You never know what you’re going to find when you start poking around in history. I didn’t expect to find that one of the important events in the development of the Oregon trawl fishery was to be a cheap source of protein for mink farmers. Or, that mink farming was taught at Oregon State University. These pictures are from the Oregon State University archives, taken some time in the 1950s.
One of my favorite documents is the “Analysis and History of the Oregon Otter-Trawl Fishery,” the 1956 dissertation by George Yost Harry III, for the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington. It’s filled with interesting bits of information; the first beam trawl was used on the Carrie B. Lake, off the Columbia, in 1884. Most of the early voyages were failures because of the lack of markets.
Also interesting fact is that the Albatross, the U.S. Fish Commission vessel built under the guidance of Spencer Fullerton Baird, caught sand dabs with a beam trawl off Yaquina Head in 1914. According to Pacific Fisherman, “ultimately this will be one of the most profitable species taken from these banks as the demand for them from San Francisco is very heavy at present, and the same will be true elsewhere on the Pacific Coast when their excellent eating qualities become better known.”
According to Harry, the first Oregon mink ranch was established about 1925. Mink were fed horse meat, and incidentally caught fish, such as starry flounder (taken by gillnetters). During the war, there was an excellent market for bottom fish, so the fillet plants were able to sell their discards to the mink farmers. The market slowed again after the war, and cheap fish carcasses were scarce once again. There were about 200 mink farmers in Oregon by 1949, and the industry was worth an estimated $2 million, making it a relatively large industry–and one that was dependent on a cheap supply of food.
Researchers began studying the mink fishery in 1948. One of the first tasks was to figure out what kinds of whole fish were being used as mink food. Harry’s dissertation doesn’t say so, but the samples were probably taken by a new graduate from the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, Jergen Westrheim. Jergen, who is retired from Fisheries and Ocean, lives in Nanaimo, and we talked a couple of years ago about the early days of his career. Astoria was a hotbed of fishing activity. In addition to the fishery for mink food, there was a fishery for soupfin sharks (Galaerhinus zyopterus), which were caught for their livers, which had high levels of vitamin C. Oregon landings peaked in 1943, with 270,000 pounds landed. The next year, landings sank to 50,000. The market disappeared, once scientists learned to synthesize vitamins.
The Oregon Fur Producers Association opened a plant at Astoria in 1951, to process scrap fish from the otter trawl fishery.