By: Kathi Riemer
The shores of Mitkof Island were pretty quiet for millennia. Mitkof Island was a great little spot for summer visitors, people interested in catching life sustaining fish, but the island never caught on as a place to set down roots. In 1898 that changed.
Petersburg, Alaska is a small town on the northern tip of Mitkof Island. All indications lead us to believe that the town of Petersburg was the first permanent settlement ever constructed on the island. There are many fish trap sites filled with artifacts and middens, some dating back 2000 years or more, but there is no evidence of a permanent village site. You might ask why anyone would settle a place that had been discarded as a habitable location for centuries. The answer is fish. People have utilized the fishing resource Mitkof Island provides for millennia. Nobody is quite sure why it was never settled by the Native people in the region, but theories abound. Some think it is because of the weather patterns, others think it may have been a buffer zone between Native groups. For whatever reason, the island that was least inhabitable to Southeast Alaska Native people, seemed to be the ideal location for Norwegian fishermen and their families.
Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian entrepreneur from Aure, Norway was in the business of setting up fish canneries and salteries along the shores of Alaska’s inside passage. Petersburg is located between Sumner Straight to the south and Fredrick Sound to the north with the Wrangell Narrows sliding along it’s western shore. Peter Buschmann would have sailed by the island many times while managing his operations to the north and south. He would have had to notice the large icebergs from LeConte Glacier floating in Fredrick Sound and thought it would be a good idea to expand his holdings with a cannery site on Mitkof Island.
In 1899 the Icy Straight Packing Company was built on the northern shore of Mitkof Island with money from people who had invested in his other operations. Peter Buschmann needed a workforce so he sent word to Norway and friends and relatives showed up to work. He also brought Chinese people to Petersburg to work in the cannery. Later, Native people from Kake joined the workforce. Salmon was plentiful in the area, as was halibut. The ice from LeConte Glacier kept the halibut cold all the way to Seattle. Salmon was canned and salted and sent south too.
Norwegian settlers continued to make their home in Petersburg, which became an incorporated city in 1910, two years after the initial articles of incorporation were rejected because women had signed them. By 1910, the Icy Straits Cannery had been purchased by the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company in 1901 and the Pacific Coast and Norway Packing Company in 1906.
In 1918, after going through bankruptcy proceedings, the Norway Packing Company reorganized as the Petersburg Packing Company, with Oscar Nicholson as superintendent. He operated the cannery until 1933 when it was sold to Pacific American Fisheries. In 1965, Bob Thorstenson organized a group of Petersburg residents and fishermen to purchase the cannery from PAF. The Petersburg stockholders named their cannery Petersburg Fisheries Incorporated, PFI. The company expanded and became Icicle Seafoods, one of the largest fish packing plants in Alaska. In 2010 Petersburg stockholders sold their Icicle shares to Paine and Partners, an equity firm and in 2016, the plant was purchased by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian fish company.
The Clausen Memorial Museum has many images of canneries taken from 1998 through the present day. We have spent the last year locating these images, entering them into our Past Perfect data base and storing them appropriately. The Icy Straits Cannery, which is now Icicle Seafoods, has been the lifeblood of our town and the images bring Petersburg’s history to life. We also have images of the many other canneries that have and continue to operate on Mitkof Island. Individuals and organizations are now able to obtain historical cannery images from our museum.
by James Mackovjak
Alaskan Glacier Seafoods produces Petersburg shrimp, a highly esteemed cocktail shrimp, and is the last hand-pick shrimp operation on the West Coast. A family-style business, it has been active in Petersburg, Alaska, since 1916.
Four species of shrimp were commonly caught near Petersburg, Alaska. Most sought after by Alaskan Glacier Seafoods trawlers were pink shrimp (Pandalus borealis), which constituted the bulk of the “cocktail” shrimp produced at Petersburg. Coonstripes (Pandalus hypsinotus) and sidestripes (Pandalopsis dispar) were also used as cocktail shrimp, except that the larger of these were marketed as “picked, raw, frozen.” The spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) was not caught in quantity by Petersburg trawlers, and the few of these large shrimp that were caught were usually enjoyed as an amenity by crewmembers. The humpback shrimp (Pandalus goniurus) is present in Southeast Alaska, but, because of the difficulty of picking the meats from this species, it is not targeted by fishermen.
Being employed as a commercial fisherman, I had been in and out of Petersburg for several years. However, I only met Dave Ohmer, owner/manager of Alaskan Glacier Seafoods in November 1975, well after the rush of the fishing season had ended. Having enjoyed many meals of succulent Petersburg shrimp, I was curious about his operation, and I introduced myself in his extremely cluttered, if not downright unruly, office.
“What we have here,” said Dave, “is the last hand-peel shrimp operation on the West Coast. My father, the late Earl N. Ohmer, and his brother-in-law, the late Karl Sifferman, began this business in 1916, initially shipping product [whole shrimp] to Seattle for processing. As we began, we are still today a small, family-type business.” I later learned that two present employees, “Mama” and “Papa” Kaino, had been employed at Alaskan Glacier Seafoods for more than a half century.
