by Bob King
Old time fishermen are often described as “Iron Men in Wooden Boats.” It honors their hard work in the days before motors and hydraulics.
Last spring I went to Bellingham’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies to look through the archives of the Alaska Packers Association (APA), the largest of Bristol Bay’s historic salmon canners. Among other things, they had several boxes of 4 by 6 inch cards: the company’s records of their Bristol Bay fishermen from 1908 to 1941. They paint a vivid picture of the fishermen who caught sockeye during the bay’s sailboat era.
Who were they? Most fishermen were immigrants: Europeans from fishing nations like Italy and Norway. There were others from the Mediterranean: Croatia, Greece, and even one from Algeria. There were other Scandinavians: Swedes and Finns; also Germans, Danes, and Russians. One fisherman came from Australia. There were US citizens and Native Alaskans too but most came from overseas. Many cards noted immigration status: when they filed their first papers, or intent to naturalize, and second papers, the formal petition to become a citizen. At least one fisherman was reported held by immigration authorities. The cards don’t list race but do mention “complexion.” Scandinavians tended to be labeled as “fair” or “light,” while fishermen from the Mediterranean were usually listed as “dark.” Some were described as “ruddy.”
They list the canneries where the fishermen worked and the ships they sailed on: the barks of the APA’s Star Fleet and the steamers that succeeded them in the 1920s. They recorded injuries: fractured ribs and injured hands. There were several cases of fish poisoning. It’s often caused by eating raw or under-cooked salmon but can also come from handling fish.
Several deaths were noted. The work was hard, the hours long, and the tides, winds, and weather were unforgiving. Overall, two or three fishermen died in Bristol Bay every year.
The company identified “trouble makers,” probably shorthand for union activists, and noted detentions and fines for insubordination. Other problems were listed: One fishermen refused to sail on the Star of France. A Dillingham fisherman tried to deliver old fish. Another fisherman was caught using small mesh gear. Fishermen were paid by the fish, not the pound, so they padded their catch by adding sections of net with mesh under 4½ inches to catch more small fish.
The meanest comment was made about some greenhorn who was the poorest fisherman at the Kvichak’s Diamond J in 1923 and blamed it on a sprained thumb. They described him as “no good man,” and there was a big X on his card. He didn’t come back for a second season.
But others filled out their cards for 20 seasons in the Bay. The cards list both the individual fisherman’s catch and the cannery average, in numbers of fish. This was before they weighed the catch but you can estimate poundage by multiplying the first number by 6: 20,000 reds are 120,000 pounds; and there are plenty of years when the average was 30,000 reds, or 180,000 pounds.
Remember, these fishermen worked in sailboats. No motors, hydraulic net rollers, or power reels. Just two guys in a wooden boat who pulled their nets in by hand and pitched each fish to the tally scow with a pew. When the wind went slack, they pulled out their oars. For them, the Bristol Bay season lasted five months, from May to September. It took a month to sail north, a month to set up the cannery, a month to fish, a month to close the cannery down and load the pack, and a month to sail back to San Francisco.
During the sailboat years, Bristol Bay fisherman averaged 120,000 to 140,000 pounds of sockeye every year, even more on the East side. These catches did not come from exceptional runs. Total harvests averaged about 15 million sockeye annually, and rarely topped 20 million. Compare that to today. In hat’s been a banner year with a catch of 36 million, Bristol Bay driftnetters, with their hydraulic rollers, brailers, and a crew of three or four, averaged less than 100,000 pounds.
There are reasons why catch rates were higher then. Fishing wasn’t regulated. Bristol Bay was open 24/7 until 1924. They used 200 fathoms of gear. There weren’t any district lines. Enforcement was non-existent. Effort was also a lot smaller. Back in the 20s and 30s there were usually only 800 to 1,200 gillnetters in Bristol Bay and maybe a few hundred setnets. Now there are almost 1,900 drift permits and 1,000 setnets. The catch is spread out much further – and that’s actually a good thing.
Let me tell you about one of these fishermen. Gennaro Camporeale was born in Italy in 1893, came to America and lived in San Francisco, half a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf. He was an Able Bodied seaman and started fishing in Egegik in 1914, when he was 21. He filed for US citizenship in 1929. He fished Egegik for 19 seasons. And maybe more.
He stands out because after looking at cards of fishermen who routinely landed 20,000 and 30,000 fish, Camporeale landed over 40,000 fish in 1918, 240,000 pounds. And in 1922, he landed 45,500 reds, 270,000 pounds of salmon pulled onboard by his hands and pitched into the tally scow. I didn’t get to look at all these cards closely but that was the biggest number that I saw.
All combined, in 19 seasons Camporeale landed over half a million sockeye at Egegik, 3 million pounds. He had his off years too but he caught 15% more salmon than the average Egegik fisherman, 25% more than on the Kvichak, 40% more than Naknek, and twice as many as on the Nushagak.
And what do you think he was paid for that? The APA cards don’t record prices but contracts with the Alaska Fishermen’s Union show in 1914 Bristol Bay fishermen were paid 3½ cents per fish, just over half a penny a pound. By 1937, the price was up to 12 cents a fish, two cents a pound. Add it all up, for those half a million sockeye, Camporeale earned a grand total of $18,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s almost $300,000 today, an average of $15,000 a season.
Camporeale was among the hardest-working highliners of the 1920s. For 19 years, he averaged about 170,000 pounds a year, fish pulled from Bristol Bay with his bare hands, and was paid an inflation-adjusted average 19 cents a pound. Of course, the company paid for his boat, nets, and the Blazo in his Swede stove. The cannery also fed him and gave him a bunk during closed periods. And Camporeale amassed a remarkable record. 3
The APA kept photographs of some of the fishermen: blurry head shots stapled to the card, but maybe only of a few dozen out of the thousands of fishermen who worked Bristol Bay’s sailboat days. These are the faces of the iron men of Bristol Bay. There isn’t a picture of Gennaro Camporeale. But each of these fishermen have their stories too.
As do fishermen today. Fishing remains a tough business. It’s cold and wet, and out in the weather. Despite the power reels hydraulics and electronic conveniences of today, it’s still hard work. It still can be deadly. And prices? Well, that’s another story. Just don’t complain to these guys. I hope fishermen share their experiences. The Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative was created to document and preserve the iconic buildings that are centers of our fishing communities and also to preserve the stories of the individual fishermen and processing workers.
I encourage all fishermen record an oral history before their story is lost or left to whatever records are boxed in some archives. Don’t think it has to be profound. Often it’s the most common observation of day to day life on the boat or in the cannery that gives perspective to what this industry means to fishermen, fishing communities, and the broader scope of our history.