The West Coast Salmon Rush

November 1, 1999 by Richard A. Rajala

British Columbia’s commercial salmon fishery has garnered a great deal of media attention in recent years, dominated by the annual “fish wars” that have erupted over the way that the catch will be shared by Canadian and American fishers. International law suits, ferry seizures and political posturing by federal and provincial politicians make for good newspaper copy. Less dramatic, but more compelling, is the social and environmental history of a once-flourishing industry that is now in trouble.

For over a century, commercial salmon fishing and processing have shaped the economic destiny of communities along British Columbia’s rugged coastline. Populations swelled each spring as fishermen and cannery workers gathered to harvest a natural bounty. But over time, technological changes, corporate concentration, questionable management and a wanton disregard for the needs of the fish and the communities they supported have taken a toll.

But if this story is one of decline, it is also one of resilience. Neither the salmon nor the men and women whose way of, life is shaped by its complex life-cycle will expire without a fight. The Pacific salmon represents a miraculous evolutionary adaptation to fresh and salt water environments, commencing when the females deposit their eggs for male fertilization in the gravel beds of coastal streams and rivers. After the eggs hatch, the pink and chinook salmon travel down river to estuaries where they feed and gain strength prior to entering the sea. Coho spend their first year of life in their stream of origin before heading to the ocean, while the sockeye remain in lakes for up to three years before migrating to the sea. The cycle continues when millions of salmon return to their home stream to spawn and die.

It all sounds simple, but this reproductive cycle is a risky proposition. Natural predators take a toll, the recreational and commercial fisheries must be reckoned with, and streams must be sufficiently clear of obstruction to permit migration. If the salmon succeed in their arduous upstream journey, they require a narrow range of water temperature and quality conditions in addition to clean river beds. Only a fraction will return to spawn.

For centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans, the abundance of aquatic resources enabled the aboriginal peoples of the north Pacific coast to enjoy a high level of economic prosperity. Salmon had a central place in the trading and cultural practices of Indians who trolled from canoes, employed nets and harpoons and built sophisticated weirs to harvest the annual runs. Drying and smoking techniques were used to preserve the catch, and a complex system of rights was developed to regulate access to the resource.

Coastal Indians traded salmon with maritime fur traders who began frequenting the area in the late 1700s. Salmon also figured in the commercial strategy of the Hudson’s Bay Co. which exported salted salmon packed in barrels from Fort Langley to the Hawaiian islands in the 1830s. When gold was discovered on the Fraser River in 1858, the company engaged in a brisk domestic trade in salmon with the miners who poured into the region.

Around the same time, industrialization in Great Britain and the eastern United States created urban working class markets capable of being supplied thanks to the development of new techniques of fish preservation and faster ocean transportation. Canning, which began as a method of food preservation in Napoleonic France, was first used for Pacific salmon on California’s Sacramento River in 1863. The Columbia River quickly attracted investors, and in 1867 James Syme opened the first Fraser River cannery at Annandale. That venture failed, but in 1871 Alexander Ewen and three partners reopened the plant. Captain Edward Stamp built another at Sapperton and the “salmon rush” was on.

By the end of the 1870s, 10 canneries operated on the Fraser, and the first had entered production on the distant Skeena, some 800 kilometres to the north. Over the next 20 years the industry expanded along the central coast in search of the sockeye that appealed to the British market. Operators looked for sites close to abundant runs that provided a source of fresh water.

Each spring these rough industrial villages became the temporary home to a racially mixed workforce of whites, natives, Chinese and Japanese. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, natives traveled by giant canoes from all over the coast to work at the Fraser, Skeena and Rivers inlet canneries. Entire households made the journey, leaving some Indian villages virtually deserted.

The typical cannery stood on pilings near storage buildings, a store and an office. Boardwalks extended from the plant to residential areas, strictly segregated along racial lines. The manager and his family lived in the largest home, often situated on a hill overlooking the site. Closer to the plant stood a group of cabins for Japanese fishermen and their wives, and perhaps a bunkhouse for single men. Chinese cannery workers crowded into the China House, a cramped, dismal abode featuring tiers of bunks divided by a centre aisle, a common dining area and kitchen where the cook prepared meals of rice, fish and vegetables. Accommodation for native families ranged from tents in the early period to a row of shacks to larger buildings divided into one-room quarters. Devoid of hot water or indoor bathroom facilities, dimly lit by coal oil lamps and heated by wood-burning stoves, these buildings offered few comforts.

