Fish traps figured in statehood debate

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2001

After fish traps migrated to the territory of Alaska from the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s, their efficiency was both praised and criticized. Opposition also arose over the ownership of traps by nonresident corporations and federal control over the fishery.

"Opposition to the hated fish trap provided the political fuel for the statehood movement, and the new state of Alaska banned the trap as part of its constitution," University of Alaska economist Steve Colt wrote in an economic history of Alaska salmon traps.

In 1960 -- one year after statehood -- fish traps slid into Alaska's history.

The traps did have advantages. Fish stayed alive inside them until they were removed to the cannery, resulting in a superior product. This was particularly important prior to the days of ice-carrying tenders. Until 1889, traps also could be located in rivers next to canneries, enabling a steady flow of fish to production lines. However, an 1889 law banned fish traps from the rivers.

The small number of people needed to operate a trap appealed to cannery management who faced increasingly diverse and powerful unions.

However, critics argued the traps decreased employment opportunities. According to Colt, opponents thought banning fish traps would increase jobs, population and economic growth.

He estimated that the eventual ban on traps allowed some 6,000 people to enter Alaska's fishery, "but did nothing to boost average earnings or stem the tide of new entrants whenever prices rose."

Enemies of fish traps also argued that traps were depleting the resource.

"Throughout the political debates, it was common for some to make astounding claims about the productivity of the fish traps," Colt reported. "The Alaska Supreme Court uncritically accepted the assertion that a catch of 600,000 fish per year was 'not unusual.'"

Although such huge catches were unusual, the stories fueled arguments against the traps during Alaska's constitutional convention.

"This issue is so basic and so fundamental that I simply cannot conceive of any written history of Alaska without a full and complete coverage of the history of the impact of the fish traps on one of the greatest natural resources ever known to man," W.O. Smith of Ketchikan said at the convention on Jan. 26, 1956.

"This impact has been so great that this resource is much closer to final destruction than most of us realize."

Acts of piracy did little to enhance the fishery's reputation. Fish stolen from traps helped line the pockets of other fishers. In Southeast Alaska, stolen fish were used to stock "dummy" traps, nonworking traps that blocked other traps from an area and weighted negotiations when federal regulators attempted to reduce total numbers of traps.

"As the lawlessness and the number of piracies increased, so did the efforts to prevent them," reported H.C. Scudder in his 1970 report, "The Alaska Salmon Trap: Its Evolution, Conflicts and Consequences."

He added, "Federal and territorial agencies organized preventive patrols in cooperation with trap operators. The Bureau of Fisheries used two Navy subchasers, both fully complemented and armed."

Piracy was rare in Cook Inlet, according to Nick Leman, 83, of Ninilchik. Leman operated a trap from 1935 until 1958. Mike Steik, 67, who fished a trap just north of Clam Gulch with his father, Chris Steik, recalled hearing about fish being stolen from traps.

"What I remember was that the big pile-driven traps would be raided," Steik said. "They'd cut a hole in the pot, load up their boat and take off. I know of a guy that did it a couple of times, but I'm not going to give you any names."

Most Alaskans favored the ban on fish traps that came after statehood, but some feared for their futures.

"I remember Dad putting away some (trap) poles and saying, 'Well, I probably won't need these next year. I'll probably lose my trap,'" said Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, son of Nick Leman.

"The other thing I remember him saying was, 'I don't know what I'm going to do. When you lose your livelihood of so many years, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"

Mike Steik also remembered the impact of the ban.

"It wasn't a very good set-up for a lot of people because they had nothing to turn to," he said. "They were just out that first season. It was tough -- very, very tough."

Forty years after fish traps were removed, Colt's research compared efficiencies and inefficiencies of fish traps with other methods of fishing. He considered construction costs, the wholesale value of canned product and numbers of jobs. He examined impacts of the limited entry system introduced in 1973, which seeks to maintain the resource and the economic health of effected fisheries by placing a limit on units of gear used. And he looked at fluctuations in the price of fish and harvest volumes.

Looking through the sharp lens of data collected, Colt concluded this once abhorred fishery was perhaps worth a second glance.

He summed up his research by writing, "It may be time for Alaskans to reconsider the fish trap."

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