I’ve written a lot about the development of fishing for rosefish (or redfish, or Pacific Ocean Perch) along the West Coast after World War II. Starting in 1945, fishermen like Captain Gordon White out of Newport started fishing in deeper water, landing large numbers of bright red fish. Other fishermen like George Moskovita also found rosies in deeper water off Astoria. Biologists like Jergen Westrheim and Lee Alverson were monitoring the fish being landed and trying to figure out more about these bright red fish, pulled from the deep water off Oregon’s continental slope.
In Race to the Sea, Lee Alverson writes that in March of 1959, the Seattle Times asked him to identify about a hundred boats the Coast Guard had photographed off Western Alaska. There were a number of catcher vessels of about 125 feet in length and several large motherships that were more than 300 feet long.There was even a 270-foot catcher-processor trawler, a Pushkin class vessel, built in German and Polish shipyards for Soviet fisheries. Alverson had seen the Pushkin class vessels at a meeting in Hamburg in 1957. He writes:
“When we arrived at the large pavilion…we were impressed by the tremendous advancements in net designs and fabrication, diesel engines, powered deck machinery, and navigation. The war that killed millions and left northern Europe in ruins also created a heritage of technology that would replace steam engines with diesel and cotton and other natural fiber nets with synthetic nets. There was an array of new synthetic twines and navigational and acoustical depth-and fish-finders. Within a decade the new technology and the global demand for animal protein would foster a modern high-seas fishing fleet what would invade every major ocean of the world, from pole to pole…The Russian vessel was so big it looked like a cruise boat or small whaler. I was almost embarrassed to give my talk on small West Coast stern trawlers.”
He goes on to say that fishing was undergoing a technological revolution:
“The role of the world’s oceans in supplying needed animal protein was escalating in western and eastern Europe, Japan, and Korea. The conference participants were so enthusiastic about the growth of the ocean fisheries that they gave the impression of being caught up in a fever…What was a surprise, however, was the sudden emergence of the eastern bloc nations, which had no substantial history in world fisheries prior to World War II. The Soviets talked about their ten-year plan and their intent to greatly expand high-seas fishing using mother-ship operations and a fleet of modern, self-contained catcher/processor ships. They also talked about their efforts to learn more about the oceans’ great capacity to produce food for mankind. Most Americans were unaware of, and/or, took little interest, the race for the sea.”
The Japanese had been fishing in Bering Sea since the early 1950s, but these new Soviet vessels “raised the hair on the necks of fishermen from California to Alaska,” Alverson wrote, adding that several scientists didn’t believe the Bering Sea could sustain such a large fishing fleet.
These giant boats mark the escalating of industrialization of fishing after World War II. They were subsidized by the Soviets for a variety of reasons, to obtain food from the sea, provide coastal employment, stimulate development in the Russian Far East, employ shipyard workers. For both Japan during the 1930s, and for the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the expansion of fishing showcased both modernity and industrialization. And, just as with the Japanese, the Soviets accompanied their expansion with research on both oceanography and fisheries.
How much fish were the Soviets taking? Alverson estimated a minimum catch of 250 million pounds, twice what the entire West coast trawl fleet was catching. Some colleagues called the estimate ridiculous and much too high. But it would turn out that Alverson’s estimate was lower than the actual 1959 catch.
How long could Alaskan stocks sustain such heavy fishing? For rosefish, it wouldn’t be very long at all.