Cannery work was governed by a China Contract negotiated prior to each season by the canner and a Chinese labour agent. The agent would work out a price per case and then hire the crews. He would also appoint a boss who would supervise the entire operation. First on the scene were the Chinese who fabricated the cans. Working quickly, they used shears to cut tops, bottoms and bodies from long sheets of tin. They would then soldered the sides together and attached the bottoms.

Native men did most of the fishing in the early days, setting gill nets from dugout canoes. The flat-bottomed skiff soon became the standard gill-netting craft, but by the turn of the century the longer, more stable Columbia river boat had proven its superiority in open water. Two-person crews worked these sail-equipped vessels. The fisherman set the net and the boat puller handled the oars. Natives shared the Fraser River fishery with a wide variety of ethnic groups, prominent among them the Japanese.

Steamers delivered the fish in scows to the canneries where the constant threat of spoilage lent great urgency to the manual labour that dominated production during the 1870s. Chinese butchers–wielding razor-sharp knives–cleaned up to 1,000 salmon per 10-hour shift, removing the head, tail fins and entrails. Deft-handed native women–some working next to their young daughters–washed the fish, cut them into exact pieces, filled the cans and placed them on trays. Indian children then wiped the cans with pieces of netting prior to weighing.

The filled cans were delivered in wicker baskets to the skilled Chinese soldering crew which manually soldered on the tops, each with a small hole in the centre to allow air to escape during the first cooking. The cans were placed on racks and then lowered into vats of boiling water. They were then removed from the water and sealed with a drop of solder before undergoing a final cooking.

Seeking to speed up their lines and reduce dependence on skilled labour, canners followed the path of mechanization to greater profits during the late 19th century. Powered conveyor belts carried cans through the plant. The steam retort–a kind of giant pressure cooker–increased the speed of cooking which in turn encouraged innovation further up the line to accelerate the flow of cans to the retorts. The soldering machine, a complex arrangement of wheels, chains and pulleys that automatically attached lids to cans, allowed two workers to double the production of a 20-man crew of Chinese hand-solders when it was introduced during the 1880s,

Multi-bladed gang knives sliced salmon into appropriate lengths after butchering. By the early 1900s, technological innovation had reduced the average Fraser River cannery crew from between 120 and 150 workers to about 80 with no sacrifice in output. Despite these gains, however, the Chinese butchers at the head of the line continued to set the pace for the entire operation.

Meanwhile, the industry was experiencing the first of many upheavals. After attempting to limit the number of fishing licences on the Fraser in the 1880s in response to concerns about declining runs, Ottawa abandoned the effort in 1892, setting the stage for a boom during the 1890s. Expansion in the gill net fleet coupled with a tripling in the number of canneries to 49, triggered conflict between canners and fishermen. Troubled by falling returns due to competition for fish and markets within their ranks, canners themselves opted for organization in 1902, merging 29 plants into the British Columbia Packers Association.

Capital from eastern banks that financed the new monopoly provided the funds for modernization within the canneries where labour shortages loomed because of the 1903 introduction of a $500 head tax on Chinese immigrants. Adopted by Ottawa at the prodding of British Columbia, the measure threatened the canners’ supply of skilled Chinese labour, but provided more incentive to eliminate the last bottleneck in their plants. The solution arrived in 1905 in the form of the smith Butchering Machine, nicknamed the iron Chink in racist acknowledgment of the workers it displaced ‘

The machine, scholars agree, had a revolutionary impact on the canning industry. Fed by a carrier wheel and fitted with a complex arrangement of knives and cutters, it sliced off the head, tail and fins, split the fish and removed the entrails. Operated by a crew of three, the machine processed up to 70 salmon per minute, eliminating 18 butchers. Native women continued to wash the fish and hand-fill the cans, but the introduction of new sanitary can-making technology eliminated the soldering ‘machines and their tenders, along with the Chinese who vented and sealed the cans. In the most highly mechanized canneries, salmon were practically untouched by hand.

