R/V JOHN N. COBB Visit – August 2014

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz           Bob’s Post # 22              Sept. 18, 2014

The R/V John N. Cobb, photo by Castle

The R/V John N. Cobb, photo by Castle

I had the opportunity to visit the John N. Cobb again this year. Shannon Fitzgerald of the Northwest Seaport (NWS) made arrangements again this year with Seattle Maritime Academy to move the Cobb to the Historic Ship Wharf as a guest at Lake Union Park in August, 2014 and to remain there though the Classic Work Boat Show to be held on Oct. 4, 2014. The Cobb was commissioned at the University of Washington dock in the Portage Bay part of the ship canal in 1950, and it is still in the same waters 64 years later. Once she was secure at the wharf I made arrangements with Shannon to board her at the park in order to take engine room measurements I needed to complete the vessel drawing. He agreed, as long as I would open the vessel to the public and while I was aboard would act as a guide.

Terry Castle, Hitz Photo

Terry Castle, Hitz Photo

I arrived at 11 a.m. on Thursday, August 21 and put the Welcome Aboard sign out and by the time I had the vessel open I had the first guest coming aboard. He had a relative who worked for NOAA and had been an engineer on the Cobb when it was an active NOAA vessel. By the time I locked up the boat at 3 p.m., there had been about 18 individuals aboard. Two boys in one of the families were very interested as they were working on a school project. They had to find a vessel and report on it, so once they started on the tour they became fascinated and decided that the Cobb was it. The students had a handheld computer and began writing as they walked through, asking many many questions as we progressed. I would love to have read the final report.

The Pilot House, Castle photo

The Pilot House, Castle photo

By the time I left I had the measurements that I needed. I had wanted to take some pictures of the internal parts of the vessel, but found that my camera didn’t do the job. I needed a wide angle lens.

When I got home I talked to my neighbor, Terry Castle, whose hobby is photography, and he agreed to come down to the Cobb and take pictures. Some of these could be used for a talk that Shannon Fitzgerald was preparing for the National Maritime Historical Society’s 10th Maritime Heritage Conference.   On Thursday, Aug. 23 we opened the vessel to the public and Terry took fantastic photographs of the Cobb. The internal shots look better than it actually ever was, while the exterior views show the wear and tear of weather during her years at sea. The problem most apparent is the deterioration of the deck.

Bob Hitz in the Cobb's galley, Castle photo

Bob Hitz in the Cobb’s galley, Castle photo

By the time we left at 2:00 p.m. there had been at least 12 people through the boat. They were from Seattle as well as Texas, Canada and China. The two from China were on a business trip, and one said that whenever he saw fishing boats he wanted to visit them. His parents made their living as fishermen in China, and he was fascinated to hear how the 200 mile limit came into effect with the Russian fleet working 3 miles off the coasts of Washington and Oregon in 1966. When he left he shook my hand and left something square in it. I looked, found it was a $10 dollar bill and said, “I couldn’t accept it,” but when he insisted I thanked him and said that I would put it into the NWS fund for the Cobb. So – this is the first contribution that I am aware of.

The Cobb's deteriorating after deck, Castle photo

The Cobb’s deteriorating after deck, Castle photo

For anyone else interested in preserving the Cobb, I feel the best method at this time is to join the Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center, a nonprofit organization, by becoming a member or by sending them a donation, specifying that it should be used to preserve the Cobb. They are the only group that is interested in welcoming the public aboard the Cobb when it is at the guest pier at Lake Union Park, and the public can board her safely. If you have a chance to visit Lake Union Park, look for the Cobb and if there is a Welcome Aboard sign out, I might be your guide.

Weathered door, Hitz photo

Weathered door, Hitz photo

Last year we had a number of people come through the vessel and I am sure that it was due to the Classic Workboat Show held on Saturday Oct 5, 2013. (Bob’s posting #18)   The weather that day was clear and beautiful. I am sure there will be a lot of people going through the Cobb during the Classic Workboat Show again this year, which is again held on Saturday, but what surprised me was the number of visitors who came aboard when I opened it up during the middle of the work week. I had expected to have few if any visitors during that time.

People I have met coming through the vessel do not realize the history of the Pacific coast fisheries, but they do know that the fish stocks are declining. The Cobb would be an ideal place to inform the public about why the U.S. got into exploratory fishing after world war II, why it was important for the U.S. to expand the fisheries to new resources found in our Pacific coastal waters, and why the 200 mile limit came into being after 1966, when the Russian distant water fleet all of a sudden appeared within three miles off our coast and began to harvest our fisheries resources to feed their people during the cold war. And how the fishing industry expanded after that time and became a dominant U.S. industry.

The demand for fish is so great now that there is danger of certain fisheries, as well as individual species, becoming extinct. NOAA research is being conducted in rebuilding and saving stocks from extinction, and there is need for biologists to carry on that research as well as to supply observers on commercial fishing boats to monitor the industry. There is also a need to recruit NOAA Corp officers to man the existing NOAA fleet.

Posted in boat building, Cold War, fisheries science, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Pacific Fishing History Project, Soviet history' | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


The Washington, without brine tanks, BCF photo

The Washington, without brine tanks, BCF photo

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz              Bob’s posting # 21       Sept. 1, 2014

All five Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) vessels in the Pacific Fishing Project are listed in the1948 volume of the Merchant Vessels of the United States (MVUS) (1) and the information on each is shown in the accompanying table. Their status is actually what they were during the previous year, 1947, since the cutoff date for the volume was Jan. 1, 1948. 

