DRAWING ON OUR HISTORY – A Book Review

 mg005Charles R. (Bob) Hitz    Bob’s posting # 14                  Jan. 3, 2014

For those of us who are interested in the history of the Pacific coast fisheries the recent book by James Cole, “Drawing on Our History – Fishing Vessels of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska” is a must for our libraries.

The book came out in 2013 just before Christmas.  I purchased a copy from Captain’s Nautical Supplies at their booth on the first day of Fish Expo, held in Seattle on November 20 to 22, 2013.  I find it a fascinating book and I will cherish it.

The Philips Publishing Group did an outstanding job in the design work, laying out the different art forms used by James Cole in presenting his story.  I found the profiles and deck layouts of individual vessels printed in black ink on blue pages pleasing, and assure you I will spend many hours going over the drawings in the months and years to come.  His watercolor illustrations at the start of individual chapters and the pen and ink drawings, along with selected photos throughout the chapters, begin to tell the history of the Pacific coast vessels, and finally reading the text brings the history all together.  Brown pages with white lettering are fascinating to read about his interviews and stories of vessels, and they can be found quickly and read individually as stories by themselves.

All I can say to author is that he did an outstanding job and many thanks for bringing this project to a wonderful conclusion.

          The book can be purchased through Captain’s Nautical Supplies, 2500 15th Ave. West, Seattle, (206) 283-7242 or www.captainsnautical.com.  Try your local book store since, I found it in our Snow Goose Bookstore in Stanwood, Washington and I am sure they could order it for you.  They can be contacted at the Snow Goose Bookstore, 8616-271st St NW, Stanwood, 98292, (360) 629-3631 or www.snowgoosebookstore.com. 

 

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Oregon, on the Columbia River, 1946

The Oregon

The Oregon

Bob Hitz scanned this great picture of the Oregon when he visited the Whatcom County Museum in Bellingham. We can never resist a picture of a beautiful boat.

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Bob and the Cobb at Crosscut

We’re delighted to see Bob and the John Cobb get some well-deserved attention. Check the post at:

Crosscuthttp://crosscut.com/2013/12/02/maritime/117540/follansbee-will-research-vessel-john-n-cobb-be-sav/

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The Pacific Explorer–and its Four Fishing Vessels.

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz              Bob’s Posting 13           Nov. 25, 2013.

oregondraw

In my posting of Oct. 5, 2013 (1), I described Nick Bez’ involvement with the World War II Pacific Fishing Project, forming the Pacific Exploration Company which had a contract with the U.S. Reconstruction Finance Corporation to handle operations.  It also oversaw the final conversion of the factory ship and building four fishing vessels to harvest the resource.The project called for fishing vessels to harvest king crab and bottom fish from Alaskan waters in the summer and tuna in the southern waters during the winter.

After a delay, in December 1945 Pacific Exploration Company finally received a contract to build four fishing vessels instead of the original five the plan called for, since the bids were opened just before VJ-day of Aug. 4, 1945.  The four vessels were identical and were designed by H. C. Hanson, Seattle naval architect.   He worked closely with Leroy Christey, vice president and general manager of the Pacific Exploration Co., who was in charge of the Exploratory fishing operation in 1940 and 1941. (2)

The final design was a 100 foot convertible trawler-clipper.  All four would work with the

Pacific Explorer.  They were the largest combination vessels of their time and Harold Hanson described them in his paper presented to the FAO International Fishing Boat Congress held in Paris, France in 1953 entitled “Pacific Combination Fishing Vessels”. (3)  They were designed to catch fish and carry and preserve them in refrigerated holds.

hansenboatsThe vessels had to fish the commonly used methods to harvest the targeted species and the two used off South American to catch tuna were seining and bait fishing.  The first was to encircle a school of tuna with a seine net and the latter was to attract a school of feeding tuna to the stern by throwing live bait overboard.  Fishermen standing in racks close to the sea’s surface with a pole and line would hook individual fish and heave them back over their shoulders into the boat, hence the name bait boats or tuna clippers.

