'This could be the start of ...'

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

How shall I start a column that last appeared in the Empire 50 years ago? Perhaps an auspicious opening like "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills," one of the memorable lines of 20th century literature?

How about a more humble beginning, just the intention to report the activity on the Juneau waterfront, a subject that is often overlooked in the more important cataloging of municipal and state affairs.

Today I talked with Steve Gilbertsen, Lands and Resource manager for the city of Juneau. He said the wharf that begins at Marine Park and extends south to the transfer dock has two names. It is the Alaska Steamship Wharf and the Cold Storage Wharf. Wharf is the terminology used by the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers. Dock is defined as the space on the water and at the pilings next to the wharf. For the layman it is the Juneau Dock. What a magnificent resource it represents. It is a straight walking distance of 1,360 feet. If you walk rapidly down the dock and back you will have traversed over half a mile in about 8 minutes. This is one of the best short walks in Juneau, with superb views on all sides.

I also talked with Eric Norman, the general manager of Taku Fisheries. This is a major processing facility, a fact which is often understated. In Juneau during 2002, 2,786,812 pounds of halibut were unloaded. This is net weight, deducting 10 percent for heads and 2 percent for ice. A round weight of 1,358,429 pounds of black cod was unloaded. Most of this activity occurred at the Taku Smokeries plant. This represented 4.79 percent of the total landings of halibut in Alaska and 5.01 percent of black cod deliveries.

These are not just Juneau fishermen. Many are from Seattle and other parts of Alaska. According to Norman, they spend tens of thousands of dollars for fuel oil, groceries, hotel rooms and other amenities when delivering at Juneau. The Juneau halibut landings represent a total expenditure to the fishermen of about $5.5 million.

When I was buying fish in Yakutat in the early 1970s, two necessities emerged. One was transportation, and the other the availability of financing. It is still true today. A fish processor has to borrow money from the bank to buy fish. If he or she has a bad year after a history of good ones, the individual may not be able to continue in business. So it is with great respect we praise intrepid fishermen, but also the hard-working fish buyer. As an afterthought, my Uncle Lennie told me that when he started buying fish in Wrangell in the 1930s he had $100 in the bank.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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