Alaska's Food Fishes and the Interests of its Fisheries

Bushrod W. James
1894 Transactions of the American Fisheries Society  
MEMBER OF PENNSYLVANIA FISH PROTECTION ASSOCIATION. Probably I should give as my reason for'so often writing upon the natural resources of Alaska, that having visited the country and become a member of its historical society, I consider myself in a measure identified with its admirers and defenders. The seal industry alone has given the Territory importance for so many years, that the recent disturbance, judging only from that standpoint, appears to have demoralized it to such an extent that
more » ... future might be considered as almost hopeless, so far as its value to the United States is concerned; but the seals actually represent but a small percentage of its great resources, among which gold, silver and coal have prominent positions. Yet I have no doubt that more extensive investigation will demonstrate that seals, gold. silver and coal are surpassed in value by the immense quantities of excellent food fishes which attain to great size and perfection in the peculiarly pure waters of Alaska. Dr. Tarleton H. Bean, whose position as a member of the United States Fish Commission has led him to minutely examine into the numerous kinds of food fishes in Alaska, .and their approximate value, has returned such an extended and accurate report of his investigation to the government, that I may be considered rather bold in touching upon the subject. As my defense, I will mention that Dr, Bean's report is so identical with Downloaded by [Florida State University] at 07:15 31 December 2014 the statistical business of the United States Fish Commission that it has not obtained the wide-spread publication which would have placed it before the great community of readers who are interested in such matters. Much of my knowledge upon the food fishes I have gained through consulting those reports as well as the various books published by travelers in Alaska. To this I have added by my tour in that country and still more probably by taking a merely common-sense view of the whole subject. We are well aware that fish must always be, as it ever has been, a staple article of diet with islanders and coast dwellers. Year after year its popularity has spread inland, until fine smoked, salted and canned fishes are welcome to nearly everyone's table. The marked improvement in the preparation and preservation of fish has made the demand greater from season to .season, and refined tastes have created a desire for the best and most delicately flavored of the various kinds. To supply the greatly augmented requirement, the large Eastern fisheries have in so1Tle places been depleted, while in others the stock has deteriorated through too continuous catches. Lookinz Westward, we can see plainly wonderful quantities of the same kind of fishes ready to replenish the failing stores and to take the place of the Eastern supply, at least until time is allowed for their renewal in growth and numbers. Perhaps we may not obtain the truly fresh fish. as it lands in the California markets, imbedded in pure, translucent ice, but cod, halibut; herring and mackerel for drying, salting or smoking, and salmon for canning are more than abundant and proportionately fine in size and quality. The several kinds of salmon were the subject of the paper offered by me for the consideration of this association two years ago; therefore I need not touch Downloaded by [Florida State University] at 07:15 31 December 2014 69 upon them at this time except in the brief table of statistics which is appended to the present article. The halibut of Alaska grows to a great size, sometimes weighing three hundred pounds and even more. It is a very important fish to the natives, who devote themselves to its capture almost exclusively. Smoked halibut is very excellent in flavor and must some day win its way into our markets, though as yet only a few thousand cases are prepared for commerce. Cod of Alaskan waters is almost analogous with the fish of the eastern coast whose fame is wide-spread, except that it grows larger and by dealers in the Western States it is considered superior in both fibre and flavor Another point in its favor is that as far east as Chicago, it is cheaper as well as better than its compeer of the Atlantic. The value of Pacific cod may be roughly estimated by the returns for its receipt in San Francisco in I893, when there were 1,243,ooo fishes delivered to the numerous dealers. Even at variable prices the income must be large, for the fishes sometimes when caught reach a weight of thirty pounds each. The receipts of these fish alone at San Francisco have amounted to 29, 123,800 fishes between the years •865 and •893. Even estimating the individual weight to be small the returns seem to prove that the Cod Fisheries alone are well