The vessels working in the Bering Sea had to be able to use two known methods of fishing, the first towing a net along the bottom using trawl doors to spread the net, called trawling.  The other one used by the Japanese before the war was to set nets similar to gill nets along the bottom which would soak, generally for about 12 hours, entangling king crab, and those were called tangle nets.  The four vessels were designed to trawl as well as to set the tangle nets over the stern and retrieve from the side.

The four identical vessels were named Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.  The first completed was Oregon in 1946 and it joined the Pacific Explorer off Costa Rica during her first trip.  The second vessel, Washington, also built in 1946, was scheduled to join them in Costa Rica but didn’t make it before Oregon and Pacific Explorer arrived back in Astoria. As described in my previous posting (1), I believe that as a government-subsidized vessel the Oregon was in direct competition with commercial vessels and during wartime, when the Pacific Fishing Project was drawn up that was fine, but in peacetime it was against the law.  As the newly built subsidized fishing vessels came on line they never again delivered their catches to the Pacific Explorer, but were used in exploratory activities or scouting for her.

Just before the Pacific Explorer arrived back in Astoria the newly finished Alaska, rigged for trawling, departed from there on July 21, 1947 for the Bering Sea.  Its mission was to scout out the commercial resource of king crab which were found in the original exploratory work conducted in 1941.  She returned on Sept. 16, 1947 with 50,000 pounds of cooked crab legs and information on the location of king crab and bottom fish in the area.

During the first six months of 1948 the Oregon, used as a bait boat and the Alaska as a seiner, explored the western Pacific for tuna. After they returned to the Hawaiian Islands.  Plans for sending the California and Washington to explore for resources off the west coasts of South America, Peru and Chile in 1948 were underway with both vessels crewed and ready to go, but because of lack of funds and other reasons the expedition was cancelled.  Apparently this was the end of the Pacific Explorer and her four fishing vessels, because the Washington and Oregon were transferred to the Fish and Wildlife service in 1948.  The Washington sailed on the first cruise for the Seattle’s newly formed U.S. Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research base on August 23, 1948 to the Bering Sea as Exploratory Cruise 1.  The Oregon sailed on an albacore exploratory trip on Exploratory Cruise 3 for the Seattle base and then she was transferred to Pascagoula Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico’s new formed exploratory base.  The Alaska was transferred to the State of California as a research vessel and apparently the California was sold to a fisherman in California.  As I understand it, the Pacific Explorer was sold and the vessel was scrapped.  Washington and Oregon were the first vessels owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct exploratory trips for the newly formed Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle.

(1) See posting of October 5, 2013 “Pacific Explorer-The First Trip-South America”.

(2) Pacific Fisherman, 1946, Pacific Exploration, Trawl-and-Tuna Fleet Contracted. January 1946, p. 37.

(3) Hanson, H.C. 1955, Pacific Combination Fishing Vessels” in the “Fishing Boats of the World” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Published in London, England pp. 187-202.

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The role of fish in the World War II war effort

A federal government World War II poster on fishing

A federal government World War II poster on fishing

We’ve been thinking a lot about Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer, as we ruminate over the book we’re writing. One thing we have not realized was the depth of the relationship between the West Coast fishing industry and the military.  The military essentially took over the management of the significant American fisheries during the war, including the sardine fishery in California and the salmon fisheries of both the Northwest and Alaska.

The military also provided an important market for West Coast fishing companies. The Army greatly stimulated interest in rockfish; it

Fishing and the war effort, 1943

Fishing and the war effort, 1943

could be filleted and frozen, and it was available in large quantities.  By the end of the war, coastwide landings had reached 33 million pounds, almost all of the trawl landings on the Pacific coast. But when the Army stopped buying in 1946, the industry was hurt by imports of cheaper foreign fish, plants imposed trip limits and boats drifted away from the fishery.[1]

In June of 1943, Harold Ickes. the Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt administration, released a plan to assume complete control over the pilchard fishery on the West coast for the duration of the war, to ensure enough canned sardines for military, Lend-Lease, and civilian requirements. [1] The catch was 962 million pounds, a reduction by almost a quarter over the previous year. The 1941 pack had been 5.2 million cases, but just 3.8 million in 1942. The Coordinated Pilchard Production Plan was designed to increase the yield by place available men and waters to catch fish for delivery to processing plants.

