By: Kristy Griffin
No connoisseur of Alaskan history can dispute the impact of the seafood industry on this state, but as the canneries and cold storage facilities that once adorned the landscape disappear from sight and memory, the struggle to keep knowledge of the past alive begins. In an era of constant connectivity, information saturation, and Pokémon Go, the connection between the birth and growth of Alaska’s seafood industry and the contemporary cultural, political, and economic climate in Alaska becomes obscured. Seeking to document and preserve local seafood industry heritage for the benefit of future generations, The Sitka History Museum teamed up with the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative in 2016.
It all started over a year before when Sitka History Museum Executive Director, Hal Spackman, explored a fresh approach to the promotion of local history. The Sitka History Museum began working with KCAW, Raven Radio 104.7, 90.1 FM to produce Sitka History Minute, a short weekly radio program featuring unique and captivating stories from Sitka’s past. Harkening back to the golden era of radio, the show combines equal parts theatrical delivery, rich storytelling, and historical fact. A team of enthusiastic writers tackle every aspect of Sitka’s past, from the town’s one and only hanging to the infamous April Fool’s Mount Edgecumbe “eruption” prank. Most importantly, the program frees the past from the formality of museums and text books and plunks it down into the daily life of people from Port Alexander, Alaska in the south all the way north to Yakutat.
By 2016, Sitka History Minute had gained a strong following of listeners. When the Alaska Historical Society announced their Historic Canneries Initiative, the Sitka History Museum saw an exciting opportunity to combine a radio program with proven success and an established listenership with the goals of the Initiative. In fact, the Museum had already aired an episode on the history of Pyramid Packing Company, a Sitka seafood cannery. Listen to that episode here:
The Museum sought and was generously awarded an Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative mini-grant to fund the production of a special series of Sitka History Minute episodes commemorating Sitka’s seafood industry history.
Part I of the cannery series introduced listeners to the invention of canning, its spread to the United States, and the revolutionary ways that it shaped industry and culture in the state of Alaska. The episode provided fun and interesting details such as the fact that nearly a half century lapsed between the invention of canning and the creation of the first can opener, and that Otto von Kotzebue (for whom Kotzebue, Alaska was named) became one of the first seafaring explorers to use canned products on his three-year voyage to the Bering Strait and South Seas. Listen here:
Part II featured the story of Sitka’s first cannery, the Cutting Packing Company. In 1878, a little more than a decade after Russia transferred its claims on Alaska to the United States, the Cutting Packing Company and the North Pacific Packing Company in Klawock became the first two canneries in the state of Alaska. Even though the Cutting Packing Company ceased operations after two years, the company pioneered an industry that played a major role in defining post-Transfer Alaskan economy. Please listen here:
Part III documented the often overlooked importance of the Alaska Native seine fishing fleet to the birth and growth of the state’s seafood industry. The salmon harvest defined Tlingit economy and culture for thousands of years, so when Americans began arriving to capitalize on Alaska’s fisheries, Alaska Natives asserted their traditional fishing rights. In the early years, Alaska Natives held a near monopoly on seine fishing, but the introduction of fish traps and Limited Entry fishing permits set about an unfortunate chain of events that ended much of the Native participation in Alaskan commercial seine fishing. You can listen here:
Part IV encapsulated the sixty-year history of what has been called the first major fisheries plant on Sitka’s waterfront. The plant began operations in 1913 under the ownership of Chlopeck Fisheries Company, quickly sold to Booth Fisheries Company, and expanded its operations during the Great Depression under the ownership of the locally-formed Sitka Cold Storage Company. In an industry controlled mostly by large out-of-state businesses, the Sitka Cold Storage Company broke the mold as an Alaskan business run by Alaskans. Check it out:
With the airing of Part I of the cannery series in August of 2016, Sitka History Minute celebrated its landmark fiftieth episode. The series ran throughout the month and included a re-airing of Episode 12 on the Pyramid Packing Company. While Sitka History Minute strives to deepen the Public’s appreciation for local history, the radio program also has significant implications for the preservation of cultural heritage. The in-depth research and documentation of oral histories that accompany the writing and production of each episode works to preserve a past that, like the historic canneries fading from Alaska’s shorelines, would be otherwise lost to time.
The Sitka History Museum wishes to thank the Alaska Historical Society’s Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative for their sponsorship of the Sitka History Minute special cannery series and KCAW, Raven Radio 104.7, 90.1 FM for their continued partnership in the Sitka History Museum’s endeavor to promote and preserve local history. Links to the Sitka History Minute cannery series, including Episode 12 on the Pyramid Packing Company, can be found at SitkaHistory.org, or at KCAW.org/sitka-history-minute/.
Richard Sturgill and the folks at the Alaska Packers Association Museum in Blaine, WA have been busy restoring Sailboat #59 from the APA Dimond NN Cannery in Naknek. The boat was originally saved by Katie Ringsmuth’s father, superintendent of the cannery. It was kept and displayed by Trident Seafoods for many years. Not long ago Trident donated the boat to the APA museum.
Former APA/Trident Shipwright Steve Alaniz along with fellow shipwright Steve Ince have volunteered their time and skill to restoring this sailboat. The goal is to have a USCG inspected vessel certified to carry passengers for hire. If that goal is achieved the museum believes it will have the only seaworthy double-ender in original fishing configuration back on the water.
If you haven’t seen the APA Museum in Blaine it is definitely worth a stop. The museum maintains a summer schedule from Memorial Day to Labor Day. http://www.draytonharbormaritime.org/apa.html.
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.