Table of vessels, Hitz table

Table of vessels, Hitz table

The Service of the four fishing vessels in the list should all be the same, but for some reason Washington is listed as a freighter (Frt.). It differs from the   Oregon, Alaska, and California by having six brine tanks instead of two, a narrower central hatch and four additional hatches for access to them. Jeff Jewell, curator of the Whatcom Country Museum’s (WCM) H. C. Hanson Naval Architecture Collection, produced a photo of the Washington which was taken on her trial run in the Columbia River after she was built in Astoria, Oregon in 1946. In it the central hatch cover extends out from the starboard side of the winch, clearly indicating that the additional brine tanks were added to the vessel after she was built. I think they were getting her ready to explore South American waters off Peru and Chili with her sister vessel California.

The Washington with brine tanks, BCF photo

The Washington with brine tanks, BCF photo

Tom Dunatov, a good friend of mine who was first mate on the John N. Cobb from 1972 to1980 and then the skipper from 1981 to1990, fished on a tuna vessel out of California when he got out of the Navy in 1957. He told me that during that time brine tanks were commonly used in the tuna industry to carry extra fuel on long trips to the fishing grounds off Central America. Once they arrived the fuel that was used on the trip down would be replaced by the fuel in the brine tank, the tank emptied, cleaned out with detergent and refilled with sea water. The temperature would be brought down to freezing and as fresh fish were taken they would be placed into the tank of freezing water. Adding more salt to the mix would bring the temperature down even further so the fish would be completely frozen. When the tank was full of frozen fish the brine would be pumped overboard and the fish moved to the refrigerated hold where they would be held frozen. This increased the holding capacity of the vessel by reducing the space between fish. The tank would again be refilled with sea water and the process repeated until the vessel was packed full of frozen tuna.

Jeff Jewell, curator, WCM, Bob Hitz photo

Jeff Jewell, curator, WCM, Bob Hitz photo

Brine tanks could carry extra fuel for both vessels on their long trip to South America and to bring back frozen catch. This possibly explains why the four extra brine tanks were added. The vessels had a capacity of 36,800 gallons of fuel in four wing tanks and the double bottom tanks (2). If the six brine tanks on the Washington were filled with fuel which would at least double the fuel capacity, it could be used to replace the fuel used in getting to South America and to complete the survey of both vessels and returning home. Apparently this was a planned scouting venture to see if it would be worthwhile to send the Pacific Explorer to the far south for her third trip, like the Alaska’s exploratory trip to Bering Sea in 1947 before the Pacific Explorer’s second trip to the Bering Sea in 1948. Washington and California were crewed up and ready to go and were scheduled to sail in 1948 to explore the waters off the coasts of Peru and Chili, but those were canceled at the last moment.

Top view of the Oregon and Washington, Hitz drawing

Top view of the Oregon and Washington, Hitz drawing

When the entire Pacific Fishing Project was terminated at the end of 1948 each of the RFC vessels’ status changed in the MVUS yearly book. If vessel ownership is transferred to the government it is removed from the list. If a vessel is scrapped it is removed from the list and if it is transferred to a new owner, the owner’s name changes. Washington was transferred to the government in 1948, along with the Oregon and Alaska in 1949. The California was apparently traded for Southeastern in 1949, since the ownership for the California became Joe Bterskovich and the ownership of the Southeastern became RFC and then was transferred to Del-Mar Foods Inc. in 1950. Pacific Explorer was last listed in the 1952 volume after which it was removed because it was scrapped.


The California in Seattle, BCF photo

The California in Seattle, BCF photo

Funds became available on July 1, 1948 for an exploratory vessel and its operation in the northeastern Pacific and this was the start of the FWS Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle. The Washington became a FWS vessel and sailed on her first exploratory cruise to the Bering Sea in August and returned in October, 1948 which, in fact, was her first since she was built. Based on the experience that was gained on this trip, the FWS decided that instead of making necessary modifications to the Washington a new design should be made and a new vessel built. The Seattle firm of W. C. Nickum and Sons was selected to design the John N. Cobb, a dedicated Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Vessel.

Copy of the receipt for the Washington, BCF

Copy of the receipt for the Washington, BCF

I had always believed that Washington was one of those vessels moved to China through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). China was undergoing an acute food shortage after World War II and the plan was to supply fishing boats and a training program to teach how to fish them. At least four convoys of fishing boats sailed from the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States in 1946 on the southern route to Shanghai via Honolulu, Wake and Guam. There were seven fishing vessels per convoy, each manned by a crew of seven. Tom’s dad, Joe Dunatov, was one of the fishermen on the E. E. Johnson that went in one of the convoys to China and he remained there for a short time as a teacher because of his extended knowledge of making and mending nets. He was the lead fishermen or bos’un on the Cobb from 1956 to 1968. That’s where I got to know him when I started going out on the Cobb in 1960. Tom said years later that his Dad was part of the crew that delivered the Washington, he thought, to the Philippines or Samoa. Mel Greenwood, in an article on the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Development, makes the statement that “The Washington was not suitable for the kind of work needed and was sold for $150,000” (3). When I was going through the old exploratory cruise reports I came across a receipt for the Washington dated Aug 4, 1949, which showed that it went to the Republic of Korea.

R/V Oregon in the Gulf of Mexico, BCF photo

R/V Oregon in the Gulf of Mexico, BCF photo

The Oregon became the FWS’ second exploratory vessel. Alaska was transferred to the State of California as a research vessel, and the new design for the John N. Cobb was approved and the bid to build her went to Western Boat Building Co., Tacoma, Washington. Deep Sea was chartered for the second exploratory cruise and the Oregon was used in the third exploratory cruise, after which she departed for Pascagoula, Mississippi where she would be used to explore the Gulf of Mexico.