In July of 1944, Ickes approved $3.5 million of controlled materials for use in fishing boats and processing plants, including carbon steel for engines, and 1.8 million feet of lumber.[2]

By August of 1944, the fishery service was advising that the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska offered opportunities, with several fish species abundant enough to support large fisheries, while changing population conditions afford a chance to expand already established fisheries.  Since West Coast population densities were less than on the East coast, most of the catch has been handled as canned, and only a small percentage marketed as fresh or frozen. The increase in population due to wartime expansion means there is enough population to support a different fishery. During the war, the service worked to develop information on potential sources of fish, as well as processing and packaging. [3]

But certainly West Coast fishermen and fish processors understood the impact the war had on the market for fresh fish.  Late in 1944, as restrictions on using materials for non-military purposes were easing, a group of Newport investors built the 90-foot trawler Yaquina.  The big boat allowed Captain Gordon White to fish further offshore, in deeper water, where he found large quantities of a bright red, medium-sized fish.

White delivered a load of rockfish to the Yaquina Bay Fish Company in Newport in 1946. The company filleted the fish and sold them into the fresh fish market. Manager Dudley W. Turnacliff thought the fish were similar to east coast perch and started to label them “ocean perch.”  The market increased slowly, with a million pounds landed at Newport in 1949. It was a slow start, but the perch fishery grew rapidly and became of the most important West Coast trawl fisheries.


[1] Fishery Market News, “Coordinated pilchard production plan announced,” June, 1943, 6-7.

[2] Fishery market News, “OCF approved $3,500,000 in fishery construction,” July, 1944, 17.

[3] Fishery market News, “Opportunities for small business in the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska,”  August, 1944,  2-7.


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The Pacific Explorer returns to Astoria in 1947

Pacific Explorer (2)This terrific picture of the Pacific Explorer unloading tuna from its trip to Costa Rica comes to us through the generosity of the Bez family of Seattle. It came back from its disastrous Costa Rico adventure with about 2,200 tons of frozen tuna, about two-thirds of its capacity.It was late June or early August of 1947, and after a blistering series of hearings in the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.

The San Deigo-based American Tuna Association had instigated the hearings, irate that other boats were entering the fishery they had pioneered. They were indignant that Bez had made a deal with the Restoration Finance Administration, which owned the boat. They saw it as a sweetheart deal, one that gave Bez and his boats an advantage in the cut throat world of tuna fishing.  While the San Diego boats meddled, the Costa Rica government first barred, then allowed, purse seine fishing, the Pacific Explorer had sailed around in the warm water, trying to keep its ice cold enough to preserve tuna until they could be returned to Astoria for processing.

In March of 1948, the Pacific Explorer made its long-delayed cruise to Alaska. It returned to Astoria with canned crab and fish fillets, worth more $1 million. But $4.1 million had been spent, while the operating losses reached $1.3 million.  The Restoration Finance Corporation auctioned off the Pacific Explorer in 1951, for $181,387. The Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Pacific Explorer a success and published the voyage’s data on catching and processing of crab and bottomfish.

Since then, the Pacific Explorer faded into obscurity, and Nick Bez, one of the pioneers of both the fishing and aviation world in the Pacific Northwest, went into the shadows as well.  He launched Alaska Southern Airways in 1931 and sold it three years later to Pan Am, with a promise that the company would maintain service to Alaska.


[i] SPI, July 27, 1948.


[i] Ibid.

