While the railroads and technological innovations such as the donkey engine helped to transform Washington's timber industry from a small time player ranked just 36th in the U.S. into the giant it became, so too did railroads and technology transform our region's fishing industry. According to the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest (CSPN), salmon harvests in Puget Sound literally skyrocketed:
Puget Sound Salmon Pack (Measured in Cases)
Canneries became big business with salmon hungry markets in the east conveniently served by the railroads. CSPN identifies three technologies that were key to fishing industry growth.
First - Development of the internal combustion engine that enabled fishing boats to travel further in their pursuit of salmon.
In a short period, the fishing industry went from sail power, to coal fired steam power and then on to crude oil - gas - diesel power.
Second - The invention in 1902 of the so-called "Iron Chink" that mechanized fish butchering in canneries, transforming it from a hand process done by Chinese immigrants to a faster mechanical process, substantially increasing cannery capacity.
Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, shs16233, Asahel Curtis photographer, circa 1905
A classic early 20th century case of automation displacing a workforce, in this case Chinese laborers.
Third - Hatcheries. Optimism about the potential for salmon hatcheries to prevent overfishing if not increase the supply of salmon gave rise to dramatically increased harvest levels. As we know, however, hatcheries proved to be no panacea.
I would add a Fourth factor - increased industry scale led to further decreases in cost. For example American Can Company in Seattle operated a dedicated "repair launch" to service the growing fishing fleet wherever they were fishing and thus increase fleet efficiency.
Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Pacific Fisheries Yearbook, circa 1915
I'm not sure there is a happy ending to this story. Today we have many fewer fish, a much reduced fleet of fishing vessels and they must go much further out. Perhaps we can at least hope that a level of stability in fish stocks has now been reached and our great grandchildren will be able to enjoy a salmon dinner much as we do.