The launching of the R/V John N. Cobb in Tacoma, BCF photo

The launching of the R/V John N. Cobb in Tacoma, BCF photo

The new vessel John N. Cobb was launched and commissioned in January 1950 as a dedicated research vessel for Seattle’s Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base. She sailed on the fourth exploratory cruise to Alaska in March.


  • 1948 Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation.
  • Hanson, H. C. 1955 Pacific Combination Fishing Vessels. In Fishing Boats of the World, FAO, Fishing News London England, pp 187-202.
  • Greenwood, Melvin R. Exploratory Fishing and Gear Development; pp 107-130; In U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS F/NWC-34; Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment 1931-81, The Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center; Edited by R.R. Mitsuoka, R.E. Pearson, L.J. Rutledge, & S. Waterman. October 1982.



Posted in boat building, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Nick Bez, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb | Leave a comment

R/V WASHINGTON – First Exploratory Cruise

The Washington in the Bering Sea, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries photo

The Washington in the Bering Sea, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries photo


Charles R. (Bob) Hitz              Bob’s posting # 20                           July 14, 2014

In Crowther’s 1949 article (Posting # 19) he states “For the vast area of the waters off the continental United States, there are at present only two exploratory fishing vessels. One will operate in the Gulf of Mexico, the other will explore the waters off Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.” With the end of the Pacific Explorersproject two of her four combination fishing vessels, the Washington and Oregon, were transferred to Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly formed branch of Commercial Fisheries Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Division (Posting # 13).

R/V Washington, by Charles Hitz

R/V Washington, by Charles Hitz

On July 1, 1948, funds were authorized by Congress for the acquisition of an exploratory fishing vessel and for its operation in Alaskan coastal waters. Until the funds became available nothing could be done, and the time to be in the Bering Sea was passing by with the coming of fall. The northern part of the Bering Sea was unexplored and the resource that the Pacific Explorer had worked on in the southeastern part of it was apparently sustainable, so how far west and north did it extend?

WASH 02Once funds became available the Washington was altered, fishing gear was obtained, a crew hired and stores put aboard. Even with late sailing it was determined to send the untried vessel into the Bering Sea to see how it would operate under conditions which should be equal to the worst the vessel would be likely to encounter. She finally departed Seattle on August 24, 1948 en route to the Bering Sea for the first exploratory cruise.

The Washington departing, BCF photo

The Washington departing, BCF photo

Once the vessel reached the Bering Sea and headed north she ran into severe weather. It was discovered that she was not ballasted correctly by the stern,which would have helped her to slow down sufficiently in rough weather to hold her position by heaving-to, keeping her bow into the oncoming seas. Once she reached Nome, Alaska, she was able to receive 30 tons of ballast in the form of rock which was loaded in her aft cargo hole, which helped solve the problem.

She started the survey work on September 14, 1948 in the vicinity of Nome and the entire survey is covered in the published report published in Fishery Leaflet 342 (1). The vessel returned to Seattle on October 23, 1948. Each of the sciences made their own reports and basically they recommended that the Washington had to go through major modifications to make it a useable exploratory vessel.

Her good points were pointed out first. She was designed as a west coast sardine purse seiner or a large combination fishing vessel which, with minor modifications, could be converted to different commercial fisheries. There is no question that the east coast side trawler design was a better sea boat, as demonstrated by the Deep Sea, which was working the Bering Sea at the time, but she was only good for one fishery, trawling. This was not desirable for an exploratory fishing and gear research vessel. The Washington’s skipper concluded that she had a strong and seaworthy hull, her mechanical condition was good with adequate power and she was self-contained, with reserves of fuel oil, lubricating oil, dry and frozen provisions and fresh water for long trips. She had good refrigeration facilities which were unfortunately designed for a commercial operation.

Suggested modifications followed. There needed to be a higher free board aft of the house since the deck was awash in any kind of weather and if the weather got worse,waves could come over the rail, washing the catch back into the sea. Scientific bottled samples were lashed down on the after deck and were also lost due to severe weather. Since the vessel was designed to carry tons of fish, the correct ballasting would have to be determined and added to the vessel. Dedicated space with easy access from the deck, space for extra fishing gear and supplies, space for scientific supplies and storage for dry samples, and freezer space for biological samples was indicated, along with a work boat and skiff stored on the upper deck. On the return trip, while crossing the Gulf of Alaska the boats stored on the stern came loose during severe weather and were damaged. Leaks in the engine room, especially the one over the switchboard and the ones into the crew’s quarters and galley, needed to be stopped. The small and crowded pilothouse needed to be replaced. Access to the pilot house needed to be internal and not external. And finally, a general overhaul replacing weak or unsuitable equipment, such as the automatic steering mechanism and the pilot house engine room controls, was suggested.

The Washington to be sold.

The Washington to be sold.

So it was decided not to modify the Washington but sell it and design an exploratory fishing vessel on the combination principle. From the reports that were returned from this trip a set of specifications was put together and sent out for bid, which was won by W.C. Nickum and Sons of Seattle. This was the first step toward a dedicated exploratory vessel, the John N. Cobb.

The Washington was transferred to the Republic of Korea on August 4, 1949 and the Deep Sea was chartered to carry out the second exploratory cruise.

(1) Ellison, J.G., Boris Knake, and John Dassow, 1949, Report of Alaska Exploratory Fishing Expedition, Fall of 1948, to Northern Bering Sea, US Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Fishery Leaflet 342, Wash. D.C., June 1949.