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The Conversation in the Row Boat

HarryandNick 005 (2)

We heard about this picture long before we finally found it (years later, at the Truman Presidential Library). After our weeks working in the American Tuna Association archives at Scripps, we had a thick file of paper about Nick Bez. And there were several mentions that Bez had rowed the boat when President Harry Truman had come to Seattle in 1945.

The trip had been arranged by Truman’s friend, Monrad C. Wallgren, a former Congressman who was now governor of Washington.  Wallgren and Bez were political allies; Bez was active all his life in Democratic politics. He knew Wallgren and he also knew the state’s junior senator, Warren G. Magnuson.

The President didn't catch a salmon--but there was a big one that got away...

The President didn’t catch a salmon–but there was a big one that got away…

Two days after the Truman visit, Magnuson announced that the Defense Plant Corporation would make a $2 million loan to the newly formed Pacific Exploration Company, headed by Bez, to engage in exploratory deep-sea fishing on the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska. The exploration would be done using a 423-foot World War I freighter, turned into the world’s largest fishing boat, the Pacific Explorer.

Three months later, on Sept. 28, 1945,  Truman signed two proclamations. The first claimed offshore oil resources for the federal government. The second declared that the U.S. has the right to establish conservation zones off its coast and to prohibit fishing boats from other nations.

Mexico immediately filed to expand its fisheries jurisdiction, followed by similar declarations from Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica, in order to protect their own valuable fisheries from U.S. boats. This was extremely inconvenient for the State Department, trust us on this.

President Harry Truman fishing in Puget Sound, Nick Bez rowing the boat. Truman Presidential Library Photograph

President Harry Truman fishing in Puget Sound, Nick Bez rowing the boat. Truman Presidential Library Photograph

There is a lot of scholarly criticism of the fisheries proclamation. Legal scholar Harry Scheiber called it an “unmitigated disaster for the United States from a diplomatic standpoint.”[1]

Scholars are uncertain of just how the Proclamation came to be proclaimed (so to speak). The policy had its roots in the Roosevelt administration. But we wonder if that conversation in the row boat came to into Truman’s mind as the piece of paper was actually put in front of him?

Nick was certain to have told him how confident he was about the bright outlook for American fishermen. The Japanese had fished off Alaska during the 1930s, catching king crab that they canned and sold to American consumers. It was time for the Americans to develop their own fishery, not only in Alaska, but in other areas where the Japanese had fished–the Mandated Islands in the Western Pacific. The Marshall, Marina, and Caroline islands were now under the protection of the United States.

The Pacific Explorer would do it all–pioneer the catching of king crab in Alaska, explore for bottomfish, do research when it wasn’t actively fishing. In the Mandated Island, it would do the same thing for tuna–establishing a beach head in hopes other American fishing boats would follow.

For Harry Truman, from a small town in Missouri and president for just a few months, it must all have sounded exciting and worth doing. Big Nick, with his heavy Yugoslavian accent, would have been an enormously convincing. The man who arrived in the United States as a penniless teenager was now one of the richest men in the Northwest, owning fishing boats, processing plants, airplanes, and gold mines.  And he had the sway with both Wallgren and Magnuson to have private time with the Truman during this visit.

Many Americans had big dreams after 1945. But few dreamed as big as Nick Bez.


[1] Harry N. Scheiber, Inter-Allied Conflicts and Ocean Law. 1945-53: The Occupation Command’s Revival of Japanese Whaling and Marine Fisheries (Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, 2001), 10

Posted in Albacore tuna, American Tuna Association, Carmel Finley, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Marine Policy, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Ocean fishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PACIFIC EXPORER – The First Trip – South America

The Pacific Explorer, Whatcom Museum, City of Bellingham

The Pacific Explorer, Whatcom Museum, City of Bellingham

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz          Bobs Posting 12                          Oct. 4, 2013

When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941 the world was changed instantly and the U.S. was in World War II.  Projects were put on hold and the Bering Sea was closed to foreign fishing.  Before the war the Japanese had developed a king crab fisheries in the Bering Sea and had found a market for canned king crab in the United States.  Now the U. S. federal government, under pressure from the Pacific coast fishing industry, wanted to know how large and where the resource was located in Alaskan waters.

