The Commercial Fish Catch of California for the Year 1929, Fish Bulletin 30, Division of Fish and Game of California, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, California State Printing Office, 1931, pg. 51

Found at: Copyright: Regents of the University of California. Retrieved on 4 Jan 2011



During the last few years, the offshore fishing grounds supplying California ports have undergone a startling development. Southern California tuna boats now venture not only to Mexico as they have for many years, but to Central America and far-off Ecuador to make their catches. Japanese and Hawaiian fishermen are sending albacore across the Pacific in refrigerated steamers. Halibut vessels from Eureka are pushing up the Oregon coast. The Gulf of California is being tapped for fresh market fish. But long before any of these offshore fisheries were even dreamed of, California ships had successfully commenced the Alaska codfish and salmon fisheries.

In 1863, Captain Matthew Turner, of the brig Timandra of San Francisco, commenced the industry that has grown into the present day Alaska cod fishery.  His trip was part of a trading voyage to the Siberian coast. The trial was successful and the following year his ship and one other made the trip to northern waters. In 1865 seven ships brought in codfish both from Asiatic and Alaskan waters. The fish were cured aboard ship, brought to San Francisco and sold on the street. Until 1891, San Francisco was the only Pacific port where codfish vessels were outfitted. There are several reasons for the leadership of San Francisco. In the first place the fishing banks are nearly as close to San Francisco as they are to any other port.

The Shumagin Islands are approximately 1550 nautical miles from Seattle, 1900 from San Francisco. The San Francisco region itself furnishes a better market than the northwest offers and in addition is closer to Oriental and Latin-American markets. Being the only port where ships could outfit in early days gave the California city a big head start. In 1891 the Puget Sound region became a factor, and ships from Seattle, Tacoma, Anacortes, and neighboring ports have threatened San Francisco's supremacy ever since.

The Pacific codfish industry has been beset by vicissitudes ever since its inception. The prestige and actual power of the Atlantic cod fishery has acted against it from the first and only the courage of the packers and the quality of their products have carried the industry through. Every time the larger companies had a successful season any number of promoters would be inspired to send out schooners, only to create a glutted market and be wiped out. The list of failures reads like a roll call of San Francisco and Seattle business men. Worn-out schooners were sent north, many to be lost. Salting plants were built, many to rot in idleness. Most of the unsuccessful San Francisco promoters were bought out by one or the other of the two California companies that have come down to the present from pioneering days. These companies are now known as the Union Fish Company14 and the Alaska Codfish Company.

Because Alaska cod are landed in California in a prepared—salted—state, the amounts brought in do not appear in California fresh fish catch figures. Nevertheless, this Alaska fishery has been essentially Californian since its beginning nearly seventy years ago. The ships catching the fish and the plants where they are salted are owned by Californians. The fishermen spend the off-season in California. The fish are landed and prepared for market in the State and distributed from San Francisco. The Alaska cod has earned a place in California fishing history and deserves some recognition in any discussion of our fishing industry.

The Alaska cod 15 (Gadus macrocephalus) is still considered by most ichthyologists to be a different species from the Atlantic cod (Gadus callarias). There are no external differences except possibly the larger head of the Pacific cod, and internally the main distinction is the smaller air bladder of the Pacific form. In flavor and food value there is little if anything to choose between the cods of the two oceans. The cod of the Pacific attains weights of about 60 pounds, but 30 is considered quite large.

The habitat of the Alaska cod is along the eastern coast of the Pacific from Washington north to the northern part of Bering Sea and down the Asiatic coast as far south as Japan. The areas where cod are most numerous are the most northern part of the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea.

The schooners engaged in the cod fishery were not built as fishing boats. They are 3- and 4-masted schooner-rigged vessels of approximately 150 to 450 tons net, formerly used as cargo and trading vessels. Some of them occasionally take a season off to act in the movies, to tender tuna from Lower California to San Pedro, or to lie idle.