Posted in boat building, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Exploratory Fishing

Oregon in LocksBCF photo

Oregon in Locks BCF photo

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Bob’s Post # 19 June 26, 2014

I was hired as a “Methods and Equipment Specialist” and it has mystified me for years. I was in the masters program at the College of Fisheries at the University of Washington, studying to become a biologist. In 1958 Lee Alverson became the new director of the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Group and was interested in me, I thought, as a biologist, but when he hired me in 1960 I was excited to become part of this group and who cared about what I was hired as – I wanted to go to sea and get involved with the project.
Fifty years later I started seeking answers to questions I had regarding this group that existed between 1949 and 1970 and began posting on Carmel Finley’s Historical blog about what I learned and to write about my experiences. Her blog was the ideal way to record its history.

Page of Article

Page of Article

When Carmel Finley was working on her thesis for her Doctorate in History she had collected information on individuals in Fisheries and had stacks of papers. In one of the stacks there was a single copy of the first page of an article entitled “Exploratory Fishing” by H. E. Crowther. There were two pictures on the page, with the text ending with “(Cont. Page 108)” and I wanted to read the entire article, but there was no date on it and only “Fishing Gazette Annual Review Number” on the bottom. One of the pictures had the caption “The exploratory fishing vessel Oregon passed through the locks at Seattle, Washington, on her way seaward to search for albacore tuna.” That must have been the third exploratory cruise, which meant that the issue must have been published toward the end of 1949 since the cruise began on August 8, 1949. We found it in the NOAA library in the Fishing Gazette, Volume 66, Number 13, “1949 Annual Review Number.” It’s hard to describe the excitement that I felt as I read it, like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It is one of a kind and it describes why this group was so important and was the guideline that our group followed during its existence.

Crowther’s article stated, “…it was not until recently that the Federal Government began developing an exploratory fishing program.” They added a third division, Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – Scientific Investigations of Commercial Fisheries. The other two divisions were the Biological Investigation, which studied species of the existing resources and the Technology Investigation, which works on the species after they are caught. The newly formed third division as defined by Crowther was “The science of (1) locating new fishing areas, and (2) determining the most effective means of catching fish where located.”

“The primary functions of exploratory fishing are to search unexplored waters – especially offshore waters – for new fishing grounds, to devise new methods of fishing and to test the effectiveness of various types of gear.”

Regarding exploratory vessels he wrote; “Essential to all exploratory fishing operations is a seaworthy vessel which, with minor adjustments, can be used for a number of types of fishing.” He indicated that the difference between the commercial fishing vessel and a research vessel is that the commercial vessel must catch large numbers of fish and carry them to the processing plants, whereas the exploratory vessel is to sample the resource and collect information on the catch.

Oregon in Locks on the Lake Side BCF photo

Oregon in Locks on the Lake Side BCF photo

The crew on an exploratory vessel must be experienced commercial fisherman and they must be experienced in order to direct the handling of any kind of gear. Crowther continued that “In addition to the captain and crew the exploratory vessel carries specialized scientific personnel. These specialists are known as Fishery Engineers,” and that is the reason I was classified as a “Methods and Equipment Specialist,” the first step to a Fishery Engineer. As far as I know Lee Alverson believed that the categories should be changed to Biologist and in July, 1961 my classification was changed to that along with most of the rest of the staff.

Oregon going into Puget Sound BCF photo

Oregon going into Puget Sound BCF photo

I found a few pictures of the Oregon passing though the locks in the files of Exploratory Cruise number 3. The picture in the article was part of this series that were taken that day and helped to determine the date of the article. They were leaving Lake Union, a fresh water lake and going into Puget Sound, part of the Pacific Ocean – a salt water environment. This is unique, since an ocean-going vessel would have its home port in fresh water so the marine growth would be killed in the fresh water and the vessel’s crew would not have to worry about tides. If it was tied to a dock in the marine environment, the lines would have to be watched.


Posted in boat building, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, Resources About Fishing, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A visit to the R/V John N. Cobb, 2013

The Cobb Seamount

The Cobb Seamount

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Bob’s Posting 18 June 19, 2014

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The last trip I made on the John N. Cobb was in February 1971, and 42 years later I jumped at the chance to be a tour guide on her when I was invited to the Classic Workboat Show held at Lake Union Park in Seattle, Washington on October 5, 2013. Northwest Seaport (NWSP) had moved her to the Historic Ship Wharf during the summer of 2013 and this was the last function of the year before she was moved back to the Seattle Maritime Academy, the current owners.

This was an adventure for me as the Park is located at the south end of Lake Union in metropolitan Seattle and housed the new facilities of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). I hadn’t been there for years and it has become a wonderful sight. On that day the sun was out and I walked across the bridge in the morning looking for the Cobb and recognizing the crow’s nest on top of the mast on the far side of a number of large vessels.

As I neared the Cobb I passed NWSP vessels – the tug Arthur Foss and lightship Swiftsure

were permanently moored along with guest vessels like John N. Cobb. There was a banner

that had National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) on it just below the Cobb’s pilothouse. They were partners with NWSP for this Open House, since the vessel had worked for them for 33 years before she was decommissioned. The prior 20 years before NOAA was formed, from 1950 to 1970, she was the Fish & Wildlife Service’s research vessel for Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle. As I went aboard that day it was very familiar and brought back a lot of memories of the exploratory days when I worked on her.

Shannon Fitzgerald

Shannon Fitzgerald

Shannon Fitzgerald, an officer with the NWSP, is the man who got the Cobb to visit the Park during the summer of 2013 and invited me to participate. He sailed with her doing his field work as a seabird biologist for NOAA. While he was transiting on one of his trips he videoed the 1950 Fairbanks Morris diesel that drove the vessel and captured the sound of the exhaust where it vented through the stack on top of the house, which was pleasing to listen to. The sound was quite different in the middle of the tape when he went into the engine room.

