Port O’Brien, Uganik Bay

Port O’Brien, Uganik Bay

by | May 17, 2022

Port O’Brien is a remote salmon cannery located on the eastern shore of Northeast Arm Uganik Bay on the northwest coast of Kodiak Island, about 147 miles (236 km) south-southwest of Homer and 34 miles (55 km) west of Kodiak, Alaska. The cannery was named after longtime employee Bertram O’Brien and was first published in 1943 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Uganik Bay is a deglaciated fjord that extends 11 miles (18 km) south-southeast from Shelikof Strait into Kodiak Island, where it splits into three smaller embayments named Northeast Arm, East Arm, and South Arm. Uganik Bay is named after an abandoned Alutiiq Sugpiat village of Uganik, reported as Oohanick by Yuri Lysianskyi in 1805, situated on the western shore of Northeast Arm about 3.4 miles (5.5 km) northwest of Port O’Brien. The steep terrain surrounding the fjords of northwest Kodiak Island has limited the number of sites suitable for human habitation and infrastructure and is a result of the local geology and repeated glaciations. The Kodiak Archipelago represents one of the largest exposures of the Chugach terrane of southern Alaska. The flysch of the Chugach terrane, which is a sequence of sedimentary rock layers that progress from deep-water turbidity flow deposits to shallow-water shales and sandstones, is represented by the Kodiak Formation. The Kodiak Formation formed during the Late Cretaceous and mostly consists of layered beds of greywacke that average 3 feet (1 m) thick, and shale and occasional beds of pebbly conglomerate. These metasedimentary rocks were intruded during the Paleocene by magma forming the Kodiak Batholith, which is exposed in the mountainous peaks backing Port O’Brien. The batholith generally consists of granodiorite composed of fine-grained biotite quartz monzonite crystals. Kodiak Island and its adjacent islands show strong effects from Pleistocene and Holocene glaciations. Well-developed fjords and glacial deposits provide abundant evidence that during the Last Glacial Maximum glaciers from the Alaska Peninsula crossed Shelikof Strait and flowed onto the island as much as 6 miles (10 km) inland, at the same time that a locally formed ice cap covered much of the island.

Uganik was a historical Alutiiq Sugpiat village in Northeast Arm of Uganik Bay that had a population of 73 in 1880, and 31 in 1890, and then was abandoned shortly thereafter. Contact with Europeans began at the time of the first Russian settlements on Kodiak Island. The initial discovery of Kodiak Island was in 1763 when Stepan Glotov landed and wintered near the south­western end of the island. In 1784, the first perma­nent Russian settlement was established by Grigory Shelikhov at Three Saints Bay on the southeastern coast of the is­land. In 1785, an exploring party spent the winter at Karluk, about 45 miles (72 km) southwest of Uganik, and established a trading post, or artel, there in 1786. The area became an important source of dried salmon to feed the Alutiiq conscripted laborers and sea otter hunters. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States and almost immediately mining and fishing entrepreneurs arrived and hired local Alutiiq as laborers. In 1882, salmon canning began at Karluk and by the 1890s there were as many as seven canneries in operation there. By 1907, this number had been reduced to one following a tremendous decline in the produc­tivity of the river from overfishing. In 1911, the last cannery at Karluk was moved to Larsen Bay. San Juan Fishing and Packing Company started in Seattle as a fresh fish business in 1899 and built the first cold storage plant in Alaska at Taku Harbor in 1901. In 1917, they built a salmon cannery in Seward that was moved in 1924 to Port San Juan at Sawmill Bay on Evans Island. In 1926, the company built the Port O’Brien cannery in Northeast Arm of Uganik Bay and canned fish supplied by one fish trap, 5 beach seines, and 14 gillnets. By 1944, the company had 7 fish traps that provided 51% of the fish and a fleet of purse seiners that provided the remainder. San Juan Fishing and Packing Company purchased the land from the State of Alaska in 1963. In 1967, the cannery was sold to New England Fish Company and operated until they went bankrupt in 1978. Sam Rubinstein, the trustee in bankruptcy for New England Fish Company, acquired the site and leased the facility to Ocean Beauty Seafoods from 1980 to 1982, and then it was sold to Kodiak Alaska Seafoods, a fisherman’s cooperative that made one salmon pack in 1984 and closed. The property then changed ownership several times without operating but with a caretaker to maintain the facility. In 1992, it was sold to Polar Equipment, Inc., doing business as Cook Inlet Processing, and in 2002, Cook Inlet Processing merged with Ocean Beauty Seafoods. In 2020, Ocean Beauty merged with Icicle Seafoods to form OBI Seafoods.

There are many historical industrial sites in Alaska, especially along the Gulf of Alaska coast, that were active from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s and are now abandoned. These relict sites include abandoned settlements, salmon canneries, herring processing facilities, sawmills, and mines. At many of these locations, particularly mines and canneries, there was significant use of diesel fuel, gasoline, and oil lubricants after World War I. For example, one facility in Prince William Sound was known to consume 25 barrels (4,000 l) of fuel oil daily. The intensity of industrial activity during the first half of the 20th century has resulted in extensive contamination of soil and beach sediments at sites associated with past fossil fuel use. In general terms, the detection of fuel tanks on shore at these derelict industrial sites is an indicator of potential fuel contamination in the soils and intertidal and nearshore subtidal sediments. In 2002, Ocean Beauty Seafoods contracted an evaluation of the Port O’Brien facility for any potential or legacy environmental liabilities. Throughout the facility’s history, fish processors have occupied the site and operated mechanized salmon processing and canning systems. Most of the buildings are uninsulated wood frame structures with corrugated metal roofing and wood or metal siding that are founded on piles driven into the tidal flats. The canning system has evolved from its original design, a system powered by a central power plant driving a shaft running the length of the building with belts to each item of equipment, to a system of electric generators powering motorized canning equipment. At Port O’Brien, some of the original buildings remain; however, large additions were constructed in 1956 and 1970 and continual upgrades have occurred throughout the years. One of the warehouses was built in 1941 and is connected to the other warehouse by a crossover near the westerly end of the facility. The remainder of the site is occupied by living quarters and buildings that support a fully independent remote community. The winter watchman’s house, company office, and general store are insulated and occupied year-round. The geotechnical engineers that visited the site discovered some fuel contamination associated with fuel storage and transfer lines and this is currently being remediated by the owner and the contaminated sites are being monitored by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Read more here and here. Explore more of Port O’Brien and Uganik Bay here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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