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Fishing industry, aviation linked in Alaska from earliest days

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 19, 2014

After proving itself in the mid-1920s conducting surveys of Southeast Alaska, the airplane found itself unexpectedly increasingly useful to the burgeoning fishing industry in the state.

This came as a surprise to many, as it was a largely untested mode of transportation and the region's weather was so problematic. But as soon as the first flight was made across the Gulf of Alaska in 1925, the numbers were impossible for even the most nervous passengers to ignore.

As reported by Pacific Fisherman magazine, Gorst Air Transport operated a Loening amphibian between Cordova and Juneau that year in four hours, 20 minutes, shaving more than 27 hours off the steamship time. The same aircraft then flew between Cordova and Anchorage in 100 minutes, a journey that took 40 hours by ship.

Cannery owners took immediate notice of the trips -- and the 13 1/2 hours it took from Cordova to Seattle -- and several of them became investors in Gorst. Anchorage Air Transport (founded by Russ Merrill) Alaska-Washington Airways and Northern Airways in Juneau also began operating charter flights in the area that year.

While there was some talk of transporting fish, the primary use of aircraft in the beginning was the transport of cannery personnel. In 1930, the president of the Alaska Pacific Salmon Corp., G.W. Skinner, made a "little scouting trip" with his wife and friends that accomplished in four days what previously involved more than two weeks of travel. The five-person party from Seattle traveled to multiple destinations including Ketchikan, Kake, Chichagof Island, Juneau and more, which allowed Skinner to meet with cannery personnel, survey fish traps and "size up the general layout." By the time he returned south, the executive was a committed convert to the new mode of transportation.

As he told Pacific Fisherman magazine:

"From the results, I am more than ever convinced that this is the way to cover Southeast Alaska during the operating season. While there is likely to be stormy weather or fog, the storms and fog are local: a good pilot can usually keep out of them or climb over them; and the country is full of lakes and sheltered coves where a seaplane can land at any time if necessary. Of course a capable, experienced pilot with knowledge of the country is essential if the full value of air travel is to be realized; but there are many decidedly favorable conditions for flying in this part of Alaska."

According to Pacific Fisherman, the first fish for commercial sale was transported by air in 1929. The king salmon was shipped for the Juneau Cold Storage company via Alaska-Washington Airways to San Juan Fishing & Packing Co. in Seattle. Most companies were still hesitant to embrace the new transportation for such important cargo, citing issues with weather and maintenance delays as primary concerns.

In the 1940s, as aircraft modernized, routes became established and instrument flying became more common even in the territory, aviation asserted itself more thoroughly in the commercial fishing industry. In October 1946, American Airlines flew 7 tons of seafood, primarily crab, on an aircraft from Anchorage to Mills Field, Calif. Valued at $25,000 -- but worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today -- the cargo was shipped by L.V. Castner Inc., a cold storage and wholesaling business founded by retired U.S. Army Col. Lawrence Castner. During World War II Castner was famous for leading the Alaska Scouts, or "Castner's Cutthroats," who played a key role in the victory at the Battle of Attu.

The following year, H.M. Parks Co. shipped between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds of frozen crab meat by air from Cordova to Seattle. Some of the meat was for sale in San Francisco only 60 hours from the time it was taken alive from Prince William Sound, a remarkable change from previous years.

Within 20 years, aviation progressed from a charter service cautiously used on occasional trips to the accepted standard delivery method from dock to market. Fred Glass, president of the freight forwarding company Air Cargo Inc., responded to the National Fisheries Institute quiz in 1949 with the assertion that "Air transport of fish has increased more than 1,000 percent in the past year."

It was a boast echoed by another respondent, who stated, "There is no bar today to the air transport of fish on the basis of either cost or quality."

This was just the beginning, however -- a time when 100,000 pounds of seafood in the air seemed like a huge number. By 2005, Alaska Airlines was predicting in an article for The Seattle Times that 30 million pounds would be moved annually out of Alaska. Aviation effectively proved itself again and again, becoming a critical tool for an industry that would itself become an intrinsic part of Alaska's economy and culture.

Research assistance was provided for this article by Jim Mackovjak of Gustavus, who is working on a history of the codfish industry in Alaska.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com.

NOTE: This article has been edited to reflect that the first flight across the Gulf of Alaska occurred in 1925, not 1929.

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