One of the memories I have is sitting in the starboard seat in the pilothouse and listening to the exhaust of the main engine, which was mesmerizing as we ran from one station to the next. The Cobb suffered a catastrophic failure when her crankshaft broke in June, 2008 and I thought I would never hear it again, but now anyone can listen to it via Shannon’s video by going to the following address (1): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2ksTQGTlLA


The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

We had a number of visitors touring the Cobb that day and it reminded me of when we used to come into port, especially in San Francisco and tied up at Fishermen’s Dock. People walking the docks would stop and were as interested in the ship and its history as they were at this open house.

The Cobb Seamount display

The Cobb Seamount display

Thanks to one of the displays put together by the NOAA Graphics Department which I enjoyed describing to visitors, was the discovery of the Cobb Seamount in 1950. We had found the original log book of the Cobb, along with the original plot and course she followed. On August 1, 1950 she was trolling for albacore on a northerly course about 280 miles off the coast of Washington, where the charts indicated that the bottom depth should be at least 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet). She was steering for a concentration of birds, since a vessel passing through the area a few days before had reported that there was probably a large school of fish in the area because of massive flocks of feeding birds. There was excitement on the bridge as they neared the flock. They turned on the depth sounder to record the fish that they expected to be there. When there was a trace on the sounder the scientist said “Look at the fish” and the skipper said “That’s not fish, its bottom”. It just kept coming up toward the surface, then it stopped at 22 fathoms (132 feet) and there was a debate on the bridge about whether it was bottom or a huge school of fish. The skipper announced that it was bottom and was an uncharted mountain which was missed when the charts were made. He said he could prove it by anchoring upon it, which he did.

When they called the office via radio station KAB at the Montlake Lab during the afternoon schedule, an excited voice reported “Cobb located new underwater seamount, 46 45’N, 130 47’W, 280 miles west of Willapa Bay. Level area at 70 fathoms, peak at 22 fathoms” as recorded in the radio log. The Coast and Geodesic Survey were notified. They subsequently surveyed the sea mount and modified the navigation chart, naming it the “Cobb Seamount” after the vessel.

The Seattle October open house attracted writer Joe Follansbee, who became interested in the history of the John N. Cobb. He wrote an article in Crosscut (2) which suggested some of the plans that are being considered for the Cobb’s future. I hope she doesn’t become one of the derelicts that Washington State is dealing with, such as the Deep Sea which sank in Penn Cove Washington on May 13, 2012 – the same vessel that Ed Best (3) photographed in the Bering Sea in 1948.

I had a wonderful day with the Cobb and met a lot of interesting people. Hopefully the John N. Cobb will return to Lake Union Park, were the public can get access to this fascinating vessel and learn more about its history. She is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and she was the oldest ship and the last wooden ship in the NOAA fleet. I believe her basic design as a Pacific Coast Combination Vessel is unique for a research vessel that was designed for the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle.

(1) YouTube.com John N. Cobb – 1940 Fairbanks-Morse Diesel Engine.
(2) See posting of Dec. 3, 2013 “Bob and the Cobb” at Crosscut.
(3) See Bob’s posting (No 16) of May 28, 2014, Pacific Explorer-Second Trip-The Bering Sea, part 2 of 2.



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Knowing by way of the boats

The Tordenskjold, photo from Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society

Bureau of Commercial Fisheries photo

We’ve been fascinated by the way Bob Hitz has been uncovering an aspect of history that has received little attention, the gear development group headed by Dayton Lee Alverson.  It shows there was a coordinated federal effort to expand commercial fishing after World War II, with experiments in developing fishing gear and fishing techniques.

One of the way he has looked at this story is to look at the boats–especially his beloved John N. Cobb, but also the other boats that played a role in the expansion of Northwest fisheries, 80-to-90-foot combination purse seine vessels.  Thanks to Bob and Ed Best, we’ve now met a whole series of new boats.

There is one other voice we can add to this mix, and that is our old friend, George Mokovita and his wonderful memoir about fishing off the West Coast in the 1930s and 1940s, Living off the Pacific Ocean Floor.  George writes that in December of 1941, he considered joining the army. But fishermen were essential workers during the war, producing badly-needed protein.

Captain George Moskovita

Captain George Moskovita

George was in Astoria, running his father’s boat, the Electra, when he saw a strange boat in the dock, with “flags and barrels and anchors and miles of line and all kinds of nets with six-inch glass balls and a whole deck of gear,” (35). The Tordenskjold was rigged to fish for soupfin shark (Galeorhinus zyopterus), which would become Oregon’s first fishery collapse. George set to work to mimic the gear on board the strange boat. His girlfriend, June Berg, helped him put caps on empty quart beer bottles to create floats that he tied to pieces of old linen gill nets.

The war in Europe was reaching out and touching American fishermen. After Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, the Nazis diverted all Norwegian food items back to Germany, including all of the production of cod liver oil. Vitamins had not yet been synthesized and the oil was a rare source of Vitamin A and D. Most of the oil came from the livers of dogfish shark and soupfin shark. Buyers paid $1 pound for the oil—and sometimes much more. Moskovita describes a winter fishery during the war, where he would make about $25,000. “We were getting $8 a pound for the liver and every fish had five pounds of liver,” Moskovita wrote. “That’s about forty bucks for each shark,” (36).

