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Commercial Fisheries

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest red salmon fishery. Soon after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the development of canning technology opened the door for a commercial salmon industry.

The schooner Neptune prospected the salmon resource of Nushagak Bay in 1883. That year Arctic Packing Company built the first cannery at the village of Kanulik. The first salmon pack was produced in 1884, a harvest of about 4200 salmon. Within a few short years, the harvest topped a million fish as canneries were built at Scandinavian Beach, Wood River, Kanakanak, Snag Point, Clarks Point, Ekuk and Combine Flats.

Fishing in the early days was done primarily by traps. The traps were extremely efficient, and Alaskan fishermen resented them because they gave the canneries an exclusive right to the fish. Traps were abolished in Bristol Bay around 1924.

With the prohibition of traps, the primary method for catching fish was by sailboat—distinctive Columbia River sailboat with double-ended hulls and sprit sails. In their heyday, the sailboats netted 20 million salmon—all snared in linen nets and pulled aboard by hand. Sailboats were replaced in the early fifties when a ban on the use of power boats for fishing was finally lifted.

Today the salmon of the Nushagak and Bristol Bay areas are harvested by modern vessels that can cost in excess of $100,000. Vessels, however, cannot exceed 32 feet in length. All fishing is done by permit holders and permits have been valued in recent years as much as $250,000 or more. In addition to the commercial fishing fleet, salmon are harvested by set nets anchored on local beaches.

Altogether, Bristol Bay's predominently sockeye salmon fishery accounts for over one-third of the annual revenue of Alaska's entire multi-million dollar salmon industry.