Posted by: Johanna | July 30, 2009

We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader…

(Hey folks, looks like I’m on a roll now…)

As you have probably gathered by this point, the people of Bristol Bay eat, drink, sleep, breath salmon. The fishery is the main economic force in this region. But “the fishery” doesn’t just refer to the catching of fish, it also includes what happens to the fish once they’re caught. That’s where canneries, and Dillingham proper, come in.

Map of Nushagak Bay(If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you’ve seen this map before. This time I want you to look for Kanulik, which is south of Dillingham, and just north of Nushagak.)

The first cannery in Bristol Bay was the Arctic Packing Company at Kanulik. It was first constructed as a salting station around 1883, but was converted into a full-fledged cannery by 1884. In 1885 the Alaska Packing Company opened at Snag Point, near present-day Dillingham. While it’s undergone several changes in ownership and name, this cannery remains standing today, and is now known as Peter Pan Seafoods. It boasts the title of the oldest continually operating cannery in Alaska.

For several years Peter Pan has operated a tour of their facilities that is open to the public. The guide is a woman who has been involved with the fishing industry here in Bristol Bay for many years. A few weeks ago Deb, Brittany, and I took an afternoon and went on the tour.

Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc.(So where’s Captain Hook?)

We began in the net loft. One of the agreements the cannery has with the folks who fish for them is that the cannery will take care of the repair and general maintenance of nets, a process referred to as hanging the nets. Many of the people who hang nets for Peter Pan have been doing so for years. In fact right now they have three generations of net hangers from one family: grandfather, father and son. In the net loft we got a quick introduction as well as our gray work coats and HAIRNETS. That’s right, hairnets. Since we were going to be touring a working food processing place we were required to wear hairnets whenever we were around food. Awesome.

Ah! Hairnet!(Rock n’ rolla…)

The tour took us through the mess hall, the office, past the restored double ender sailboat from my earlier post, and into the warehouse where the finished product is stored before being shipped off for consumer enjoyment.

Inside the warehouse(The warehouse)

We also got to peek in on Peter Pan’s newest endeavor, fresh frozen salmon fillets.

Fresh frozen salmon(I was surprised by all of the color inside the cannery.)

After the warehouse we were taken to the end of the dock where the fish are unloaded from tender boats. From there our journey paralleled that of the salmon. We followed along as out guide took us from boat all the way back to canned in the warehouse.

dead fish(The fish starts out on this conveyor belt where it gets washed, and skinned, and cut up…)

Empty Cans(Upstairs the empty cans are inspected for flaws which could interfere with the canning process. Once they’re Ok’d they fly down this chute to the lower level where they’re packed full of tasty salmon.)

Ready for the oven...(The fully packed cans come out on those conveyor belts and are placed in the big square crates on the floor. Those crates are then places in the ovens where the fish gets cooked and the cans get sealed. Depending on the size of the can there’s a really specific temperature/time combination to make sure the salmon is cooked, the can is sealed, and everything remains sanitary. For future reference, there’s a code stamped on every can of salmon you find at the grocery store. The fish in cans whose number starts with 35 came from right here in Bristol Bay and were canned right here in Dillingham, at Peter Pan.)

We regrouped back at the sailboat where we were told about improvements in safety over the years.


I’m sure most of you have heard of “The Deadliest Catch” the show on the Discovery Channel about the Alaskan crab fishery. Well, yes, that is the most dangerous fishery in the world, but all commercial fishing has its risks, and salmon fishing is no different. Even in the summer the waters are cold, and storms can come up with little warning. Add to that the constant threat of mechanical difficulties and you have the potential for one stressful job.

But the folks in the salmon fishery have largely been doing this for years, even generations, and they love it. Native and non-Native alike there is a respect for the natural resources of this area that runs deep. Sadly, between the never-ending rollercoaster of fish pricing and the growing possibility of major oil, gas, and mineral development in the region, the Bristol Bay fishing lifestyle is threatened. Fishermen (and women) are having harder and harder times making ends meet (maintaining a boat is expensive), and extractive resource development could potentially have a drastic impact on the salmon runs, making it more and more difficult to make the necessary catch to get sufficiently paid. As much as it saddens me to say it, Bristol Bay fishermen may be a dying breed. But there is resilience here and a ferocious dedication to a way of life that harkens back to the glory days of the American frontier. And of one thing you can be sure, even if they are on the way out, the folks of Bristol Bay won’t go out quietly.



  1. […] too would take issue with putting moldy baskets in where food is usually kept. But no! Success! Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc. saved the day, allowing us to store our baskets in their deep freeze for 24 hours. So last the kids […]

  2. The hairnets make a nice fashion statement, dontcha know…? Have you met Sarah Palin yet? I hear she’s looking for another job…

  3. I am working with Amanda Rosenberger (UAF- School of Fisheries) and we are creating a new online course, Intro to Fisheries. The course is expected to begin in Spring 2011 and will then be offered every semester. The instructor would like to use couple of images that you posted about your trip to the cannery:

    dscn0580.jpg (surprised at the color (salmon filets)
    dscn0613.jpg (crates for packed cans)

    We would like your permission to include these images in a unit presentation for educational purposes only. We would follow your guidelines for full credit and proper citation.


    .·´¯`·.¸ > .·´¯`·.¸ .·´¯`·.¸ .·´¯`·.¸
    Heidi Olson
    Instructional Designer
    Center for Distance Education & Independent Learning
    University of Alaska Fairbanks
    907-479-4764 (rings in Juneau!) or 800-277-8060

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