Place is an essential element of our Alaska Gold Seafood story. And at 3 points in our Co-op’s 75-year history the special place where we operate has forever altered who we are as a fishermen-owned co-op. To celebrate our 75-year anniversary, we’d like to share those stories of place here:
- In 1952, several Co-op fishermen began pioneering fishing spots on the Fairweather Grounds. Fishing at the Grounds opened the Co-op up to some very productive fishing grounds in some of the wildest country on the planet.
- The 1964 Good Friday earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed just about everything that the Co-op had in the region, leaving the Co-op in an existential crisis.
- The building of our fishermen-owned Sitka plant satisfied our Co-op’s over-riding concern for maintaining a top-qualityproduct from ocean to market.
The Fairweather Grounds
In 1952, Toivo Andersen in his boat the Greta, Oscar Vienola in the Anna Marie, and Arthur Vienola in the Belle J pioneered salmon trolling in the Fairweather Grounds. Fairweather Grounds is a misnomer, as the grounds are known for being rich with life but surrounded by deep, unforgiving waters and open ocean. Ferocious winds and choppy waves hit where the continental shelf rises toward the surface of the ocean, creating hazardous conditions for the small fishing vessels that operate there.
To navigate, the original Fairweather fishermen used compasses, fathometers, and radio direction finders that enabled them to take bearings on each other. When their fathometers indicated they were in fifty fathoms, they would find themselves on the edge of the shelf, the most productive waters, and they would let go a halibut anchor with buoy line and flagpole attached so that they could orient themselves and find it again. After discovering how rich the grounds were for fish, these pioneering fishermen would bring a new innovation that had been a “secret weapon” during the final days of World War II, the Loran (Long Range Navigation). Loran required skill and tinkering, but gave these fishermen a better chance of finding their best spots. As it became easier to find the shelf, other boats began following these Fairweather fishermen out to the Fairweather Grounds. All these fishermen risked and continue to risk rough seas in one of the wildest corners on the planet.
On the coast near the Fairweather Grounds, Lituya Bay has been a refuge for salmon and halibut fishermen during storms and it has a fascinating history documented well in one of our late fishermen Francis Caldwell’s Land of the Ocean Mists. Entrance to Lituya Bay can be made provided the tide is flooding and outside swell conditions are not causing the bar to break. Judging the current is key. At high tide the entrance is about 1,000 feet wide, but at low water it is reduced by shallow banks of sand and gravel to 600 feet. If a heavy swell is breaking, the entrance is then reduced to about 150 feet between breakers. The tremendous volume of water that flows into and out of the bay every 6 hours is forced through this narrow entrance, producing, at times, 12-knot currents.
Following a 1958 earthquake that registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, a massive tsunami wave shot water up 1720 feet up a ridge pulling all of massive trees and glacial boulders off the surrounding valley out of the bay, the scars of which are still visible. Three fishing vessels were anchored for the night when this massive wave, the largest wave in recorded history, came crashing upon them. Two boats and their fishermen were lost to sea. Another fishermen, Howard Ulrich on the F/V Edrie, rode out the wave, watching the eerie sight of tree tops snapping below his boat, and his frantic mayday was heard by the fleet in areas surrounding.
For days after the events of the July 9, 1958 earthquake the fishing fleet in the area was demoralized. Many could not shake the melancholy feeling that they could easily have been anchored in the bay at the time of the giant wave. And after considerable meditation, a few fishermen resolved never again to anchor in Lituya Bay. The fact remains, today as in 1958, that if one is going to fish the Fairweather Grounds sooner or later one will be forced into Lituya Bay by a blow. The fisherman is then subject to the mathematical odds that there will be another giant wave.
The Good Friday Disaster
In 1962, the Co-op installed a freezer capable of handling halibut and salmon in Seward, Alaska. Production, prices and ownership numbers were at record highs for the Co-op, but nobody could have foreseen the upcoming disaster. On Good Friday, 1964, an earthquake that measured 8.6 on the Richter scale struck Alaska. The shaking lasted four long, terrible minutes and the epicenter was very near the Co-op plant in Seward. Massive submarine slides started 30 seconds after the quake hit and generated enormous seismic waves. All plant employees had fortunately gone home for supper, but the plant, which stood on a dock overhanging the water, was completely destroyed. Not a board left! Divers, hired to search the wreckage, only found a hole where the plant stood!! The entire Seward waterfront disappeared and the new shoreline was 300 feet inland from its pre-quake tide line.
As an “act of God” disaster, nothing could be recovered from insurance. The plant, however, did have flood insurance on a boiler. The Co-op thought it obvious that that the boiler washed away in a “flood,” but the insurance company had other thoughts. It was ruled that the Co-op wasn’t entitled to a single cent. In addition to a total loss, the Co-op now had to pay considerable attorney fees in their lost suit. One important caveat to being a fishermen-owned business: With ownership comes inherent risk that the fishermen bear, although this risk is borne across a cooperative of owners in our case. In a history of our Co-op published in 1980 by fishermen Francis and Donna Caldwell, The Ebb and The Flood, this chapter ends with a bitter but realistic note that says it all about fishing:
“To lose something, a 50-pound trolling lead today, an anchor tomorrow, once in a while a boat, or even a life, is common in the [fishing] industry. The sea gives, the sea takes away.”
During this time and in subsequent years, there was much discussion of dissolving the Co-op. But the courage of the board of directors at that time to keep the Co-op alive and solvent stands as a keystone in the history of the Co-op.
The Sitka Plant
With the Good Friday Disaster in the backs of their minds, the Co-op’s Board of Directors proceeded with caution to build the fishermen-owned plant in Sitka, with construction beginning in November 1979. At the heart of the Co-op’s decision to forge ahead with the Sitka plant was its overriding concern for maintaining a top-quality product from ocean to market.
Sitka was chosen because of its proximity to salmon trolling grounds like the waters of Cape Edgecumbe and the edge of the continental shelf, waters rich with halibut and sablefish. Big overhead came out of fishermen-owners’ settlements and there was great discussion about how to allocate the costs of building the plant fairly to all owners. Nonetheless, there were 95 Co-op owner resignations in 1981 and 120 in 1983, as the Co-op was losing money to fund the plant. It took extraordinary sacrifice to realize this dream of having a fishermen-owned plant, and those fishermen with the courage to stick with the Co-op helped keep alive a ruggedly independent organization owned by and for fishermen with tremendous pride in the products they produce. This pride is at the core of who we are.
I recently spoke with Lee Krause, Board President at the time that the plant was built, and he noted that it was a busy time with architects and builders coming to Sitka to make the plant a reality. “I was in over my head. All I could tell them was I wanted cold ice. Our main concern in that time was to have our own plant that could take good care of us, where we could get cold ice, so we could produce quality fish.” Lee’s humble statement sums up just about the entire history of our Co-op: service for West Coast fishermen and a relentless commitment to quality.
On this date in 1944, the legal contract for the formation of our fishermen-owned Co-op was signed.
Thank you for being part of our history,
The Producer-owners of Seafood Producers Cooperative, whose products are available for home delivery at AlaskaGoldBrand.com.