"Living off the Pacific Ocean Floor"



“In 1965, we found new fishing grounds for Ocean Perch off the Oregon Coast. We were running and I was watching the fathometer. Suddenly I saw a big black spot on the screen. I got pretty excited because I knew that meant fish. Boy, did it ever! In our first tow we got 50,000 pounds of Perch. Before the day was over, we had one hundred and fifty thousand pounds of fish on the boat. They filled hatches and were piled on the deck so the boat was nearly sinking. We ran into Astoria and pulled up to Sebastian Stuart Fish Company. The manager came out and was really upset. He asked why we had not called in told him we were coming. He said he couldn’t possibly sell that much fish. It would have to go for mink food. I hadn’t called because I knew he would tell me not to bring it in. and I figured if I was there, he have to deal with the fish. So he got on the phone and sold it all. We get five cents a pound for it. That the was the biggest catch of fish I ever made in one day.”

I’ve been reading a fascinating little book, “Living off the Pacific Ocean Floor, Memoir and Stores by Captain George Moskovita.” The book is a collective family effort; they taped his stories, then his daughter, Jo Ann Williams, transcribed them. Jo Ann’s husband compiled the text and arranged the pictures, including copies of newspaper stories from the Daily Astorian, the Chinook Observer, and Pacific Fisherman.

The cover picture shows George standing on a net full of fish; he doesn’t say if it was the 1965 catch of 150,000 pounds. The picture appears to be taken on the ocean, but the water sure looks calm.

I’m excited about this little book for several reasons. It’s a great read on the volatile days of the early fishery. George is everywhere, from fishing tuna off California to crab in Washington, in a variety of boats. He talks about the early days of trawling, fishing for the mink plant in Astoria in the 1950s. But I also really like that his family collaborated with him on the project, bringing together their family history (there were four daughters, and great pictures of them, in matching costumes, singing at annual Christmas festivals in Astoria). It’s a project that more fishing families should consider doing, especially now that software makes these sorts of projects much easier.

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"Adventures in "rockfish" Cookery," from 1951

rockfishrecipesIsn’t this a marvelous drawing? I was looking for information at OSU’s Valley Library this week and I plugged “Sebastes” into the search engine. Up popped a number of interesting items, including this one, to a publication of the Oregon Experiment Station in September of 1951.  It’s a collection of recipes, pulled together by the Seafoods Laboratory of the Food Technology Department in Astoria, by Margaret R. Lunning and E. W. Harvey.

This is interesting on several fronts. Oregon fishing companies were trying to sell more rockfish fillets and the Agricultural Experiment Station responded with a collection of recipes. The fish had been caught off Oregon since the 1930s, but hadn’t been generally available to the consumer. That was about to change. Pacific Ocean Perch was soon going to be “conspicuous in markets and groceries,” as the pamphlet put it.

Oregon rockfish are similar the the redfish, red perch, or ocean perch caught on the east coast of the U.S., where it is now the “most abundantly produced fish in that area of the country,” (italics in the original).

“The person who enjoys fish but resents a strong, “fishy” taste will find in this delicately flavored flesh a valuable addition to his list of seafood favorites.” The recipes all recommend combining salt with mono sodium glutamate, “a natural salt, which in itself has no flavor, but which accents and enhances the natural flavor of that with which it is used.”

The pamphlet ends with the words, “The whole family will enjoy these new Adventures in “Rockfish” Cookery.”

One of the recipes is called Baked Fillets Margo, and I’d bet a rosefish that it came from Margo Westrheim, the wife of Jergen Westrheim, who worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife out of Astoria. Jergen knew a lot about rockfish, and his lovely wife, Margo, must have cooked it often.  Jergen and Margo live in Nanaimo these days, but I bet she makes her signature recipe.

Baked Fillets Margo

2 pounds fillets, cut into serving pieces

1 tsp each salt and glutamate

1/16 tsp pepper

2 cups milk

Butter or other fat

Brush fillets with melted butter or other fat and sprinkle with salt and glutamate. Place in baking dish and completely cover with milk. Bake covered in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Remove fish to warm platter, and keep warm. To serve over fish, make creat sauce as follows: 2 Tbsp butter or fat, 2 tablespoons of flour, 1 cup milk, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/8 tsp pepper. Melt butter or other fat, blend in flour until smooth.

