By the early 1950’s fish traps had become a controversial political issue. The traps, controlled mostly by canneries that were owned by non-Alaskan interests, became a political symbol for the corporate colonialization of Alaska. Playing on the mythology of the hard-working individual versus the big company taking advantage of the everyday Alaskan, abolishing fish traps became the driving issue for the territorial legislature. The legislature was composed of individuals who believed that the canneries were controlling too much of Alaska’s natural resources. Many of the new lawmakers were themselves fishermen. The first act of the new state congress in 1959 was to ban all fish traps from Alaskan waters.
The spiller of a fish trap is emptied at low tide, circa 1940. The fish are spilled
out of the trap’s holding nets onto the deck of a barge that will deliver them to the cannery.
Photo courtesy of Nick Leman
Alaskans pride themselves on their staunch individualism. Many men and women came to the territory because it was a way of “striking out on their own,” of being different. One such strong individual who ended up fishing the shores of Cook Inlet was Jack Lewis. In fact, he took his beliefs far enough to elevate him as a folk hero in the eyes of many locals:
A year before statehood, Jack Lewis was getting ready to fish his setnets. April snow still clung to the ground. Jack lived in a cabin on the bluff overlooking Kalifornsky Beach, where his fish sites were located. With the rhetoric that had been pulsing through the community concerning the unfairness of the big canneries and their fish trap operations Jack felt a simmering anger as he mended his nets. His net rack was in sight of the big Libby, McNeil and Libby trap pilings waiting to steal more of the Inlet’s fish. He, his friends and neighbors deserved those fish more than any big company. Hell, they weren’t even owned by Alaskans! Why should they get the best sites and the big traps, which, everyone knew, were more efficient than a few setnets scattered about? This trap was right in front of his property, after all. That made it every bit as much his trap as it was some outsiders, didn’t it? What right did Libby, McNeil and Libby have to fish his site, anyway? Those who got to the area and prepared traps first claimed the sites. Well, he was here before anyone else. Setting his jaw, Jack decided it was time someone did something.
Weeks before Libby’s workers were scheduled to arrive, Jack made credit arrangements with the cannery he fished for to get the supplies he needed to work on the trap. Nails, hog-rings, chicken wire and extra webbing for the pot were all delivered by tender. Jack was to pay for the supplies with his fish deliveries from the coming summer. By the time the company laborers from Libby’s arrived to put in the trap, Jack nearly had it completed. Words were exchanged. “Hey, buddy! This isn’t your trap. This here belongs to Libby’s cannery!”
Not one to back down from a fight, Jack hollered back, “Like hell! This is my trap! This is my site, and I’m workin’ it. You boys just pack up and head back to the cannery!”
The workers, by one account, actually began building a second trap within a few feet of Jack’s. Jack rowed over near the driver. He reached down into his skiff and pulled up his 30.06 rifle, resting the butt of it on his hip. “Is Libby paying you boys enough to die today?” he asked the men working. The workers looked at each other and quickly concluded the answer to that question was indeed “No,” and shut down operations. By the end of the day, they were gone. Jack had won the first round.
A few days later Allan Petersen, the District Federal Marshal, met with the Superintendent of the Libby cannery, and the two took a trip out to Jack’s site. The men walked several miles, as there was no road. When they got to Jack’s, they climbed down the bluff and walked out onto the beach to see Jack, still working on the trap in his skiff. “Jack! Hey, Jack!” Petersen called. With a mouth full of nails, Jack looked up from his work and waved. He untied the skiff and rowed toward them until he could see who it was. “Hullo, Allan,” he called from just offshore as he let the skiff drift. “What d’you boys need?”
“Well, Jack, this here’s the cannery Supe from Libby’s. Now he says this trap belongs to them,” Petersen explained.
“I know who he is, and if you’re standin’ on my property, which you are, I’d say this trap rightfully belongs to me. Besides,” Jack called back, “I was here first, and ain’t that the law?”
Petersen shuffled and looked down. It WAS the law, but once a trap had been claimed and licensed by the Federal government, it belonged to the licensee. How was he going to explain that to Jack, who was obviously in a defensive mood? “Well now, Jack, you see…” he began, but Jack interrupted him. There was an edge to his voice that sounded harder, more determined.
“No, Allan. You see. This trap belongs to me. It’s on my property. I claimed it long before Libby showed up. Hell, I’m the one that’s been workin’ it.” He picked up his 30.06 as he spoke. “Now if you think different, come on out here and try to take it away from me.”
Petersen stared at Jack for a long time. This was just the sort of confrontation he was hoping to avoid. He turned to the superintendent and said, quietly, so Jack wouldn’t overhear, “I don’t think we’re gonna change his mind. I suggest we just get the hell out of here and back to town.” The superintendent nodded. “Never mind, Jack,” he called out to the figure standing in the skiff. “We’ll be on our way.” As they headed back up the bluff, Petersen stopped and looked back at Jack, rowing back to where he had been working, and shook his head. “You all can settle this in court,” he said half-heartedly to the superintendent.
Jack finished the trap that season, and worked it all summer without further incident, harvesting over 90,000 sockeye salmon. Libby, McNeil and Libby filed suit in federal court to reclaim what Jack Lewis had taken from them, hiring a battery of attorneys to represent their case. In the meantime, word spread throughout the state, and even into the halls of the territorial congress about the “David,” Jack Lewis, who had successfully stolen a trap from the giant “Goliath,” Libby McNeil and Libby.
But Jack wasn’t in the clear yet, and some important people knew it. Ernest Gruening, a former Territorial Governor and one of Alaska’s first two United States Senators, knew Jack, and paid him a visit that fall.
“Off the record, Jack,” Gruening told him. “Libby has a pretty good case against you. The new legislature is going to outlaw these traps once we get statehood. I’m going to give you some advice, from one gentleman to another gentleman: If I were you, if Libby offers a settlement, and odds are they will, I’d take it. Understand me, Jack. Now, I’m not going to talk about it any more.”
As Gruening predicted, Libby’s lawyers weren’t long in getting in touch. They told him it would take $8,000 to win the case in court. They offered him $10,000. Jack agreed, signed a Quitclaim deed against the trap, and the lawyers went away happy. In the following spring of 1959 Alaska indeed became a state, and fish traps throughout the state were outlawed. Libby never fished Jack’s trap (and Jack never fished Libby’s trap) again.
A modern gillnet hangs on a net rack waiting to be mended. Styrofoam corks
are threaded and tied to the corkline to provide buoyancy for the net as it
hangs in the water. Before the use of styrofoam, wooden corks, then plastic
ones were used. Alaskans still occasionally find glass balls used by the
Japanese fishing fleet for their gillnet floats washed up on shore.
Photo by Patrick Dixon