Federal money had become available in July 1940 to finance an exploration to survey Alaska for this resource, and in the fall of 1940 and during the year of 1941 three vessels were chartered by the Fish and Wildlife service to survey Alaskan waters.  The survey concluded that there was a large concentration of king crab and flatfish in the Bering Sea, but that venture came to an end when the war started on December 1941.  The report was read by a group in the government concerned about the shortage of food for the armed services which had caused rationing of food during the war and a need to find new food resources.

The Pacific Fishing Project sponsored by the War Food Administration was to convert a 410 foot World War I ship, the Mormacrey, into a factory ship and to build five fishing vessels to harvest the fish and king crab for it.  Completion date was set for Dec. 21, 1945; however the war came to an end with V-J Day on Aug. 4, 1945 when Japan surrendered.  A decision had to be made on the project, which was close to completion, since the Department of Agriculture was not able to reaffirm the original War Food Administration recommendation to either scrap it or complete it.  It was decided to finish it since there was a benefit to the government to develop a modern fishing industry in the Pacific Ocean and the factory ship method was a way to do it.  The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was requested to proceed with funding.

Exploratory trials on the Columbia River, Whatcom Museum, City of Bellingham

Exploratory trials on the Columbia River, Whatcom Museum, City of Bellingham

Nick Bez, a Seattle businessman, organized the Pacific Exploration Co. to handle operations and to oversee final conversion and building of the fishing vessels.  The naval architects of W.C. Nickum and Sons did the design work for the conversion and the vessel was moved to the Bellingham, Washington Iron Works for the final stages of the work, which was completed in December 1946.  The factory ship was renamed Pacific Explorer.

There were four fishing vessels built instead of the five the original plan called for and H. C. Hanson, a Seattle naval architect, was awarded the contract to design them for the Pacific Exploration Co.  They were 100-foot steel-hulled clipper-trawlers, which are better known now as Pacific Coast Combination Vessels.  The first two were built in Astoria, Oregon during 1946, with Oregon the first to be completed, followed by the Washington.  The next two were built at Long Beach, California the following year, Alaska followed by the California.

The Pacific Explorer departed Astoria, Oregon on her first tuna cruise to South America on January 3, 1947.  Nick Bez had made arrangements for a group of 10 commercial seiners and clippers known as bait boats to fish for him and to use the Pacific Explorer as a mother ship to supply them with their needs of fuel and water, as well as to buy their tuna.  They preceded him south and had already started fishing.  The newly built Oregon was added to that mix of 10 commercial vessels and was rigged as a bait boat, but the Washington wasn’t ready to sail.  Probably the mother ship anchored in protected waters outside the three mile limit in the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica, and began receiving tuna and freezing them for future processing.

The area had not been seined for years, but had been worked by tuna clippers (bait boats).  The Pacific Explorer working as a mother ship allowed tuna seiners into the area since the vessels did not have to put into Costa Rica for supplies they could get from the mother ship, probably outside the 3 mile limit.  The bait boats, though, had to get bait locally and probably had to have a Costa Rica license to purchase or to be able to fish for bait in the inside waters.  As long as they could catch bait, the catches of tuna by the seiners and bait boats were compatible.  But whenever bait became scarce or the fish quit biting, the seiners did better and over time they had a more consistent record of tuna landings.

After the Pacific Explorer had been in Costa Rica for five months, working under the contract between the Pacific Exploration Co. and the U.S. Federal Government, it was suddenly canceled.  An order was issued recalling the two U.S. financed vessels, Pacific Explorer and the trawler Oregon, to return to the United States.  She and probably the Oregon returned to Astoria on July 23, 1947 with 2,250 tons of tuna aboard.

