Oregon’s first fishery collapse

Captain George Moskovita fishing for shark livers

Captain George Moskovita fishing for shark livers

We’re excited to see a new exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, on sharks. The Museum has a splashy new theater and will be showing Sharks 3D, presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau. But there will be another star, on a smaller screen, and that will be a short video on shark fishing filmed and narrated by Astoria trawler George Moskovita. It will be available on a video monitor, thanks to the generosity of the Moskovita family, which has turned over George’s voluminous collection of photographs and video to the Museum.

With the start of World War II, cod liver oil was no longer available from Norway. That created an opportunities for West Coast fishermen like George. Cod liver oil contained Vitamin A, which had not yet been synthesized.

Oregon's shark fishery

Oregon’s shark fishery

Scientists found Vitamin A was in the livers of various fish, Most of the oil came from the livers of dogfish shark (Squalus suckleyi) and soupfin shark (Galeorhinus zyopterus). There were fisheries at Astoria, Depoe Bay, Newport, Coos Bay, and Port Orford. The floater fishery took place as much as 100 miles offshore. Fishing began in April off Point Conception and moved northward to the Hecate Straits in British Columbia by September or October.[1]

For fishermen like George, the shark fishery was an unexpected windfall, with shark livers fetching unprecedented amounts of money. George writes in his memoir about selling a batch of shark livers for $14.40 a pound:

“I almost fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I said I would be right down. I couldn’t get there fast enough.”[2]

The high prices sent fishermen after sharks and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a warning in 1944 that sharks were rapidly being depleted. Landings in February of 1944 were 70 percent below those of February 1943, despite more fishermen entering the fishery. Landings at Seattle were down sharply, from 280,000 pounds in February of 1943 to 83,960 pounds in 1944.[3]

There was a sharp drop in demand when the war ended and a corresponding increase in the costs of gear and labor. The dogfish shark fishery ended in 1949 with the collapse of the liver market due to foreign competition and synthetic Vitamin A.[4] Oregon 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.[5] 

 Soupfin sharks mature slowly and give birth to a relatively few young at a time, making them vulnerable to overfishing. Their global population has been reduced significantly over the past 60 to 75 years.

We’re excited about this exhibit, and about the Moskovita materials, and grateful to the family for their generosity in turning over the materials, and to the Museum for their willingness to preserve these valuable records of Oregon’s fishing history.

[1] Fishery Statistics of Oregon, Oregon Fish Commission, Contribution No. 16, September, 1951, 10.

[2] George Moskovita, Living Off the Pacific Ocean Floor: Memoir and Stories by Captain George Moskovita, 2000, p. 37,

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

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


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Environmental History, Fishing, George Moskovita, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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