Add milk gradually, stirring until boiling point is reached.

Reduce heat and cook 3 minutes, add seasonings. Add a bit of parsley or pimiento for color.

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My article in The Solutions Journal

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An appreciation for Michael Graham

Graham-01This is my absolute favorite quotation about fishing:

“The trail of fisheries science is strewn with the opinions of those who, while partly right, were wholly wrong.”

That’s from Michael Graham’s classic book, The Fish Gate, published in 1943.

I’ve written an article about Graham while has just been published in the online journal, Solutions. Here’s a link to my article:

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Oregon trawlers called them "rosies"

One of the stories that I vividly remember from my days working for The Oregonian was a meeting that Oregon Sea Grant agent Bob Jacobsen set up with four of Newport’s older fishermen. One of them was Gordon White and he had me enthralled, talking about trawling in the 1940s, heading out of Newport with just a depth finder to help them find fish. There weren’t coastal cities then, there were coastal towns, small towns, and on the ocean in the dark, there weren’t many lights to guide them back home.

Gordon White was one of the first fishermen to deliver a fish that he called rosies, or rosefish, a species I knew as Pacific Ocean Perch, or POP. The proper name is Sebastes alutus, and it is the current focus of my research and next book (check The Redfish Project entry under research projects for more information,http://oregonstate.edu/pacificfisheryhistoryproject/research-projects/). The book starts here, in Newport, with fishermen like Gordon White, captain of the Yaquina, delivering rosies to the Yaquina Bay Fish Company.  The rose fish looked a lot like a fish that East Coast processors were selling as Ocean Perch. The fish had the same biological name, Sebastes. The company’s owners, Harold Penter and Dudley Turnacliff, started marketing fresh fillets as “Newport Brand Ocean Perch.”

World War II had been a good period for American fishermen. The military signed contacts to buy most of the fish, providing something fishermen had always lacked—a secure market at a fixed price. But with the end of the war, it was back to the uncertainty of the fresh fish market. In 1946, White, fishing a little deeper than usual, in 90 fathoms, found good catches of a small red rockfish. The market increased slowly, with a million pounds landed at Newport in 1949. But that October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seized a shipment of Newport fish and brought a libel action against the company for labeling fillets as ocean perch. [1] East coast fishing companies objected to calling the rockfish a perch.

Times were tight for the New England fishing industry. Since the 1930s, they had been plagued by fillets imported from Canada, where fishermen were paid less. Now there were imports from Iceland and Norway.  State Department documents during this period show that fish was a tool used to advance foreign policy goals. American loans financed new, modern processing plants and refrigeration facilities in Iceland.  If Americans bought Norwegian fish, that was fish not sold into the Soviet Union, weakening a centuries old trade bond between Norway and Russia.[2] With the New England fleet pushed out of its market, it expanded domestically, undercutting the markets created by West coast fishing companies.

More trouble was coming. Fishing was about to be dramatically transformed. The new era began in Aberdeen, Scotland, on a brisk March morning in 1954 when the Fairtry splashed down the marine ways at the John Lewis shipyard. Owned by Christian Salvesen Ltd., the British and Norwegian whaling company, the ship had the stern ramp of a whale factory trawler, stainless steel Baader filleting machines from Germany, and multiple freezers from Birdseye, the American frozen food company.[1] It was 280 feet long, cost $4 million and could fish in a force ten gale (winds of up to 63 miles an hour).[2] Six years in development, the Fairtry brought together, for the first time, modern fish catching, processing, and freezing capacity, and it could stay at sea for weeks at a time.

The first of two Soviet factory processing clones, the Pushkin and the Sverdlovsk, arrived off Newfoundland in 1956. Two dozen Pushkin-type factory ships were fishing in another two years.[3] By 1958, new fisheries with enormous catches were being established from Maine to Greenland to the Barents Sea.

The huge ships appeared in the Pacific as well, first off Alaska, then off Oregon, where the boats targeted rosies. And soon there weren’t any roses around for the local fleet to catch. A fish that had supplied markets during the winter months, leading to hopes of full-time employment in the fish plants, was gone. And as White told the story, there was nothing fishermen could do about it for another decade, until the Fisheries Conservation and management Act of 1976, creating a 200-mile limit. And by that time, the rosies hadn’t come back.

