow and walked the anchor up shore. I followed him and looked up to see the cabin that my family slept in barely visible behind the towering beach grass. There was no path to it, so I made big steps and hoped to not squish any voles underfoot in the process. The cabin was standing but rotten; all windows were broken and gray sky was visible through a large hole in the roof. It was insulated with old salmon can boxes, but mostly the cardboard had drooped to the floor. I looked out the window from which I used to watch Clifford plunging from the seine skiff, making bubbles to scare salmon deeper into the net. But the grass was so high that I couldn’t even see the beach. I picked up a key to an outboard motor and slipped it into my pocket. The cabin might last another few winters, or not.

More skiffs arrived filled with fishermen who were friends with Cliff. A salmon seiner anchored off the spit, close to shore, and the husband and wife walked to the bow. I opened the bottle of my stepdad’s drink of choice, Bacardi, took a swig, and passed it to the fisherman sporting orange rain gear to my right. I opened the plastic box in which Clifford’s ashes were packed, tore the plastic, and held the bag by its bottom. Light particles floated in the wind, heavy chunks of bone thumped in the sand. I wondered if what looked like smooth, white shells were actually the weathered bits of my mother and of my father, whose ashes my siblings and I had scattered in that very spot years before. The captain of the seine boat rang a bell. We sipped the bottle of rum until it was empty and I put Clifford’s photo and a handful of ash within it. I screwed on the lid and threw it into Uganik Bay.

We jumped back into the skiffs and powered away from Packers Spit. I looked back across the wake to see Packers Spit moving further away. Then I saw: it isn’t a comma. It rolls out like a green and slate-grey carpet from a wall of mountains. It is outspoken flat land in a bay made of peaks and cliffs. Its appearance was again fixed in my mind, relieving the burden of faded memory. But if it was closure that I was seeking, it was not something that I found. And if it means leaving Uganik Bay behind for another 16 years, it’s something I don’t want, either.  

Note: This February I attended the Fisher Poets Gathering for the first time. This annual gathering of fishermen writers and their supporters in Astoria, Oregon includes a variety of literary events and nurtures a community of folks whose creative energies are fueled by the sea.  It was an honor to take part in this growing event that pays homage to the oceanic literary arts. I shared Charting Packers Spit there.