Dean Kahn

Book explores rise and ongoing value of commercial fishing in Whatcom County

Joshua Stilts, at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, has written “Whatcom Fish Tales,” a photo-heavy history of commercial fishing in Whatcom County.
Joshua Stilts, at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, has written “Whatcom Fish Tales,” a photo-heavy history of commercial fishing in Whatcom County. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Joshua Stilts grew up in Bellingham the son of a commercial fisher, but never got hooked on fishing himself. Instead, he pursued his interest in journalism.

“Telling other people’s stories is what I was passionate about,” said Stilts, who now lives in Seattle.

He recently combined his interest in storytelling with his family ties to fishing by writing “Whatcom Fish Tales: A Historical Look at the County’s Seafood Industry.”

Stilts described his book as the first overview of the history of commercial fishing in the county for a general audience. His book is more than a personal memoir or a fishing company profile, but less than an academic history on the subject.

This industry is still a cornerstone of Whatcom County.

Joshua Stilts, author, ‘Whatcom Fish Tales’

“I wanted to take a 30,000-foot view of the fishing industry here,” he said.

The full-color, $29.99 paperback explores the early rise of canneries and fish traps, the 1974 Boldt decision that allocated half of the annual catch to treaty tribes, the upsurge in local fishers going to Alaska, and the current state of the industry that spawns about 2,600 jobs, according to a 2014 study for the Port of Bellingham.

“This industry is still a cornerstone of Whatcom County,” Stilts said.

He will unveil the book during an appearance Friday, Sept. 30, at Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro, and Saturday, Oct. 1, at the inaugural Bellingham SeaFeast festival at Squalicum Harbor.

He also plans to host a website where Whatcom fishers and their families can share their stories and photos about commercial fishing.

Our industry has been here from day one in Bellingham.

Milan Slipcevic, president, Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association

After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in journalism, Stilts wrote for the Northwest Business Monthly and then for several newspapers in New England. He returned to the Northwest to write about the U.S. fishing industry, and was a reporter for a Bellevue newspaper.

Work on his book progressed with support and connections from the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association, a group that organized six years ago to lobby for government and public support of the industry. The SeaFeast festival is another effort to strengthen local recognition of fishing.

“Our industry has been here from day one in Bellingham,” said Milan Slipcevic, the association’s president. “It’s nice to keep the industry strong in our community.”

The book concludes with a series of anecdotes from Whatcom fishers.

“They can get lost in their story and be ‘back there,’ and that was magical to me,” Stilts said. “It never failed to encourage me that this was the right thing to do.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

‘Whatcom Fish Tales’

  • Joshua Stilts, author of a book on the history of commercial fishing in Whatcom County, will make an appearance from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, as part of the Fisherpoets-on-Bellingham Bay event at Boundary Bay Brewery, part of the first SeaFeast festival in Bellingham. He also will have a booth at the festival Saturday, Oct. 1, at Zuanich Point Park, at Squalicum Harbor.
  • People can reserve advance, tax-free, signed copies of the $29.99 paperback book by sending an email to whatcomfishtales@gmail.com. Ten percent of the book’s proceeds will support the Bellingham Fishers’ Memorial.
  • For SeaFeast details, see bellinghamseafeast.com.
  • For details about the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association, see Facebook or call 360-961-2618.
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