The Pacific Explorer, the world’s largest fishing boat, was eventually sold for scrap, but Nick Bez stayed in the news.[i] He sold his stock in Astoria’s Columbia River Packers Association in 1951 and bought P. E. Harris, one of the largest salmon-packing and distributing companies in the Northwest, founded in 1916. Bez took over the assets and became president, board chairman, and the largest stockholder.
The company had packed salmon under a variety of names, including Peter Pan, Gill Netters Best, and Sea kist. Bez renamed the company Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc. and it operated canneries in Alaska, Puget Sound, and Astoria. He broadened the marketing line to include canned tuna and Alaska king crab. He was bringing frozen Japanese tuna to the U.S. to can, evading any tariff, and worsening the economic situation of the Southern California boats, an act that undoubtedly gave him great pleasure, seeing as how the Southern California boats had forced him out of Central America. His was one of the first American companies to import salmon and tuna from Japan to process in the U.S.[ii]
Two of his boats, the Western Clipper and the freezer ship Toni B, were charged with “illegal fishing” in Peruvian waters in 1955. He refused to pay the fines. “We aren’t going to recognize any 200-mile limit,” he told the Seattle Times. “If they get away with 200 miles, they could make it 10,000 miles.”[iii] The Toni B, described as a former Navy tug, sank in February of 1955, in “heavy Caribbean waters.” Bez’s son, John, was the skipper of the boat. All 10 men were saved when they were picked up by a Navy vessel. The Toni B had been on her way to deliver 600 tons of tuna to the new cannery at Ponce, Puerto Rico. The cargo was valued at $180,000, according to clippings from several unknown news papers in the possession of the Bez family.
Bez had always been colorful, but when he was first quoted in the press, his accent was reproduced, with faulty grammar and incorrect syntax. He was painted as an immigrant who made good, a penniless boy who became a millionaire, a smart man but with no formal schooling and the coverage was often patronizing. The tone in his hometown paper was a lot more respectful by 1960, when Bez threw a party for 500 at the Rainier Club Lounge in Seattle. He was celebrating the 50th anniversary since his arrival in the U.S.
His friends included most of the city’s political and financial elite.[iv] He was still the friend of presidents, chairing a Seattle committee to raise money for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Nick Bez died in 1969 at the age of 73.
[i] Portland Oregonian, December, 1951.
[ii] Erwin Laurance, The Seattle Times, “Salmon-Packer Baits World’s Fair Hook,” March 5, 1962, 13.
[iii] Seattle Times, Jan. 25, 1955.
[iv] John Reddin, “Faces of the City: 500 Attend Nick Bez’ “Little Party,” Seattle Times, Sept. 16, 1960.