The fishing and canning industries have
played a major role in the economic development of Bellingham and
surrounding communities. The location of sheltered bays, close to
major transportation routes and salmon spawning rivers, provided local
fishermen with an ideal base for operations. Early commercial fishing
in Puget Sound was largely based on methods perfected over the centuries
by Native Americans. In the early spring, fleets of canoes trolled
for Chinook Salmon, and in the fall, they fished for Silvers.
the canoes were replaced by sailing trollers and by 1900, fishermen
were using gas and diesel powered vessels. Fishing methods included
traditional dip nets, spears, and reef nets, but the gill net took
precedence after the 1850s. Gill nets were used in estuaries and
upstream reaches of local rivers. The size of the mesh was adjusted
to accommodate the species of salmon. The salmon were tangled
in the mesh of the net, pulled aboard, clubbed and stored in the hold
of the boat. Purse seining, another popular method, required larger
boats and a mechanism that closed enormous nets around schools of
Most Whatcom County fishers used fish
traps, a method that mimics Native American reef net fishing. The
traps were built to hover on wooden piling above salmon migration
routes. Wire netting funneled the salmon into underwater pens. The
fish were transported through a gate to a spiller where thousands
of fish could be dipped out and dumped into the hold of a waiting
ship. This method contributed significantly to the depletion of salmon
in Puget Sound by the early 20th Century.
Several major canneries have existed
in and around Bellingham. The first local cannery was established at Semiahmoo
in 1882. The Drysdale cannery was established on the same site in
1891. Later canneries include the Pacific American Fisheries Cannery
in South Bellingham and the Carlisle Packing Company on Lummi Island.
The canning industry quickly mechanized, but cleaning fish remained
a tedious job done by hand. Chinese immigrants constituted the primary
labor force for this activity. In 1903, a machine known as the "Iron
Chink" was invented to mechanize fish cleaning. It was believed that
the machine would do the work of 50 laborers and eliminate what was
perceived as the undesirable Chinese element.
By the early twentieth century salmon
runs were greatly depleted in Puget Sound. Fish traps were outlawed
and the local canneries began processing salmon from Alaskan waters.
Pacific American Fisheries, once the largest salmon canning operation
in the world, closed its doors in 1966.
For additional primary sources on the fishing industry see the finding aids to the following archival collections at the Center for Pacific