Fri, May 16, 2014

Halibut Prospecting in 1911 and 1912 – Part One: Ash Fall and Halibut Feasts

by Anjuli Grantham
In 1911 and 1912, Kodiak businessman W.J. Erskine set out to answer a potentially lucrative question: did the waters around Kodiak have enough halibut to justify the creation of a Kodiak halibut fishery? One dead engineer, one volcanic eruption, a greenhorn crew, and 170,000 pounds of frozen halibut later, Erskine had an answer.
W.J. Erskine, Kodiak entrepreneur
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-368-40)
Within the Baranov Museum’s collection is Erskine’s remarkable report, outlining the goals, the methods, and the results of two seasons of prospecting for halibut in the vicinity of Kodiak.
Financed by the Alaska Packers Association, two gas powered schooners, the Metha Nelson and the Hunter, tested both whether Kodiak had the abundance of halibut to warrant the creation of the infrastructure to support a fishery, and if San Francisco consumers could be enticed to eat frozen halibut.
This report is significant for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the Metha Nelson was one of the first boats in the Pacific Northwest to experiment with the onboard freezing of fish. But before looking at this report in terms of fisheries history, let us look at the connection between these fishing experiments and the eruption of Novarupta Volcano at Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula.
That 1912 season started off unlucky. The Hunter arrived in Kodiak on May 6, and immediately departed to Nuka Bay for ice. Before arriving to their Kenai Peninsula destination, however, the engineer died. The engine stopped working. They sailed back to Kodiak, scrambled to find a competent engineer, and returned to chip ice off glaciers.
On May 27, the Hunter left for Uganik Bay on the west side of Kodiak Island. There they would fish for bait herring. Unfortunately, their seine was too short, so they headed back to Kodiak, got a larger seine, and sailed again for Uganik. Finally, on June 6, 1912, with enough ice and bait on board, the Hunter was ready to head for the halibut grounds. That very day, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century exploded on the Alaska Peninsula, showering ash on Kodiak Island. Erskine writes in the report, “…the Hunterleft for the halibut ground east of Marmot Island, but before reaching there, was overtaken by the fall of volcanic dust and put into Izhut Bay, where she remained until June 10th.” Halibut fishing would have to wait.
The Metha Nelson remained moored at the town’s dock, next to the Revenue Cutter Service’s vessel, Manning. Reading accounts from the time of the eruption, one is struck by the fact that people were relatively certain that they were going to die. Landslides of ash swept away houses. The weight of the ash collapsed roofs. The caustic, ash-filled air made breathing impossible. For this reason, after two days of ash fall, the community determined they had to make a run for it. Navigating only by sound and touch, all Kodiak residents made their way to the wharf. The crew of the Metha Nelson unloaded the halibut it had already secured, and Kodiak feasted.
The halibut schooner Hunter shines bright amid Kodiak’s
ash-covered landscape in the days following the eruption.
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-357-28)
“[We] managed to feed a crowd of panic stricken people a good hot meal of boiled halibut, boiled potatoes, hard tack and tea. Some of them had not touched food for two days and it seemed they would never stop eating. Tubs full of halibut disappeared like magic,” Erskine wrote to his mother a few days later. Now that they were fed, the whole town crowded aboard the Manning, and headed out to sea, where it was hoped they could breathe and where they were certain they would not be buried in ash. Soon after, the sky began to clear, and they returned to the wasteland that was Kodiak.
Erskine was elected chairman of the Kodiak Relief Committee and commandeered the steamer Redondo. He left immediately to Seward, the location of the nearest wireless station. Kodiak’s had burned to the ground during the eruption. There he dispatched telegraphs to Washington D.C., Washington State senators, and his business and political connections in San Francisco issuing a clear message: send relief funds immediately. His original telegraphs are within the Erskine family’s Katmai scrapbook, also within the Baranov Museum’s collection.
All of Kodiak crowded on the Revenue Cutter
Service’s Manning during the Katmai eruption
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-89)
One telegraph was issued to the Alaska Packers Association: “… if you have any messages for Canneries send them to me immediately here and will make every effort to deliver. I have seasons bait frozen and believe can continue Halibut fishing provided fresh water is available. In places drifts of ashes are thirty feet deep and aparantly [sic] fish in streams and lake suffered greatly.”


The Metha Nelson and the Huntercontinued fishing for halibut once the air had cleared. Erskine was right – securing bait became very difficult, as the ash fall led to the choking of rivers and streams, impacting herring and salmon migration patterns. Nonetheless, at the end of the season, the crew had caught tons of halibut and one important question had been answered. Did Kodiak have enough halibut to warrant the development of a halibut fishery? Yes. However, there was an even more important question yet to be answered. Could Kodiak develop the infrastructure necessary to supply consumers hundreds of miles away with halibut? Check back later for an answer!