It is possible that the main reason the above contract was cancelled was because Oregon was landing tuna on the Pacific Explorer at the same time as the other 10 commercial fishing vessels.  The southern California commercial fishery and canning industry complained that the Pacific Explorer Co. allowed a vessel backed by U.S. tax dollars to be in direct competition with private enterprise.  When the Pacific Fishing Project was proposed during the war it was fine, but after the war it was against the law.  If this is true, that explains why none of the four fishing vessels after the Oregon returned to Astoria ever landed a catch on the Pacific Explorer.

The contract was rewritten, transferring the Pacific Explorer and the four fishing vessels from Pacific Exploration Co. to the federally owned Reconstruction Finance Corporation.  The operation of the vessels would still be conducted by the Pacific Exploration Co., headed by Nick Bez.

Posted in Albacore tuna, American Tuna Association, boat building, Environmental History, Fisherie subsidies, Fisheries policy, Fishing, History of Technology, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Forgotten Story of Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer

Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer

Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer

We’ve been getting ready to teach, and that means we have been thinking about telling stories about the development of fishing and fisheries science in the Pacific. This is one of our favorite things to do, and it’s pretty challenging, since there so many pieces missing. As we often lament, there is not a great deal of scholarship on Pacific fishery issues!

Bob Hitz has been busy exploring the early days of the Experimental Gear Group, headed by Lee Alverson, during the early 1950s. And that brings up the four 80-foot steel trawlers that pioneered much of the early oceanography and fishery work, not only on the West Coast, but nationally as well: the Oregon, the Washington, the California, and the Alaska.

And bringing up the boats brings up the curious story of how the boats were built, and that is the story of Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer.  In 1946, the Pacific Explorer was the world’s largest and most expensive fishing boat. It was the flagship that was going to pioneer the Pacific fisheries frontier, from the waters off Alaska to the Mandated Islands, staking an American claim on for king crab, bottomfish, and, most importantly, tuna. It made two voyages, was sold for scrap, and then vanished from sight.

The government sank $3.5 million into refurbishing an old World War I tanker and transforming it into the world’s largest and most expensive fishing boat. It was going to do it all: fish for bottomfish, use tangle nets for king crab in Alaska, and scout for tuna in the Mandated Islands. When it wasn’t fishing, it was going to do research and Milner B. Schaefer (known to his friends as Benny and one of the intellectual lights of post-war American fisheries science) signed on as its first research biologist (we wonder if he left it off his resume after that)?

When we to graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, as part of the coursework, we arranged to do a work study in the archives at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library (a beautiful building that is sadly, now closed). Under the guidance of archivist Deborah Day, we were going to archive some of the massive collection of material the American Tuna Association has turned over to the library. There were 236 boxes, from the days when the ATA, from its offices on the dock in San Diego, One Tuna Lane, was the headquarters for development of the tuna industry in the Pacific.

It was fascinating stuff, a rich collection of broth, everything from gas receipts to lists of groceries supplied to the boats, newspaper clippings and pictures. But mostly there were letters, reams and reams of letters.

We started with the correspondence of George Wallace, who was head of the ATA in 1947. The folder labeled the “Panama Correspondence,” mainly between Wallace and the ATA’s agent in Balboa, Paul A. Sullivan.  In April of 1947, Sullivan wrote that Nick Bez was in town with the boat and that the president and his wife had been spotted on board. Who was Nick Bez? And why would a president and his wife be onboard a tuna fishing boat? And then I found Wallace’s reply, dated April 15, 1947:

“We received your wire Sunday morning advising us of the arrival of the “Pacific Explorer” with the President and his wife and party onboard. This is the first news we have had on this development, and it was very interesting and suggestive apparently of the fact that the President evidentialy isn’t much concerned of whether or not this was known. Surely, our connections at San Jose will pounce on this choice bit of information and use it to good advantage in their propaganda. It definitely confirms the relation of the power that be there with the Bez crowd.”

