Skip to main Content

A marine tragedy: Steinbeck boat follows collapse of West Coast fisheries

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 2, 2015

The Western Flyer: Steinbeck's Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries

By Kevin M. Bailey; The University of Chicago Press; 2015; 184 pages; $22.50

The Western Flyer is famous in American literature as the fishing boat chartered in 1940 by writer John Steinbeck and marine ecologist Ed Ricketts for a journey to Mexico that was immortalized in their co-authored account, "The Sea of Cortez." This book was one of the earliest environmental works to consider whole ecosystems rather than a collection of pieces exploitable by man.

It helped spark a profound change in the way Americans consider their world, and this altered view -- which encompasses both hard science and moral questioning of man's place in the natural order -- continues to drive environmental debates today.

Thus it is sadly ironic that once the two men disembarked, the Western Flyer returned to the work for which it was built, and in coming decades would participate in a series of fisheries that first boomed and then abruptly collapsed in no small part due to being exploited by humans who couldn't grasp what Steinbeck and Ricketts told them.

Alaska Fisheries Center alum

Kevin M. Bailey, a marine biologist formerly with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and now a professor at the University of Washington as well as founding director of the Man & Sea Institute, traces the boat's journey along the coast of North America in his new book, "The Western Flyer," a disheartening work of human and ecological history. Previously, Bailey wrote "Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock."

Bailey begins in Tacoma, where the Western Flyer was built in 1937. Originally a purse seiner constructed to work the rapidly expanding sardine fishery in Monterey Bay, it wandered as far north as the Bering Sea before arriving in California and meeting the approval of Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Skippered by Tony Berry, the boat was state of the art at the time and enchanted Steinbeck with its functional beauty. Drawing from the journals of the captain and passengers as well as the book that resulted, Bailey recreates the trip up the inside coast of Baja, where Ricketts sought to examine and understand the ecosystem.

Disaster was impending as the Colorado River, the major freshwater source for the northern extent of the Sea of Cortez, was in the process of being diverted for American agricultural and electrical needs. What Ricketts and Steinbeck documented was a natural world of teeming life on the cusp of catastrophic change. Once the freshwater of the Colorado was removed, many of the species that had long been adapted to it had nowhere to go. Death followed.

After returning Steinbeck and Ricketts to California, Berry took the boat back out into Monterey Bay and returned it to its intended purpose. With sardines becoming increasingly useful as food and fertilizer, the seemingly inexhaustible fishery off the coast was harvested at rapidly escalating levels.

Bailey explains how economic demand and technological advances allowed fishermen to ravenously exploit the sardine population. Annual hauls soared ever upward with each passing year, and there appeared no limit. Then in 1948, without warning, it was over. The previous year had seen the biggest haul of sardines ever. Suddenly there were almost none to be had.

Decimation repeated

This pattern would repeat itself in other West Coast fisheries. Bailey follows the Western Flyer as it repeatedly changed hands and was repurposed for successive booms. In the 1960s Pacific ocean perch -- which are actually rockfish and not perch at all -- came into fashion. Their white meat holds up well when frozen and so they became a major target for the emerging frozen fish industry.

Once again, fishermen swarmed the sea, this time off Washington state. The Western Flyer now belonged to Seattleite Dan Luketa, a hard-driving owner who converted it to a trawler. It was part of a growing fleet of American, Japanese and Soviet vessels that pulled in skyrocketing hauls. Like California's sardines, however, the crash was sudden and massive. In 1969 the Pacific ocean perch all but vanished -- mere months after the largest take ever.

Undaunted, Luketa sent the Western Flyer north to the Aleutians, where the red king crab fishery was booming. Needless to say, history repeated yet again, although this time the Flyer was out of the picture. It struck a reef near Ketchikan in 1971 and sank. After being raised it was sufficiently repaired and returned to Puget Sound. There it pursued farmed salmon that had replaced yet another human-depleted population.

Eventually the Western Flyer was docked and left to rot, although there is talk of restoring it.

'A broken record'

The lessons from the three collapsed fisheries seem obvious on the surface, but as with so many environmental disputes there are enough mitigating factors that industry and politicians can deny human influence. Bailey writes, "The fishing industry still expertly plays the scientific uncertainty for their own aims, just as battling attorneys might take advantage of a witness's uncertainty in the courtroom. Furthermore, conflicts of interest, arguments for saving jobs, feeding the hungry people of the world, conflicts between different industry sectors, claims that one group or another is trying to inflate prices by limiting supply, and underreporting of catches are all issues that came up during the sardine collapse, and which get played over and over again in modern fisheries, just like a broken record."

The details shift but the story is the same for all our environmental debates, up to and including climate change. Bailey documents how there are natural processes at play, but the systems as a whole are adapted to these shifts. What they aren't prepared for is massive human intervention.

"The Western Flyer" is a worthwhile addition to the environmental canon, and while it builds off of "The Sea of Cortez," it stands alone as its own work. A nice selection of photographs of the boat and the many people who sailed it is included. Through Bailey's summary of Steinbeck and Ricketts' explorations we find humans capable of understanding the natural world on which we all depend. His history of the boat's trajectory through collapsing fisheries, however, shows humans as stubbornly unwilling to learn many simple yet crucial lessons. It's a sad but necessary book.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.