Port Alexander, Baranof Island

Port Alexander, Baranof Island

by | Oct 16, 2021

Port Alexander is an embayment and small community on the southern tip of Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 133 miles (214 km) northwest of Ketchikan and 62 miles (100 km) south-southeast of Sitka, Alaska. In 1795, the British explorer Captain George Vancouver recorded his entry into the cove that is now called Port Alexander. He was looking for Alaska Natives to trade with but found only a deserted village. The site was named in 1849 for Alexander Baranof by Captain Mikhail D. Tebenkov, Chief Manager of the Russian-American colonies. In 1913, salmon trollers began using the rich fishing grounds of the southern Chatham Strait area as a seasonal base. Two floating salmon canneries arrived soon after. By 1916, there was a fishing supply store, a shore station owned by Northland Trading and Packing Company, and a bakery at Port Alexander. Families of fishermen began coming to the community during the summers, and many of the first arrivals lived in tents. Karl Hansen, a Norwegian immigrant, operated a fish-buying station called the Pacific Mild Cure Company. He also sold supplies and fuel and installed a wireless station. During the 1920s and 1930s, a year-round community had evolved around the prosperous fishing fleet, and houses, stores, restaurants, a post office, and a school were constructed. A soda fountain, butcher shop, dairy, dance hall, and hotel were also built. During the summer, over 1,000 fishing boats would anchor in the protected harbor. In 1932, there were about 2,000 people living in Port Alexander and it was known as the King Salmon Capital of Alaska. The main product was salted kosher Chinook salmon exported by the barrel to markets as far away as New York and Europe. Beginning in 1938, fish stocks declined dramatically and processing became uneconomical. The outbreak of World War II essentially ended the fishery. Karl Hansen left Port Alexander in the late 1940s after 20 prosperous years and 10 years of struggle. By 1950, 22 residents lived in the town year-round.

The salmon harvest was a cornerstone of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people’s way of life and survival for many centuries, perhaps several thousand years before European contact. The most valuable property of the Tlingit was the fishing ground or salmon stream, which was a family lineage possession handed down through generations and never encroached upon by others. The Tlingit used stream barriers or weirs to concentrate salmon for an easier catch, and they understood the necessity of allowing the fish to ascend the streams to spawn, and after obtaining their winter supply they opened the barricades. From 1741 to the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Russia was the dominant European presence in Alaska, however, the Russian venture in Alaska was motivated primarily by the maritime fur trade and not fisheries. After 1867, American business operators were quick to recognize the value of the Alaska salmon, and the technology of canning allowed them to preserve the fish in large quantities for transport by ship to markets in the United States and Europe. By 1900, 30 canneries and 27 salmon salteries were operating in Southeast Alaska. Cannery operators began to construct large fish traps in saltwater to take advantage of known schooling and migration routes along the shoreline. The transition from a subsistence-and-barter salmon economy to industrial salmon canning marked the end of Tlingit and Haida ownership of the salmon streams. Without treaties and any formal transfer of ownership, the packing companies took over. By 1924, 65 canneries were operating in Southeast Alaska using 351 salmon traps. Alaskans started to complain about irresponsible salmon management by industrial interests. In 1948, about 88% of territorial voters cast their ballots for a referendum to ban salmon traps from Alaska waters. In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act and the Constitution of the State of Alaska took effect, including a provision for natural resource management, and particularly for the rebuilding of decimated salmon populations. Management of the salmon populations quickly led to allocation disputes. The largest allocation issue involved the sharing of salmon harvests among Alaska, British Columbia, and the Pacific Northwest states, as well as with the Northwest and Columbia River Indian Tribes. The Pacific Salmon Treaty was adopted in 1984, but major issues were left unresolved. The issues were significant because salmon that spawn in one political jurisdiction mix in the ocean and return to their natal streams through other jurisdictions. The most dramatic examples are the far-north-migrating stocks of the Snake River and Columbia River Chinook salmon. These fish migrate from freshwater to the sea at Astoria, Oregon, travel in the Pacific Ocean as far north as the Kenai Peninsula of the Southcentral Alaska coast and as far west as the Alaska Peninsula. They return to the Columbia Basin through Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and the Washington coast, where some fish are caught in commercial and recreational fisheries. Within Southeast Alaska, allocation issues remain among the different commercial fishing vessels or gear types where seiners, gillnetters, and trollers compete for their share of the harvest.

Following the Alaska Purchase, Euro-American immigrants became involved in commercial handlining for salmon from rowboats and skiffs. In the early 1900s, gasoline-powered vessels were introduced and these boats catch fish by towing astern multiple trolling lines streaming from two tall trolling poles which allowed the lines to be pulled behind the vessel at low speed without becoming tangled. Trolling lines are fishing lines with hooks baited with herring trailed near the surface or at a certain targeted depth. The lines can be hauled in manually or by small winches. In the 1930s, fishermen began to take ice in their fish holds, allowing them to troll farther offshore and to stay out for several days. By the 1960s, fishermen began installing compact freezing systems aboard their trollers to freeze their catch at sea, extending their trips even further. Modern trollers can have as many as 120 lures in the water at once, at depths of 60 to 360 feet (18-110 m). Today, trollers use barbless hooks, selective lures, and fish revival tanks to improve the survival rate of non-targeted fish species. It is a highly selective and sustainable fishery where fishermen can quickly release unwanted catch from their hooks since lines are reeled in soon after a fish takes the bait. The hand-caught and slow nature of the fishery also ensures that each fish is of the highest quality. Results of studies in Canada and the United States identified trolling as having one of the lowest impacts on the marine environment. Troll caught wild salmon are now highly sought after by the top restaurants in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Read more here and here. Explore more of Port Alexander here:

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