More information: there are many links to the Fairtry, http://iancoombe.tripod.com/id24.html

This one, http://www.aberdeenships.com/single.asp?index=99213

Includes a link to a picture of the launch. To read about the impact of factory trawlers on the New England fishery, read William Warner’s Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1977.

[1] D.H. Cushing, The Provident Sea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),  234.

[2] Michael Harris, Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fisheries: A True Crime Story. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1998), 53.

[3] D. Cushing, The Provident Sea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 235.


[1] Dayton Lee Alverson, “How high can perch climb?” Pacific Fisherman, October, 1954, 25.

[2] Carmel Finley, “The social construction of fishing, 1949,” Ecology and

Society 14 (1): 6. [online] URL:


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Facts and Fish

I teach world history and over Christmas break I found myself working on a lecture about history–what is history, how do we do it, and how has the writing of history changed over time. I found myself going back to a classic work, What is History,  Edward Hallett Carr, published in 1961. I found this wonderful quotation:

“History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available…in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”

Among the new books where historians are serving fish is Clearing the Coastline: The Nineteenth-Century Ecological & Cultural Transformation of Cape Cod, by Matthew McKenzie of the University of ConnecticutMatt, Avery Point. This is sitting at the top of a precarious stack of books on my desk. Matt takes a look at how Cape Cod was transformed from a barren agricultural wasteland into a bountiful fishery. At the same time, he examines the tensions between fishing and other land uses, and the evolving understanding of the marine ecosystem.

“Cape Cod’s nineteenth-century transformation reveals to us all that labor, environment, science, culture, and ecology are intimately intertwined. Fishermen were part of a larger ecological, social, and cultural context that also affected how and how intensely they took fish, (178).”

Matt’s book is available from the University Press of New England.


Also in that precarious stack is a book I read last year and have been intending to post about, American’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration, by Gary Kroll.

I’m so focused on fish that I sometimes forget there are can be other questions about the oceans. Gary has taken an interesting look at how the high seas have engaged us as an adventure frontier. This is a cultural history of the exploration of the oceans and critically analyzes the legacies of seven marine explorers—Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl, Roy Chapman Andrews, Robert Cushman Murphy, Eugenie Clark, Rachel Carson, and William Beebe.

As Gary points out, we’ve always considered the ocean the last frontier. We have tended to think that is resources and inexhaustible. But we’ve also thought it was a place in need of stewardship, as well as a place of recreation..

Of particular interest is the chapter on Rachel Carson. She is better known for writing the classis Silent Spring (1962), but she wrote about the oceans as well. Her first book, published in 1941, was Under the Sea-Wind. Carson was a senior editor for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She spent much time at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Sea Around Us was published in 1951.

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Tyler Fields and NorthWest20

mystic (2)HelenMcCollBowThose of us lucky to have been able to spend time in Newport, Or., probably know this boat in the picture below, even if they don’t know much about her. Her name is the Helen McCall, and she was an unusual boat for these parts; she had been built to participate in the Maine sardine fishery, but somehow her owners had made their way to the Pacific. She’s a wooden boat and I’m not sure when she was built, but it was a long time ago, especially by the standards of how long wooden boats last.

She hasn’t fished in awhile and now she’s out of the water, continuing to deteriorate. The hull will be burned one of these days and piece of Oregon fisheries history will be gone.

But we’ll have these pictures, and the other pictures on this page as well, because all sorts of people are interested in fisheries history and one of them is an Oregon State University history senior with a passion for both boats and history. As Tyler Fields puts it:

Northwest Twenty started before I could tie my own shoes. My father and I would spend endless hours walking the docks of fishing towns up and down the coasts of Oregon and Washington. We would stop and watch boats slip past the buoys and slowly out of sight. Once the calm of the harbor returned, we would continue down the dock until another boat caught our eyes. More often than not, a quick question asked of a deckhand would lead me into the wheel house and, if even for a moment, the chance to feel like a captain.
Over the last twenty four years, my love and passion for boats has led me from rivers to oceans and kayaks to the decks of a tall ship. Northwest Twenty is my attempt to share those memories and experiences. Through photography, I want to take you to the end of the dock, onto the deck of a trawler, and behind the wheel in a rolling pilot house.