Captain George Moskovita fishing for shark livers

Captain George Moskovita fishing for shark livers

Oregon shark landings peaked in 1943, with 270,000 pounds landed. The next year, landings sank to 50,000. The market disappeared, once scientists learned to synthesize vitamins.[1] The shark fishery ended in 1949.[2] But the high prices had stimulated fishing off the entire West Coast. What scientists and fishermen didn’t know then is that soupfin shark, like many other species found along the West Coast, are slow to recover from overfishing. They can live for many decades, and are slow to grow and have low reproductive rates.

The story of the development of fishing in the Northwest is a complex and tangled one. There are many stories to tell, about the fish, the fishermen, and the scientists. But just as important are the stories of the boats themselves, and the part they played in transforming a small coastal fishery into something much larger.

[1] Sigurd J. Westrheim, “The Soupfin Shark Fishery of Oregon,” Research Briefs, Oregon Fish Commission, 3 (1), September, 1950.

[2] Fishery Statistics of Oregon, Oregon Fish Commission, Contribution No. 16, September, 1951,11.

Posted in boat building, Carmel Finley, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fishing, George Moskovita, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


Schooner C. A. Thayer, Ed Best photo

Schooner C. A. Thayer, Ed Best photo

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz              Bob’s Posting 17                  June 4, 2014

I had the opportunity to talk with Ed about his experiences on the Kiska when he went to the Bering Sea in March 1948. He had taken a camera with him and I want to thank him for lending me the photos he had saved from the trip. Historically they are unique and helped in putting together the story of the Pacific Explorer’s second trip. There were a few that were not included in that story and we think that they should be noted with the following comments.

Kiska in the Gulf of Alaska from the Crow's Nest

Kiska in the Gulf of Alaska from the Crow’s Nest

The Kiska had a crow’s nest on top of her mast, like many other fishing vessels built during the period when the California sardine fisheries existed. Whenever they were used in that fisheries a crewman would climb up to the crow’s nest to look for a school of sardine in the dark of night. They looked for the phosphorescent trail the school made and would set the seine around them. During the trip to the Bering Sea,Ed went up to the crow’s nest while the vessel was running and took pictures. The view must have been spectacular – Ed’s pictures captured the sight of the vessels going through swells while crossing the Gulf of Alaska and the volume of fish and crab that covered the decks on the way to the Pacific Explorer to offload.

Deck load of fish, from the crow's nest, Ed Best photo

Deck load of fish, from the crow’s nest, Ed Best photo

There were a lot of king crab and fish taken by the Kiska during that trip. If the cod end was too full to lift aboard, the catch would be split using the splitting rings as Ed’s picture shows.The rings are set around the net and a line is passed through them and when lifted it splits the catch. After it was dumped into the checker and the cod end was retied, the rest of the catch would be brought in.

Deck load of king crab, from the crow's next, Ed Best photo

Deck load of king crab, from the crow’s next, Ed Best photo

Another historical item of interest in his photos taken in the Bering Sea that summer of 1948 was the schooner C. A. Thayer. She had a deck load of dories that were used to catch codfish by hand line and they would bring them back to her for, cleaning, splitting and preserving with salt. The same concept, but on a much large scale and more complicated, was used by the Pacific Explorer in chartering a fleet of catchers like the Kiska to catch the product, primarily king crab, cod, and flatfish, and bring it back tothe ship for processing and preserving by canning or freezing. The Thayer was on her annual trip from Poulsbo, Washington to harvest Bering Sea cod similar to the east coast Grand Banks cod fisheries. Another historical picture that Ed took was that of a dory powered by an outboard motor used for propulsion instead of oars or sail, a major change in the fisheries.

Split coming on board.

Split coming on board.

The C. A. Thayer has been restored and is on display at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and she has been added to the National Register of Historical Places. I hope that the John N. Cobb will be put on display in Lake Union for the public as well, since she is also on the Register of Historical Places.

Ed took another historical picture of one of her dories, powered by an outboard motor instead of oars or sail, a major change in the fisheries. The engine was apparently introduced before the war and made it easier for the fisherman to get to his fishing area and then return to the vessel to off-load his catch. This is the first picture I have seen of the Bering Sea dory fishing and it looks different from those used in the Atlantic. There was a shield on the bow to protect the fisherman and a covering over the stern, apparently to protect the engine.

A dory powered by an outboard motor, Ed Best photo

A dory powered by an outboard motor, Ed Best photo

Deck load from the  bridge deck, photo by Ed Best

Deck load from the bridge deck, photo by Ed Best

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PACIFIC EXPLORER – Second Trip – The Bering Sea, part 2 of 2

Skipper inspecting trawl damage

Skipper inspecting trawl damage, Ed Best photo

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz         Bob’s Posting 15B     May 24, 2014

Due to reports of ice in the Bering Sea they changed the rendezvous point to Pavlof Bay on the south side of the Alaskan Peninsula. This was an area in which the original survey before the war in 1941 had found an abundance of king crab and was an ideal location to test the fishing gear and the factory. They remained therefor two weeks, giving the fishing vessels a chance to try their nets. One of the three vessels, the Tordenskjold, changed over to trawling from tangle nets. It also gave the factory ship a chance in protected waters to get everything working properly and to test the delivery system forgetting the catch aboard the factory ship from the fishing vessels. The fleet finally departed and concentrated on the southeastern side of the Bering Sea, where the resource was reported to be most plentiful from information gathered in the 1941 study and again when the vessel Alaska conducted a scouting trip in 1947.