The ships leave San Francisco Bay in the early spring, from late in January to March, taking about 25 days to make the run to the fishing grounds under sail. The cod are caught on the relatively shallow banks (approximately 12 to 50 fathoms) on both sides of the Alaska Peninsula. The first catches were made on the Asiatic banks in the Okhotsk Sea and around the Shumagin Islands on the Alaska side of the North Pacific. In 1882 the Bering Sea fishery was begun. It has continued to the present. The Shumagin fishery has spread to include the several banks of the North Pacific on the Alaska side. The last San Francisco fare from the Okhotsk Sea was in 1909, except for landings of Japanese ships in 1918, 1919 and 1920.

The fishing is done from dories sent out from the schooners. The fishermen use long hand lines with hooks baited with pieces of fish. The dories have been equipped with outboard motors for several seasons. The motors increase the dories' range and allow them to take advantage of short periods of calm during stormy weather. The dories are able to make several trips during the long summer day, usually returning at meal times so the fishermen can eat aboard ship. often a trip is made after supper, and some diligent fishermen do not return for meals but content themselves with taking along a piece of bread or salt pork in their dories. The schooners carry dress gangs to clean and split the fish as soon as they are brought in by the fishermen. When not engaged in cleaning, the members of the dress crew fish over the schooner's rail, getting paid for their fish in addition to receiving regular wages. The fishermen are paid according to the number of fish they have caught. Pay day follows the arrival of the ship in San Francisco Bay. Many of the fishermen squander their whole earnings in one big party or have it stolen by confidence men in the city. These unfortunate ones often work at the salting plant until the schooners leave the following spring.

The fish when brought aboard ship are beheaded, cleaned and split open lengthwise, leaving a double piece joined at the back. The split fish are lightly salted and kenched in the hold. In kenching, the fish are piled skin-side down, alternating napes and tails. The top fish is placed back- or skin-side up. Individual kenches or piles are about 4 feet long, as wide as the hold, and as high as space will permit. When the kench is finished, salt is poured on top of the pile and allowed to seep down among the lower fish. The salt draws the moisture out of the cod, drying as well as salting them. The liquid runs into the bilge and is pumped out. Codfish are very "watery" and shrink a great deal when salted. The shrinkage of the fish causes the kench to become lower so that more fish can be piled on top and more salt added. The fish are quite dry when they reach San Francisco. The salt is made on San Francisco Bay and carried north by the schooners.

In addition to the regular fishing schooners, the various companies maintain shore stations in Alaska. Small fishing boats—launches, dories and sailing vessels—catch the cod on the inshore banks and land them at the stations where they are cleaned, split and salted down. The fishing is done by Indians and white Alaskans, who alternate cod and salmon fishing. The boats are owned by the companies. Dressing and salting are considered part of the work of the fishermen who divide themselves into dress gangs for performing this labor. Recently some of the fishing schooners have made a practice of taking crews to the stations to fish the island banks. The fish caught by the regular station crews are brought to Washington and California by special transporting sail and power vessels, by regular cargo steamers, and by fishing schooners that have not made capacity catches. Most of the stations are located on the Shumagin Islands. Some of them operate all year, some in the winter, and some in the summer only. The schooners operate in the spring and summer.

Table 3 gives the total number of codfish brought into California from Pacific waters during the years 1863 to 1929, inclusive. From 1863 to 1875 all the fish were landed directly by fishing vessels. After the establishment of shore stations in Alaska a varying percentage of deliveries has consisted of fish from the stations. In 1918, 1919 and 1920 several Japanese fishing vessels seeking better markets brought their fares to San Francisco and Puget Sound. The table gives the number of fish landed. Roughly speaking 1000 dry-salted codfish weigh 3725 pounds. The fish average 12 pounds in the round. John N. Cobb gives the value of the 1,253,500 vessel-caught fish delivered in 1915 as $165,462. The 915,000 fish brought to San Francisco in 1929 were valued at approximately $225,000, according to C. E. Cocks of the Union Fish Company. These amounts do not include discharging the vessel, repickling, or manufacturing the fish into the finished products.

