Special Reports

Now long-gone fish traps drove fisheries

Big trees, fertile soil, mountains of minerals and waters rich with life were the natural resources that made the cities by Bellingham Bay percolate.

As late as 1890, local farmers were known to pitchfork chinook salmon out of the streams and into their gardens to use as fertilizer. Salmon were abundant, and there was money to be made.

Once investors perfected a way to can and ship salmon, the fishing industry in Whatcom County boomed, with Bellingham at the epicenter.

"The heyday of Puget Sound salmon was between 1900 and World War II," said Richard Vanderway, education curator at Whatcom Museum of History & Art. "The Pacific American Fisheries was the largest Pacific salmon cannery in the world."

Standing where Bellingham Cruise Terminal is today, P.A.F.; its neighbor, Bellingham Canning Co.; and Puget Sound Canning Co. each sent fishers to the local salmon-rich waters to tend their fish traps.

Fishers had already used dip nets, spears, reef nets, gill nets and purse seine nets. But fish traps proved most efficient, and thus most deadly to the long-term health of the salmon runs.

By the 1890s, canneries had created fish traps by driving pilings near a salmon migration route, such as the mouth of a stream or river, then enclosing the pilings with wire net to funnel the salmon into underwater pens. One fish trap could hold an estimated 30 tons of fish.

Companies guarded the locations of their lucrative fish traps, and even created "dummy traps" so they could claim a prime location and thus prevent Native Americans and other companies from operating there.

With the traps in place, workers would show up periodically with a scow, fill it up with salmon, then haul the catch back to the canneries. Once the salmon arrived, workers would clean and cut the fish, pack it into tin cans, then boil the cans in a tumbling cooker called a retort.

Immigrants settled in the area, or were brought in, to work in the fishing and lumber industries. Norwegians, Filipinos, Native Americans and Italians worked on ships and in the canneries. Chinese and Japanese workers were critical to cannery operations.

Cannery work was a smelly operation, with gutting and cleaning of the fish considered the worst duties. Hard-pressed to find locals willing to do the job, cannery bosses often hired Chinese laborers to do the work.

The Smith Butchering Machine, developed around the time of Bellingham's consolidation, dramatically increased efficiency on the line, and took over the stinky job of slitting and gutting the salmon.

Cannery workers called the machine the "iron chink," an audacious name that speaks to the racist attitudes of the time. Chinese workers were not integrated into the Bellingham community; indeed, they had to sleep in a separate bunkhouse near the cannery.

Canneries galoreBy 1925, eight salmon canneries were doing business in Whatcom County - two on Bellingham Bay, the rest at Lummi Island, Semiahmoo and Chuckanut Bay. Together, they packed nearly a half-million cases of salmon one year.

Increased efficiency in the canneries, combined with the cold efficiency of the fish traps, decimated the state's salmon runs. Traps were banned in the 1930s, prompting canneries to move their fish-catching operations to Alaska, where salmon were still abundant and traps were still legal.

Bellingham's proximity to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and to the Inland Passage to Alaska helped keep some cannery operations here. P.A.F., for example, shipped empty cans to Alaska, where they were packed with fish and shipped back for storage.

Lifelong county resident William "Mac" McGillivray worked at P.A.F. occasionally throughout the years. A mill worker by trade, he would head to P.A.F. for temporary work each summer when slash fires brought Northwest logging to a standstill.

"One year I got a job as a longshoreman, unloading a ship of canned salmon from Alaska," said McGillivray, 94. "I remember taking the hatch cover off on one of these big ships and the canned salmon was piled right up to the top. It would take days to unload the ship using quite a few gangs of men."

Cannery profits fell when Alaska outlawed fish traps in 1956; P.A.F. closed a decade later.