By the mid-1930s, the largest Alaska factories could turn out 3,000 cases a day with a crew of 75, an output that formerly required up to 300 workers. In British Columbia’s small, isolated canneries, manual methods persisted longer because of the abundance of native labour and the European preference for hand-butchered and filled salmon, superior in appearance to the, machine-processed product.

Mechanization also increased the range and capacity of the fishing fleet in the early 20th century. Boat pullers gave way to gasoline engines on the Fraser, although canners and fisheries officials agreed to ban engines from the northern gill-net fleet until 1924. No such restrictions applied to the growing number of larger vessels–known as purse seiners–that were operated by eight-man crews that worked in tandem with skiffs to trap schools of salmon in deep nets. Motorized seiners proved particularly efficient at intercepting pink, coho and chum salmon on their migration to small coastal creeks and streams when markets for these species began to develop after about 1905.

In 1913, an environmental catastrophe elevated the importance of these cheaper grades of salmon to the commercial fishery. In August of that year, blasting along a railway route triggered a massive rock slide at Hell’s Gate, depriving the largest sockeye run in Fraser River history of access to the spawning grounds.

The event spelled long-term disaster on the Fraser, but the canners’ business flourished during WW I thanks to international food shortages and the British decision to introduce canned salmon to army rations. With the Fraser River fishery decimated, industry turned its attention north to the Skeena, Nass and coastal river systems that supported pink, chum and coho stocks. The boom continued during the 1920s on the central and north coast. The mobile seine fleet, which had doubled in size, was by then equipped with power winches and rollers that accelerated the process of hauling in nets.

The wealth generated by this relentless exploitation of the resource went mainly to the giant packing companies that controlled the industry. Conditions in the canneries, where workers still toiled for 10-hour shifts, remained abysmal.

When the Great Depression hit, operators slashed wages and initiated a wave of plant closures. Cuts in the price canners offered for salmon triggered strikes that reinforced the need for unity among fishermen. But unity was difficult to achieve in an industry long divided by race, fishing gear type and region. The struggle to unionize culminated in 1945 with the establishment of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, an organization that subsequently brought an end to the China Contract system while negotiating wage and benefit packages in keeping with modern labourmanagement relations.

During the early part of WW II, the forced evacuation of Japanese-Canadians from the coast after Pearl Harbour disrupted thousands of lives and led to the seizure of some 1,200 fishing boats, many of them owned by Japanese-Canadians. The boats were later sold at a fraction of their value to the packing companies. Not until 1949 did British Columbians of Japanese ancestry return to the coast and re-enter the fishery.

The postwar decades brought a wave of technological change that increased the range and efficiency of the fishing fleet and encouraged centralization of processing operations. New fish-finding equipment, hydraulic gear and better engines led boats far offshore, fostering conflict between Canadian and American fishers. The refrigerated seawater method of preservation freed canners from locating plants close to fishing grounds, permitting the closure of older, isolated canneries in favour of a few large, diversified operations.

While fishing increased in intensity, governments proved only too willing to sacrifice salmon habitat to promote the pulp and paper industry and hydro-electric developments. Not until the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s did legislation provide protection against polluters, but without adequate enforcement. Thus, over the past two decades the industry has floundered in the face of steep declines in stocks, competition from farmed salmon and over fishing by highly mobile fleets.

The federal government’s main response has been to reduce the number of boats by buying up licences, a strategy initiated in the late 1960s with the Davis Plan. This measure succeeded only in replacing small craft with a lesser number of more efficient seiners. A more recent strategy–the 1996 Mifflin Plan–is having a similar effect, stripping coastal communities of small gill-netters and trollers while increasing corporate control of the expensive seine fleet.

Current developments, including the announced closure of the Fraser River commercial and recreational sockeye fishery, provide little grounds for optimism. However, there are some encouraging signs. A new B.C. Fisheries strategy seeks to improve habitat protection and give stakeholders a voice in managing the resource. Consensus among the commercial fishery, sport fishery and First Nations is difficult to achieve, but the direct involvement of those whose past, present and future is linked to the Pacific salmon provides hope for a revival.

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