King Crab held by crew of Kiska

King Crab held by crew of Kiska, Ed Best photo

The fishing vessels like Kiska caught quantities of king crab, flatfish and cod. The net was towed along the bottom, retrieved and lifted aboard the vessel. Catch was sorted to be delivered each day to the Pacific Explorer for processing. King crab would be turned upside down to keep them from crawling away and were stacked along the rail and doused with sea water liberally and frequently to keep them alive, as all crab is boiled alive before processing. Cod and flatfish also had to be delivered the same day they were caught and that’s why only deck loads were delivered and the fish holds were not used.

Deck load of king crab

Deck load of king crab, Ed Best photo

The top two boats were Sunbeam and Kiska,who exceeded the quota before the 90 days were up. They were able to continue fishing and landing fish and king crab and were paid extra at the daily rate the contract called for, which meant extra pay for them. By July 5, 1948 all the fishing vessels had fulfilled the 90 days of fishing their contracts called for and had departed.

Pacific Explorer returned to Astoria on July 18, 1948, to offload the processed catch.

Sorting the catch, Ed in the white hat.

Sorting the catch, Ed in the white hat, Ed Best photo.

Results from the two trips indicate that the Pacific Explorer could have supplied needed protein to the troops if the trips had occurred during the war. During peacetime there was a need to make a profit, but since they didn’t make it (2) the operation was shut down, ending the Pacific Fishing Project. However, the Project did point out that there might well be other unknown resources along our coastal waters and we should find out if they existed. If we ever go to war again and need additional food we know where to get it, and that is what started the new branch of Exploratory Fishing.

When the contract ended, Ed left Kiska in Cold Bay and flew down to Washington State. While in the Bering Sea, Ed had the foresight to take a camera with him and he saved the pictures. One of them was of the Deep Sea, which was working on this resource. The vessel was owned and operated by Lloyd Wakefield and would become known as one of the vessels that started the American King Crab fisheries (3). Another thing he brought back from the trip was claws of a huge king crab, which he had on his desk for years. In those days a king crab was a rare and scary sight to most Americans.

Ed remembers where he was paid but not the amount, which was paid by one check for the entire trip. Since it was cut in Astoria, Oregon, he remembers it because he had to pay Oregon income tax. If he had been paid in Washington State there was no state income tax.

When he was in Washington State after that trip he was offered a job on the newly acquired exploratory vessel Washington, which was heading north to the Bering Sea that fall. This would be the first exploratory cruise of the newly formed Exploratory Fishing branch of the Fish and Wildlife and was one of the four fishing vessels constructed for the Pacific Fishing Project. It was fortunate that he didn’t go, as the trip was a trial due to severe weather they encountered in the Bering Sea during the equinox.

The Deep Sea

The Deep Sea, Ed Best photo

Washington was designed as a Pacific combination vessel and was ideal for exploratory work because it could fish any of the commercial fishing gear, and was also designed for packing fish as a commercial fishing vessel. This design did reduce the space to do research. When it returned, the decision was made to have a combination vessel designed for research,because of the extensive modification that would have had to be done to the Washington.

The engineering firm W. C. Nickum and Sons of Seattle was contracted to design it and Western Boat Building Company of Tacoma Washington received the contract to build it. The vessel was named the John N. Cobb and was commissioned in 1950. It became the dedicated exploratory vessel for the new Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle.

Ed was offered his stepfather’s seiner, but he said that he didn’t have the competitive spirit that would make a successful seiner. He decided to go to the University of Washington’s College of Fisheries and became a fisheries biologist. Between the GI Bill and salmon seining he graduated in 1953, and followed with a 33 year career with California Fish and Game and the IPHC.

(1)Wigutoff, Norman B., Carl B. Carlson, 1950, S.S. Pacific Explorer, Part V, 1948 Operations in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Fishery Leaflet 361, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Jan. 1950.

(2)<Carmelfinley.com> posting Oct. 29, 2013

(3) Cole, James A, 2013, Drawing on Our History, Fishing Vessels of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Page 140, 148 and 149 <Carmelfinley.com> posting Jan. 13, 2014 or Bobs posting No. 14


Posted in boat building, Carmel Finley, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Nick Bez, Ocean fishing, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PACIFIC EXPLORER – Second Trip – Getting Ready, part 1 of 2

Pacific Explorer in the Bering Sea with Tordenskjold and   Pearl Harbor alongside.

Pacific Explorer in the Bering Sea with Tordenskjold and Pearl Harbor alongside, Ed Best photo


Charles R. (Bob) Hitz         Bob’s Posting 15A     May 24, 2014

The 410 foot Factory ship Pacific Explorer sailed from Seattle on March 26, 1948 (1) and headed for the Bering Sea to fulfill the objective of the World War II Pacific Fishing project for which she had been modified. She was to harvest the fisheries resource believed to be in the Bering Sea. This was the catalyst that started the new branch of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Commercial fisheries Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base which was initiated in 1948.

At a recent luncheon for retired biologists I was describing the Pacific Explorer’s history to

Ed Best, photo by Bob Hitz

Ed Best, photo by Bob Hitz

a few people who were interested, saying it would be fascinating to interview someone who had been on the Bering Sea trip, but that after 66 years how would we find anyone? Ed Best, a retired biologist who was listening, said “I was there as fisherman on the Kiska that fished for them.” I asked “Were you paid?” because I had heard that the adventure was a financial disaster, and he replied “We were under contract and the pay was good.” Ed retired from the International Pacific Halibut Commission and our paths have crossed over the years, so I asked him if we could get together and talk about his experience.

We met later and he told me of his adventures in 1948, when he had just returned from World War II after serving with the 71st Infantry Division in Europe. He was raised in Gig Harbor, Washington, a fishing community where his stepfather owned a salmon seiner and Ed had been part of the crew since he was 13. One evening after his return from the service, as Ed was going into a bar, a bearded fellow coming out asked, “How would you like to go to the Bering Sea this summer and make some money?” Ed said “Yes” and that was the start of the adventure.