Frames with Frames, Sheers in Shots, and Lines through lenses

TuginRiggin (2)

Check out Tyler’s blog at:

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The Albaross and Redfish

One of the things I love about history is way that bits of information connect and illuminate. I’ve been reading about the  Sebastes family of fish, as I get started on my next research project (take a look at our research projects page). And several of the articles I’ve looked at have a common footnote or citation, Gilbert, 1890. And that means some of the earliest scientific work on Sebastes alutus, or Pacific Ocean Perch, or POP, or Redfish–that work was started by Charles Gilbert as one of the four cruises onboard the Albatross.

In a previous post, An Oregon Fisheries Timeline, I wrote about the start of fisheries science in Oregon, with a cruise by the famous federal research ship, the Albatross. In 1888, the U.S. Fish Commission sent the Albatross to conduct investigations in the North Pacific Ocean during the fall of 1888 and the summer and fall of 1881. The summary of their findings was published in the Bulletin of the U.S. Fish Commission, vol. viii, in 1888. The survey is described as “extensive,” but few fishing spots were developed.

Launched in 1882, the Albatross was the world’s first large deep-water oceanographic and fisheries research vessel.  It had a distinguished 40-year career, and much of it was documented in a special issue of the Marine Fisheries Review, in 1999. As I’ve written before, the Marine Fisheries Review is the premier source of information about the history of American fisheries. And among the best papers published by editor Willis Hobart are the series of articles that retired Seattle biologist J. Richard Dunn has written about the early days of West Coast fisheries science.

Several of those papers are about Charles Gilbert (1858-9-1928).  Gilbert was the brilliant student of David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), the ichthyologist, president of Stanford University, and noted peace activist.  When Jordan became president of Leland Stanford Jr. University in 1891, Gilbert was one of his first appointments.

Jean has a wonderful piece about Gilbert in a book called Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, a special publication of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in 1997 (edited by Theodore W. Pietsch and William D. Anderson Jr.) In 1890, Gilbert made  four voyages on the Albatross;  he described 20 new genera and 172 new species of fish.

Some of them were Pacific rockfish, like Sebastes alutus. It’s nice to see the footnote and think about the man who was responsible for it, and the knowledge that emerged from the first scientific surveys of Pacific fish stocks.

One of the reasons I set up this project was that there is a huge amount of information about Pacific fisheries, in a variety of places, much of it now available on the web.  All of Jean Dunn’s articles are available through the Marine Resources Review, published by NOAA. He write about the early work of W. F. Thompson, John Cobb and the founding of the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, and about Charles Gilbert.

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The Pollock Project


I’m glad to say I’m not the only person interested in the development of Pacific fisheries. Dr. Kevin Bailey at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is interested in the development of the pollock fishery. Here’s an abstract of what we’re working on:

We propose to compile an oral history of the Alaskan pollock fishery from key NOAA scientists and stakeholders.  A decade after passage of the FCMA in 1976, an obscure Alaskan fish called pollock became one of the world’s largest and most successful fisheries. Today, Alaska pollock comprises 40% of the US fisheries landings with a value over $1 billion. Little attention has been paid to the history of fishing in the North Pacific, and especially that of pollock. Several factors converged to influence the growth of the fishery and massive buildup of harvesting capacity. Many people knowledgeable about the history are elderly or in poor health; we need to preserve the information before it is lost forever. How did the perspective of the fishery shift over the past 40 years? It is timely to investigate the events that led to the present state, as many pollock stocks are now depleted. This product could be a keystone contribution of NOAA to knowledge of Alaskan fisheries. The transcribed oral histories will be made available on NOAA and academic websites. The research will expand NOAA’s cooperation with universities and we plan to collaborate with the Voices from the Fisheries project.

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The Redfish Project


Meet Sebastes alutus, the focus of my next research project. Fishermen call them Pacific Ocean Perch, or POP.

If you wanted to meet one, you’d need to be in about 100 fathoms of water, somewhere along the edge of the continental shelf, somewhere between California and Alaska. The fish would be bright red, maybe 20 inches long, weighing around four pounds. And it might be 90 years old.