worthy of protection. Cods abound in the sea and ocean around the Aleutian Islands, and are so plentiful that they can be obtained at almost any time in the year. Taking the statement of dealers in Chicago and other central Western cities regarding quality and price it is reasonable to believe that a systematised arrangement could be made which would benefit commerce in the States and aid the islanders in gaining a less variable livelihood; for the poorer part of the population on the islands and near coast are practically compelled to fairly gorge themselves during the season Downloaded by [Florida State University] at 07:15 31 December 2014 when seals, whales or walruses can be obtained, and live a life of semi-starvation the remainder of the year. Alaskan herring is positively so super-abundant during the running season that millions are thrown upon the beach by the tides, where they remain to perish, a most reprehensible practice there or elsewhere. Perhaps the possibilities of this fish cannot be highly estimated because of the lack of fuel to use in smoking, the only manner in which this species seems to be considered palatable. But there may yet be a way found by some enterprising American to utilize this enormous production of the sea. From the great waves which leap far on to the shore in stormy weather, thousands of tons of kelp, a strong, ropy sea-weed, are thrown and left beyond the reach of their recession. The natives use this for fuel but leave vast quantities to waste Perhaps the time will come when this material will be used in preparing thk fish for Eastern markets. Used for food when fresh, it is claimed to have superior qualities to those of the herring of the Atlantic coast. Mackerel, that prime favorite of salted fish, abounds in quantities almost beyond belief. The vast schools appear near the coasts at Attu literally piled one upon another. They grow to fine size, and the flavor is said to be the same as that of Atlantic mackerel. Their season is short--from June ist. to July 3•st--but Mr Lucian Turner asserts that from his own observation "50o barrels of 2oo pounds each could easily be prepared at the rate of about $2.oo per barrel." It would be a slight matter to erect fish-curing sheds (men work willingly for a $•.oo and women for 50 or 75 cents per day) and as the Alaskans are experts in cleaning the fish, doubtless Mr. Turner's estimate could be •verreached by systematic labor. The value of these fe'•' species of fish alone would pay for investment in the addition to the stock for trade, and go a great distance in teaching the natives to utilize the abundant products Downloaded by [Florida State University] at 07:15 31 December 2014 71 of the sea in obtaining other comforts for themselves through the profits of their work. The size to which fish attain in Alaska appears almost incredible. White fish of from thirty-five to forty pounds in weight are common in the waters from St. Michael's to Anvik. During the season they are eagerly sought for by the natives. Black fish grow very large and are wonderfully abundant. Dr. Bean and Mr. Turner state that they run for "many miles along the coast, and into the rivers where they are the chief dependence for about three thousand inhabitants with their (•ogs. In three months sixty-nine tons are taken. The average is about •o3. 5 tons in a season." These as well as Tom Cod and Lamprey Eels are frozen in grass bags or possibly left upon the ice to be chopped in pieces when wanted. Sometimes the mass is sliced and eaten raw, and often it is boiled, but in either case the natives often have only this form of food, when other food supplies are unattainable. By a grateful adaptability to circumstances neither men nor dogs seem to desire anything better. The fishes which I have here mentioned are but a few of the most valuable of the many excellent species which are plentiful beyond computation. There are flounders, greylings, smelts, sticklebacks, eels, sturgeon, sculpins, and in fact nearly all kinds of fishes from whales to minnows, and all enormously abundant. By this we can plainly see the peculiar provision which nature has made for both the human and animal inhabitants of that strange north country. The people are poor in every comfort outside of that to be obtained from the creatures of the ocean or its near neighborhood. Confined to a country in which land animal food is but scarcely distributed. and vegetables, fruit and milk are unknown, the human inhabitants have been necessitated to subsist upon that which could be found in sufficient quantity. Salt being an almost unknown commodity Downloaded by [Florida State University] at 07:15 31 December 2014 until the advent of the Russians, they have been contented in earlier days to eat from year's end to year's
doi:10.1577/1548-8659(1894)24[67:affati];2 fatcat:otixpfamp5hsbol22i2prjybqu