Kiska in Bering Sea

Kiska in Bering Sea, Ed Best photo

He went to Astoria, Oregon where the Kiska was located and worked as part of the crew getting her ready for the trip. There were six in the crew – the skipper, engineer, cook and three fishermen. The vessel was owned and operated by the Columbia River Packers Association, with which Nick Bez was affiliated. Pacific Explorer had recently landed tuna from her first trip to South America and Kiska had returned from South America after she was chartered to fish for Pacific Explorer as a bait boat. She was the only one chartered for both of the Pacific Explorer trips.

While in Astoria the Kiska was converted to a trawler for the trip to the Bering Sea. The bait tank and the encircling fishermen racks were

The Kiska's winches

The Kiska’s winches, Ed Best photo

removed from the stern and trawling stanchions were added, along with trawl winches installed midships next to the rail. They were electric, and Ed said that the winches would short out and it was wise to have your rubber boots and gloves on or you got shocked.

The Pacific Explorer chartered nine fishing vessels to accompany it to the Bering Sea, the Bear, Sunbeam, Borris, Tordenskjold, Kiska, Mars, Foremost, Jeanette F and Pearl Harbor. All were Pacific fishing vessels and their registered lengths ranged from 56 to 80 feet. Two were purse seiners, two were schooners with the house aft and the remaining five were combination vessels. With the exception of three rigged to use tangle nets, the others were rigged as trawlers. A tenth vessel, which was not under contract but delivered to the Pacific Explorer for a short time, was the Dorothy. She was a schooner whose registered length was 93 feet. In fact, she was one of the vessels that was chartered in the original exploration work before the war in 1940 and 1941, which started the Pacific Fisheries Project.

The Pacific Explorer moved to Seattle for her final preparations for the Bering Sea

Skipper of Kiska - John Malich

Skipper of Kiska – John Malich, Ed Best photo

trip. She had to hire a processing crew for the factory, such as a filleting line for flatfish as well as the cannery personnel for processing King crab. Once completed the vessel departed Seattle and went directly across the northeastern Pacific via Juan de Fuca Straits, where they planned to rendezvous with the chartered fishing fleet in the Bering Sea.

Deck load of crab

Deck load of crab, Ed Best photo

Kiska and the Mars traveled together via the inside passage as did the other charters. Ed had been through the inside passage before when he seined for salmon in Southeastern Alaska as well as trawling off the Washington and Oregon coast, but had never crossed the open water in the Gulf of Alaska or been in the Bering Sea. He was one of those fortunate persons who were not affected by seasickness, even when they had to hove to in a blow off Kodiak. The Pacific Explorer apparently experienced the same blow and had to slow down, because of the danger of breaking one of the numerous ammonia lines that could endanger the crew.

To be continued.

The Jeanette, photo courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society

The Jeanette F, photo courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society

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King crab in Alaska, 1929

King Crab ProcessingWe have been busy! Unfortunately not with blogging. We’ve been teaching, always a black hole in terms of time. And when we’re not thinking about teaching, we’re thinking about our book, which, we regret to say, is not quite like writing the book. In short, we have once again become becalmed on many of the rocky shoals that litter our coastline (so to speak).

But we have been doing some reading and we are extremely pleased to announce the settlement of a minor, nagging detail, just when did the Japanese start fishing in Alaskan waters? At some point, as a historian, you have to answer the basic journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, and why), as well as the historian’s question, so what? We’re always more interested in the so what, rather than the picky little details. But it is feels efficient to cover the details, like dates. So was it some time sometime in the 1920s? And surely the first fishery was for salmon?

No. the first Japanese expedition to Alaskan waters was in 1929 and it was for king crab-crab that the Japanese would sell into the American market. During the 1930s, Americans would pay Japan $27 million for king crab that had been caught off Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which meant that the crab had, in essence, been American crab.

Our source is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife circular from 1969, written by Philip E. Chitwood. He writes that the first trawling for groundfish off Alaska was in 1929, when the Japanese explored the eastern Bering Sea. That led to the development of a full-scale fishery in 1933. The Japanese caught yellowfin sole and walleye pollock, to reduce for fish oil and fish meal. They caught and froze Pacific Ocean Perch and walleye pollock.

We have written quite a bit about this over the years. The conflict between American and Japanese fishermen really started in 1936, the year the Japanese attempted to expand their fishery into salmon. The West Coast salmon industry instantly unified and pressured the State Department to request that the Japanese government withdraw the proposal. The Japanese did so in 1937 and the conflict was lost in the wider issues that to Dec. 7, 1941. (This is all in our book, as well as it many other sources).

The early commercial fisheries for king crab used tangle nets, which were eventually banned because they were too efficient, taking immature crab, never a good idea if you want your fishery to be sustainable.

Congress passed a special appropriate in 1940 to investigate the development of an American king crab fishery. A canning vessel, the Tondeleyo and three catcher boats found large quantities of king crab, as well as edible bottomfish. A 1942 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife concluded there was an “outstanding opportunity for a large-scale king crab enterprise in Bering Sea, and probably only a large-scale operation could be successfully conducted there.”

In other words, exploring for king crab required a scale of operation that was beyond the unorganized capabilities of the American fishing fleet in the 1930s. Americans fished the coastal waters, not the high seas. It took assistance from the federal government to start a fishery for king crab—and it had taken assistance from the Japanese government for the Japanese to mount their exploratory mission in 1929.


Posted in Carmel Finley, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Japanese fishing, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Sebastes rockfish | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment