AHS Blog

Common Waters

Date Posted: April 15, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Anthony Dimond, Bristol Bay, Japan, salmon, W.C. Arnold

By: Ross Coen

When it came to Alaska fisheries, Anthony Dimond and W. C. Arnold didn’t see eye-to-eye very often. As the territory’s congressional delegate from 1933 to 1945, Dimond advocated local fisheries management, a hiring preference for Alaska residents, and the abolition of fish traps. As lawyer and lobbyist for the Seattle-based packing industry, Arnold opposed all of those things.

On at least one point, however, the two men were in full agreement.

In July 1937 at least ten and possibly as many as thirty Japanese fishing vessels entered Bristol Bay intent on catching salmon. They had neither license nor permission from the U.S. Fisheries Bureau to be there, but the Japanese government insisted the vessels were engaged only in a scientific research program. Alaska fishermen observed and photographed the Japanese crews harvesting large quantities of salmon, however. The outraged Alaskans estimated the catch of one factory trawler alone at 20,000 fish, a number that could only be for commercial, not scientific, purposes.

Both Dimond and Arnold—not to mention every other American with an interest in the Alaska fishing industry—supported political and diplomatic strategies that would exclude the Japanese from domestic fisheries. Dimond proposed extending the boundary of territorial waters as much as four hundred miles, a distance that would enclose all offshore waters over the continental shelf.

The Taiyo Maru, a Japanese factory vessel, and auxiliary
 trawler in Bristol Bay in July 1937

The 1937 controversy, for essentially the first time, aligned the interests of Alaskans and non-resident fish corporations. Just six packing companies accounted for well over half the annual Bristol Bay salmon pack at that time, a degree of corporate monopolization and attendant political power that infuriated Alaskans in normal times. But since the Japanese “invasion” might lead to a fishery collapse that would endanger the livelihoods of all stakeholders equally, common cause was not hard to find.
Arnold concurred with Dimond on the key points regarding the territorial boundary. The canned salmon industry had opposed Dimond for years and contributed heavily each election cycle to the campaigns of his Republican opponents. But now, Arnold wrote a letter to Dimond stating the packers were “deeply appreciative of your efforts.”

Political historians have tended to view Alaska residents and the Outside cannery owners as opponents with little to no common ground—or common waters, I should say. The statehood movement in particular has been characterized in terms of this conflict. Although such a focus is by no means misplaced, the 1937 Japanese fishing crisis shows an overlap in the interests of the two stakeholder groups was at times possible. As Alaska historians bring a renewed focus to the history of canneries, we would do well to consider interpretations that challenge previously accepted orthodoxy.