“PS: I intend to be in Washington, D.C. on April 24th to attend the hearing that is to come off there regarding the “Pacific Explorer.” We are hopeful that the result of that hearing may be the end of the “Pacific Explorer” in those waters—but then again we are not sure.”[2]

Once a newspaper reporter, always a newspaper reporter. We started collecting anything we could find on Nick Bez—and it turned out to be a lot. Bez was one of the dominant figures in the industrialization of the West Coast fishing industry, the first man to start an airline between Seattle and Alaska, and, most famously the man who rowed the boat when President Harry Truman came to town ion September of 1945. Two days after the Truman visit, Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson announced that the Defense Plant Corporation would make a $2 million loan to the newly formed Pacific Exploration Company, headed by Bez, to engage in exploratory deep-sea fishing on the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska. The exploration would be done using a 423-foot World War I freighter, turned into the world’s largest fishing boat, the Pacific Explorer.

By the time the conversion of the Pacific Explorer was completed in late 1946, Bez had become a national figure, a penniless immigrant who now owned three of the largest canneries in Alaska and two gold mines.[3]

He was born Nikola Bezmalinovic, on Aug. 25, 1895, on the island of Brac in the Adriatic Sea, the oldest of six children. He learned to fish as a child. When he was fifteen, he borrowed $50 from his father and booked passage to New York, where he worked in a Brooklyn restaurant for the train fare west, where there was a community of Dalmatians in Tacoma, Wash.[4] He shipped as a deckhand on a towboat bound for Alaska, and when he returned to Seattle, he acquired a rowboat, then a gas boat; by 1914, he had his first seine boat. In 1922, he went to work as a superintendent at an Alaskan cannery, saving his money until he heard about an abandoned cannery on Peril Strait, near Sitka. He paid $5,000 for the plant and went into debt to buy $150,000 worth of canning machinery. The first year he paid the bills. The second year the cannery netted $175,000.[5]  In 1931, he bought three single-motored Lockheed Vegas, recruited a cadre of bush pilots, and a few weeks later, Alaska Southern Airways was making the first scheduled flights in the history of the Alaska territory. Bez sold out to Pan American three years later, and plowed the profits back into the salmon business.

“The West had had blustering barons by the barrel, but Nick Bez, the lord-high-everything of the salmon industry and friend of Presidents, tops them all for color,” wrote Richard J. Neuberger (1912-1960), who made a virtual career out of selling the Bez story to a variety of national magazines and newspapers. Neuberger was a correspondent for The New York Times between 1939 until 1954, when he was elected to represent Oregon in the Senate. Bez very much fit the image of Neuberger’s heroic vision of the development of the West.[6] Time magazine weighed in, calling Bez “The Baron of the Brine,” and saying the vessel “hopes to prove that U.S. fishermen can replace the Japanese who, prewar, caught and processed 66% of the world’s tuna in their floating canneries, virtually monopolizing the $8 million-a-year catch of the Bering Sea’s huge king crabs.”[7]

The original plan had been to send the Pacific Explorer to Alaska, to explore for king crab. But the conversion took longer than expected and when the vessel was finally delivered to Bez in late 1946, he decided to make the shakedown cruise in the warm tropical waters of Costa Rica. And that’s where the Pacific Explorer ran into its first big storm, the American Tuna Association and its clipper ships, who bitterly resented the entry of more boats into their lucrative tuna fishery off Central America.


[1] Ronald L. McGlothlen, Controlling the Waves: Dean Acheson and U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993). p. 21

[2] ATA  files, Box 76, Folder Panama Correspondent Sullivan, Paul A

[3] Time. Nov. 4, 1945, “The Baron of the Brine,” 92-93.

[4]Mary Ann Petrich and Barbara Roje, The Yugoslav in Washington State: Among the Early Settlers (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1984), 59.

[5] R.H. Calkins. “Captains of the Pacific Northwest Maritime Industry.” The Marine Digest. Sept. 20, 1952,  25.

[6] William Robbins, Landscape of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 294.

[7] Time, Nov. 4, 1946, 94.

Posted in Albacore tuna, American Tuna Association, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fisherie subsidies, Fisheries policy, Fishing, History of Science, Nick Bez, Overfishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment