Video tells of tall ships and fish factories.

Published on Thu, May 3, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Video tells of tall ships and fish factories.

By Meg Olson

The salmon rush that began in the nineteenth century along with the timber industry, sustained the growth of many communities along the coast. Waters rich with salmon were the mother lode in the Pacific Northwest, drawing people and business to tap into the rich resource.

In 1894 the newly formed Alaska Packers Association (APA) bought a small cannery on Semiahmoo spit and one at Point Roberts. The company’s meteoric rise to control northwest salmon fisheries is the subject of a new documentary from Bob Thorstenson and John Sabella, working with the Drayton Harbor Maritime group. The documentary will premiere next week at the Blaine performing arts center.

“The APA ruled Alaska at the turn of the century like its private fiefdom,” writer and producer Sabella said. From its headquarters in San Francisco, the company controlled canneries and fish traps as far north as Bristol Bay.

The empire was linked by the Great Star Fleet, 19 iron and steel square-rigged four-masted sailing ships that formed the core of the APA fleet. “At that time no one wanted sail. They wanted steam.” Sabella said. “The APA devised that the ships were perfect for the salmon trade and that enterprise extended the age of working sail on the coast until World War II.” The ships’ ample cargo space accommodated supplies and men as they headed north in the spring and brought salmon back in the fall. When the end of trap-fishing in local waters led to a drop in fish processing activity, Semiahmoo continued to be a key boatyard, maintaining the company’s fleet.

“In later years Semiahmoo became more and more central to the APA,” Sabella said. “At the twilight of the APA, Semiahmoo was their headquarters.”

Drayton Harbor Maritime chairman Richard Sturgill said he encouraged Thorstenson, the acknowledged chronicler of northwest fishing history, to turn his attention to the story of the APA. “The APA had a big presence here for over 100 years,” Sturgill said. “The Plover is part of that legacy.” The Plover ferry, which the association operates, was once a crew ferry for the APA cannery.

Thorstenson and Sabella have co-produced six documentaries on the salmon industry. “We used Bob’s vision and my sweat to make it happen,” Sabella said.

Born in Point Roberts, Thorstenson founded and ran Icicle Seafoods, which has grown into a leader in the fishing industry. “My family has three generations of salmon-fishing and my wife’s family has three generations of halibut fishing,” Thorstenson said. Thorstenson also studied history at the University of Washington. His said his life-long passion for history and his roots in fishing led naturally to chronicling the annals of west coast fisheries.

“I’d have to say he’s the most loved and respected member of the fishing community,” Sabella said. “He’s mounted a one-man crusade to document the history of commercial fishing while some of the old-timers are still around.”

The Blaine premiere of “Sockeye and the Age of Sail: The Story of the Alaska Packers Association,” premieres May 11 at the PAC. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts half an hour later. The preview is free. Video copies of the documentary will be for sale, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Drayton Harbor Maritime. Models of the Plover by local model builder Paul Schneider will also be available as another Plover fundraiser.

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