Baron of the Brine

source: TIME, Nov 4th, 1946 (the first big floating fish cannery owned by the U.S. Government.)

In Seattle’s sprawling Todd Drydocks, workmen this week put the finishing touches on a strange vessel. On its flush deck were a twin-motored seaplane and a radio tower. On port and starboard decks were long rows of machines connected by conveyor belts; in its hold were gleaming, white, airtight compartments.

The ship was the 8,800-ton Pacific Explorer (formerly World War I freighter Mormacrey), the first big floating fish cannery owned by the U.S. Government. It needed all this un-nautical equipment to process daily 700 cases of canned crab and 150 tons of filleted and frozen fish, store 6,100 tons all told. Next month the Pacific Explorer will pick up her brood of four trawlers, sail for a winter cruise in the South Pacific, then next spring head for the Bering Sea.

There, with the blessing of the Department of Interior and the backing ($3,750,000) of RFC, the privately operated Explorer and its trawlers will conduct an important experiment. It hopes to prove that U.S. fishermen can replace the Japanese who, prewar, caught and processed 66% of the world’s tuna in their floating canneries, virtually monopolized the $8-million-a-year catch of the Bering Sea’s huge king crabs. The Explorer will also find out if Russia will, like Canada, respect international conservation regulations, or, like Japan, flout them.

For use of the ship, the Explorer’s operator has guaranteed to pay RFC $50,000 or 55% of the profits, whichever is larger.

Row a Boat. That operator was recently hunched over a tumbler of bourbon in Seattle’s exclusive, leather-lined Rainier Club. In his Sunday best, he looked very uncomfortable. He became more uncomfortable when told that the club’s whiskey deliveries were smaller than those of some newer clubs. “Goddamn it,” he roared, “I go and talk to Mon [Governor Monrad

C. Wallgren].” A Seattle industrialist playing dominoes turned and frowned disapprovingly until someone whispered: “That’s Nick Bez. You know, fishing.” The frown promptly dissolved into an understanding smile.

Two years ago the frown would have stayed. Few around Puget Sound bothered to inquire about Nick Bez until he was photographed rowing the boat as President Truman fished for salmon in Puget Sound in 1945 (see cut). Puget Sounders learned that hard-muscled, hard-talking Nick Bez was quite a fisherman himself. He owned or controlled 1) three of the biggest salmon canneries in Alaska, 2) a string of fishing vessels, 3) two gold mines, 4) an airline—West Coast Airlines, which next month will start a feeder service fanning from Portland into southwest Washington and western Oregon. Since then Nick Bez has also acquired, with financing from old

A. P. Giannini’s Transamerica Corp., the Columbia River Packers Association, the largest salmon cannery in the Pacific Northwest (last year’s sales: $8,600,000).

Born 51 years ago on the island of Brae off the coast of Yugoslavia, “Big Nick” came to the U.S. with $1.50 in cash, at 15. He started out fishing for smelts in a borrowed rowboat, was master of a big salmon boat, a purse seiner, within six years. In bloody battles, Big Nick (6 ft. 2 in., 226 Ibs.) led other purse seiners against the beach seiners (who use horses to drag flat nets up on shore), drove most of them out of the $59-million-a-year Alaska salmon industry.

Catch a Big Prize. From then on Big Nick expanded by buying one little boat after another. He branched out into airlines with Alaska Southern Airways in 1931, later sold it to Pan American at a big profit, got back in the business this year with West Coast Airlines.

Big Nick, a generous contributor to the Democratic Party, has been accused of using his political connections to the detriment of small fishermen. This hurts Nick. He confesses that packers, including himself, “cotch too damn many feesh” to maintain present sources of supply. “My interest [in the Explorer],” he recently protested in a ghostwritten letter, “[is] for the postwar stability of the industry, to develop new grounds and methods.”


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