Sebastes alutus is just one of a very large number of Sebastes fish, found in the oceans around the world. They are one of the most significant fisheries established during the 1940s. As boats installed bigger engines, they could fish with larger, heavier nets, allowing them to explore the rocky slopes of the continental shelf for the first time. Scientists were reaping the benefits of expanded budgets, as government sought to find and exploit new fish stocks.

Redfish were found in many oceans, off Newfoundland and Labrador, off Iceland, and in the North and Barents Seas. And off the West Coast of the United States, where a small, very local, and fledgling trawl fishery was hoping the abundant catches would sustain their industry. There were lots of local rockfish species, dozens of different kinds, some found in shallow waters, but others in the deep.

Boats began delivering the bright red fish to the Yaquina Bay Fish Company in Newport in 1946. The company filleted the fish and sold them into the fresh fish market. Manager D. W. Turnacliff noted that the fish were similar to east coast perch and started to label them “ocean perch.” By 1955, boats were fishing for POP from northern California to the Queen Charlotte Islands, off British Columbia. (Alverson and Westrheim, 1961).

Things changed dramatically in 1960, when a fleet of Soviet and Japanese factory processing ships began appearing in the Gulf of Alaska. Several hundred feet long, capable of staying at sea for months at a time, the factory trawlers revolutionized fishing. Their large engines were capable of hauling nets that could fish on the sea floor, or roll over large piles of rock, where fish species aggregated. POP catches skyrocketed, reaching more than a billion pounds in the Gulf of Alaska in 1965, with a similar fishery peaking off British Columbia the next year.  By the late 1960s, the catches had dwindled and the fleets moved on to other stocks (Love et.al. 2002). For the last four decades, POP have been recognized as overfished. Stocks have not recovered.

Since fishermen first started to land Sebastes, scientists have tried to figure out how old the fish were. It was not an easy task. First of all, there are many, many Sebastes stocks, with very subtle differences. Some live in shallow water, but most live in the deep. At first, scientists thought the fish might be mature at four or five years of age, and live for about a decade. But the more they looked at the fish, the more complicated it got. Some fish were apparently older, maybe as much as 30 years old (Gunderson, 1976). Now, scientists believe POP live to be 90 and that some other rockfish species live for more than 200 years.

I’m interested in Redfish. It will be a way to look at the growth of the global fishing industry. It will be a way to look at the development of the science on ageing fish. It raises many questions about creating sustainable fisheries.  But it will also be a way to look at how national and international policies played out at the most local of levels, on the fish stocks living off Newport, Oregon.

This project is a return journey for me. During my years with The Oregonian, I wrote many stories about the economic benefits that would come with the development of the West Coast trawl fishery. Nobody was more surprised than I was in 1996, when scientists released new assessments that showed six commercially-important rockfish stocks were showing signs of decline. Two had been reduced to less than 10 percent of virgin biomass, triggering provisions of the Sustained Fisheries Act, which had just been passed by Congress. The Department of Commerce declared the fishery a disaster in 2000.

The groundfish collapse was one of the last stories I covered before heading off to the University of California, San Diego, to do my doctorate in history of science. I’d hoped to write my dissertation on the collapse of West Coast groundfish and California Sea Grant generously gave me three years of funding.

I ended up writing about an earlier period in Pacific fisheries history, the events leading up to 1958 (University of Chicago will be publishing the book next fall, it’s called All the Fish in the Sea).

It’s taken me a long time to get back to rockfish and the rise of fall of West Coast trawling. I’m really looking forward to finding out what happened.


First of all, I copied the picture from the world’s best book on rockfish, The Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific, by Milton S. Love, Mary Yoklavich, and Lyman Thorsteinson, University of California Press,  2002. The picture is from p. 125 and was taken by Robert Lauth.

1) Dayton Alverson and Sigurd J. Westrheim, “A review of the taxonomy and biology of Pacific Ocean Perch and its fishery,” Rapports et Process-Verbaux Des Reunions, Conseil Permanent International pour l’Exploration de la Mer, Vol. 150, 12-27.

2) Love et al, 74

3) Donald Gunderson, Population of Pacific Ocean Perch (Sebastes alutus) stocks in the Washington-Queen Charlotte Sound Region, and their response to fishing, Dissertation, University of Washington School of Fisheries, 1976.

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