September 12, 2013
Today, we take it for granted that Seattle is homeport to a large Alaska fishing fleet and a related multi-billion dollar fish and maritime industry. TV shows like the Discovery Channel’s "Deadliest Catch" have made people more aware of what goes on in the Northern Pacific and the lucrative dangers of the Bering Sea fishery. But that industry wouldn't have happened for us Americans if it weren't for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 — and that transaction might not have occurred without a nudge from Washington's own pioneers. It is little remembered today, but Seward's Folly, as the Alaska annexation was called, happened when it did in part because of a prod from the legislature in Olympia. Yes, sometimes they get it right.
Let's dial back to the mid-19th century when the Pacific Northwest was being settled. Pioneers fed on an abundance of local fish--salmon in particular — and seafaring Native Americans had been fishing and whaling our rich waters for generations. There was little incentive to go far afield for fish, and few major markets to sell to if you did. New England whalers plied the waters of the North Pacific, and reports filtered back that the Bering Sea and environs might make good fishing grounds, too. Russian explorers as far back as 1765 had noticed lots of cod and other fish up there — so too other 18th century voyagers such as Captain James Cook, who reported his crew catching abundant cod and a 250-pound halibut. Could the waters off Alaska be the Grand Banks of the Pacific?
The first indication of that didn't start to hit home until the mid-19th century when San Francisco-based fishing vessels began venturing as far as Russia's Okhotsk Sea, north of Japan and south of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a popular whaling ground, but a few venturesome U.S. ships started to return with holds full of fish. In 1865, the Seattle Weekly Gazette carried a San Francisco Call report that two years previously "a single vessel wandered off to the then unknown bank, on an uncertain adventure, and in a round voyage of three months brought in a cargo of codfish which opened the eyes of some of our incredulous merchants."