Contemplating Alaska's rich fishing heritage

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

This is the real Alaska. This is the historic Alaska. I'm standing on the floor of the modern fish processing plant of Glacier Seafoods, located in Auke Bay just beyond the ferry terminal.

Two pillars of economic activity sustained Alaska and Alaskans for generations from the purchase in 1867 to well into the 1940s and '50s. One was the lonely quest for gold that drew miners to Juneau and the Stikine, to the Yukon and the Klondike, to Nome and the Bering Sea coast and to Fairbanks and the great rivers of the Interior.

The other was the harvest of the riches of the ocean by a hardy race of men who pulled the salmon, halibut and black cod from the depths.

I was once told by a fisherman that what made Alaska's maritime bounty so meaningful was that it created new money at a time when there were only a few dollars turning over in the economy among the people living here. It was an infusion of wealth from outside Alaska as our salmon and halibut were exported and fed the rest of the world.

My daughter's recent research on her grandmother's legislative experience in 1947 illustrates how meager our expenditures and resources were. One statistic stands out for me: The appropriation for legislative staff and expenses was $16,400.

Today the two fish plants in Juneau - Glacier Seafoods and the Taku Smokeries downtown - are doing marvelous jobs. They've each bought about 1.8 million pounds of halibut at well over $3 a pound, so about $12 million is passing through the economy -new money - from the fishermen of Southeast Alaska.

Sometimes the contribution seems inconsequential besides the hundreds of millions from the oil companies and the lavish outflow from the federal government.

But what can't be diminished is the grandeur of the fishing and mining lifestyle and the sense of history. This is the real Alaska, where for more than 100 years, fishermen and cannery and cold storage workers have been at the heart of the experience of living and working in Alaska.

I can still smell the rich pungent odor of fresh halibut, as I walk the docks of Juneau, even though the only boats unloading are in my imagination. And I can recall my own glory days heading halibut on the Yakutat cold storage dock when I ran the plant there from 1972 to 1976 and then on to the bay at Dillingham from 1977 to 198l.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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