Back in the 1950s, Alaska’s bid for statehood was spurred in part by a fight over fish traps.
The behemoth contraptions were placed at the mouths of salmon streams from Ketchikan to Dillingham, resulting in waste of the resource while drastically diminishing the salmon runs.
Now, a new book details the history of the fish traps, and their impact on the soon to be new state.
“Fish traps were the principal, truly the principal public policy issue, that was driving the fight for statehood,” Alaska’s elder statesman Vic Fischer said.
He was around to hear the fish trap fight first hand. He says when the Alaska constitution came up for a vote, it passed 3-1, while another referendum proposed by the constitutional convention on the same ballot – to ban fish traps on statehood – passed 10-1.
“And one reason was, that the fish traps were the ultimate symbol of control of Alaska resources by Alaska owners,” Fischer said.
Nowhere but in Alaska could salmon have inspired such passion. The fish traps were built, owned and operated mostly by Seattle based fishing interests. Now James Mackovjak, a Gustavus historian and author, has written a book on salmon traps.
“Why would you have a salmon trap?,” Mackovjak asked. “Well, for the first thing was, they caught a lot of fish. Some traps, in good years, T caught as many as a million fish in a season. And that is a lot.”
Alaska Salmon Traps, Their History and Impact on Alaska, is a self published work. Mackovjak says the traps took little maintenance, but for a watchman or two, and they cut fishermen out of the equation entirely
“They held fish live, so when the cannery needed 30,000 fish to operate, they’d go out to the trap, get 30,000 live fish, take them to the cannery and put ’em in cans. But also, it avoided the issue of having fishermen involved. You know, boats break down, fishermen go on strike, fishermen get sick, they demand more for their fish, they take their fish elsewhere to sell them. Those were all issues that were involved,” Mackovjak said.
The exclusion of local fishermen enraged Alaskans as much as the waste of the captured fish which the cannery owners decided not to can if they didn’t need to,
Mackovjak’s book is filled with photos of the traps and their builders. The design for the fish traps was borrowed from Great Lakes traps built as early as 1870. They were constructed from logs and chicken wire and placed in inter-tidal areas.
The first fish traps in Alaska appeared in Cook Inlet in 1885. The traps funneled salmon into chutes, then into holding bins. But they were built in public waters, and federal officials with the Bureau of Fisheries early on considered them barriers, and called for ending their use.
“A Congressman, William Selzer, who was the first Congressman, he claimed, to visit Alaska, called them the most murderous and iniquitous instrumentalities that were ever devised by the human brain to destroy natural life,” Mackovjak said.
Ketchikan entrepreneurs came up with the floating fish trap in 1907, which allowed traps to be located in deeper water, using floating logs held in place by anchors.
“I mean, some of the anchors weighted nine tons,” Mackovjak said,
By 1926 there were 799 fish traps in the Alaska Territory.
It was Howard Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the effort to get rid of them. He worked with the FBI investigating corruption within the federal Bureau of Fisheries, which had oversight over the traps.
“I mean, there was one trap that was called the Commissioner’s trap, and the Commissioner had, allegedly, allowed this trap to be placed in a certain location, and he got a penny a fish for every fish that came through it,” Mackovjak said.
The federal government finally abolished fish traps in public waters in 1959, just before Alaska became a state.
Interestingly enough, that rule did not affect Metlakatla, Alaska’s sole Indian reservation. Metlakatla used fish traps until 1991.