I asked Dave just what set Petersburg shrimp apart from other Alaska shrimp. Why was this variety of shrimp so special? He first responded that, “The inside-waters variety of pink shrimp (Pandalus borealis), in his opinion, “is a bit more tasty than the outside-waters variety. However,” said Dave, “the quality of our product is primarily due to our schedule and method of processing. Our stress is not on quantity, but on the production of a high-quality product. The shrimp are caught daily and delivered that same afternoon or evening, ensuring a fresh product. They are then cooked, allowed to cool overnight, and had peeled the following day. Before the introduction of mechanical peeling machines [in the early 1950s], all shrimp were hand peeled. Machines proved to be far more economical to operate and had a tremendous capacity. But machine-peeled shrimp are very different from shrimp that have been peeled by hand. Machines are fast, but they also tend to cause breakage, and the large amount of water they use washes away flavor and color. Shrimp that are peeled by hand, conversely, are handled slowly but gently. Damage is minimal, and the delicate fluids are retained. Quality is high.”
I learned that with generally only one boat fishing for shrimp and fifteen workers engaged in processing, the current annual production of shrimp at Alaskan Glacier Seafoods is approximately 75,000 pounds of peeled, canned shrimp, this amount resulting from the processing of about 3,000 pounds of whole shrimp per day, five days per week. (Alaskan Glacier Seafoods also processes, conventionally, a like amount of crab.) However, during the 1920s, a heyday of sorts, eleven boats were fishing and some 225 persons were employed, processing nearly 30,000 pounds of whole shrimp daily. At that time, the company occupied the buildings that are now the Ocean Beauty Seafoods facility in Petersburg.
During the 1960s, four shrimp canneries operated in Southeast Alaska (two in Petersburg and two in Wrangell). Unfortunately, since the early 1960s, there has been a general decline in the availability of shrimp near Petersburg. and Dave cautiously speculates that it was “overfishing, acting in conjunction with water temperature changes, natural cycling and the earthquake of 1964,” that caused the general decline in local shrimp stocks. He further stated that, “Within the general area-wide decline, several local areas are definitely improving.”
Although on occasion several vessels deliver shrimp to Alaskan Glacier Seafoods, the bulk of the catch is provided by the company-owned Charles W, definitely one of the handsomest boats to ply Alaska waters. It was my pleasure to be a guest aboard the Charles W for a day of fishing.
Skippering the Charles W was Bill Grennier, whose father was one of the boat’s previous captains. The very able weekend crewmember was Bill’s thirteen-year-old son, Joe. We left the dock at 6:00 a.m. on a snowy, late-November morning, making our way north between the blinking channel buoys of Wrangell Narrows, and destined for Thomas Bay, some twenty miles distant. Quietly drinking coffee, we watched the trace of the shoreline on the radar screen and peered into the blackness, relaxing before the day’s work began.
We arrived at our destination just as daylight broke, and father-and-son team lost no time in getting the beam trawl into the water, Bill shouting instructions to his son in the wheelhouse while paying cable from the winch. (A beam trawl is a large, tapered net held open at its front by a rigid frame that incorporates a long horizontal wooden beam. The beam trawl used by the Charles W was 52 feet wide at its mouth.) The gear set, Joe went forward into the fo’c’sle to prepare breakfast. Bill was busy watching the fathometer, keeping the vessel on a course along the 22-fathom curve. I asked him why beam trawls were utilized in this fishery. He responded that the usually larger otter trawls were illegal in this area and that beam trawls were better suited to fishing the irregular bottom and less complicated to use.
After a trawl of about an hour, the gear was hauled and some 500 pounds of pink shrimp were brailed onto a sorting table amidships. The gear was promptly lowered for another trawl, during which I assisted Joe in sorting cod, flounder, and other undesired fish from the catch of shrimp. Gently, the sorted shrimp were then pushed into wooden boxes, each having a capacity of approximately 200 pounds.
We made three trawls that short winter day, and at six o’clock that evening were alongside the Alaskan Glacier Seafoods plant with eight boxes (about 1,600 pounds) of shrimp. Quickly unloaded, the shrimp were cooked that evening. The following morning, the shrimp having cooled, peelers began their task of removing the delicate meats.
Hand peeling shrimp was described by Dave Ohmer as “an act of its own, which consists basically of grasping the body of the shrimp with one hand while with the other hand gently pulling, with a turning motion, on the tail, thus separating the meat from the body and exoskeleton.” The quantity of meat that a worker was able to produce averaged about five to five-and-a-half pounds per hour, depending upon the size of the shrimp. Petersburg shrimp averaged about 175 meats per pound, and workers peeling shrimp were paid on a poundage basis, at the time earning about fifty cents per pound.
Once picked, the meats were washed, brined (soaked in a salt solution that enhances the flavor of the product) and then allowed to drip to remove excess moisture. The meats were then air-blown to remove any shells or whiskers that might have remained after the washing and brining process. The clean, brined meats were placed in one- or five-pound-capacity steel cans that were then sealed and frozen.
Petersburg shrimp were sold on the West Coast wholesale market, where demand exceeded production.
In early 1976, Alaskan Glacier Seafoods installed a mechanical shrimp peeler to enable the processing of shrimp that were too small to be efficiently peeled by hand.