Variations from year to year reflect market conditions more than fishing conditions. Sometimes a poor season is due to unusually stormy weather but, according to packers, enough fish can usually be obtained to fill orders. Most often a small catch is due to a curtailment of activity brought about by overproduction during the previous year and the consequently glutted market. Overproduction in Europe will make extensive operations unwise, as American products often have difficulty in competing with the resulting low-priced European fish. Economic conditions in the importing countries cause rises and drops in the catch. For instance a bad year for sugar in Cuba, one of the principal markets, causes a decline in demand and results in a lessening of fishing effort. Figure 39 shows that the general trend of total catch has been upward since the beginning of the fishery. The drop of the last decade was due in part to the post-war slump and in some measure to the increasing competition of canned fish.

Occasionally a transporting ship brings fish to San Francisco from the Alaska shore stations. During the last few years, some of the fishing schooners have fished from the Alaska stations and the transporting fleet has become a less important factor at San Francisco. The fishing schooners, having fished all spring and early summer, deliver their fish at San Francisco from late July to September. The salting plant of the Union Fish Company is located at Belvedere in Marin County across the bay from San Francisco. The Alaska Codfish Company formerly had a plant at Redwood City in San Mateo County where their ships delivered. The plant was destroyed by fire in July, 1929, so that at present the company is sharing the Belvedere plant with the Union Fish Company.

The schooners pull up to the wharf at the plant for unloading. The fish are taken off in cargo nets and dropped into tanks of bay water for a wash. They are taken out of the tanks, lightly salted, and placed in large permanent tanks containing 100 per cent brine solution. They will keep indefinitely in the brine tanks and are left there until needed.

The demand is greatest during the winter months, especially in export markets. Consequently, the plant is busiest during this season, although operative throughout the year. Many of the summer fishermen find employment at the plant during the fall and winter. When an order comes in, the necessary fish are removed from the brine and allowed to drain and dry. Fish that are to be sent to damp countries such as the West Indies or Central America must be dried very thoroughly as codfish readily absorb moisture which would cause them to spoil. During sunny weather, outdoor drying racks are used. At other times the fish are put on indoor racks and are dried by air that has been heated by a furnace. The warm air is drawn over the fish by a large suction fan.

There are something like forty styles of pack, ranging from the dried fish as they arrive from Alaska with only the heads, viscera and black skin removed—to the fancy filleted bricks and slices. Depending on the style of pack, varying amounts of skin and bones are removed and the fish are cut, pressed into shape, or filleted, and wrapped for shipping. Fish for local consumption or destined for countries with a dry climate are packed in waxed paper and cardboard or wooden containers. The fish for export to damp localities are often packed in tin. The skins and bones are shipped to reduction plants to be converted into glue and fertilizer.

Pacific cod are shipped all over the world from San Francisco. The United States as far east as the Rocky Mountains is one of the largest markets. The West Indies, Mexico and Central America are important consumers. In addition many fish are shipped to the Hawaiian Islands, the East Indies and Asia. Pacific cod are also competing favorably with the Atlantic fish in the eastern states and Europe.

All communication between the Belvedere plant and San Francisco is by water, so that the codfish have not yet quite finished their long sea voyage, even those that are destined for local markets have seven of the two thousand miles yet to be traveled. The schooners deliver the fish directly to the plant. All the prepared fish is sent out from Belvedere by boat, to be distributed from San Francisco. The owners of the plant operate a boat that connects with the San Francisco ferry at nearby Tiburon. This boat takes out fish and brings mail and provisions for the workers. Salt is brought to the plant by boat from the salt works on the southern arm of San Francisco Bay.

Besides being of considerable economic importance, the Alaska cod fishery has its romantic side. Early California and Alaska history is replete with tales of shanghaied sailors and shipwrecked vessels, and the colorful waterfront characters who succeeded or failed in the codfish business helped to make San Francisco the picturesque city it was and is. The reader is referred to John N. Cobb's classic, "Pacific cod fisheries" (footnote 13), for a more detailed account of the fishery and its history.