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AFSC Historical Corner:  Early Fisheries Enforcement Patrol Boats  (1912-39)

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
The Albatross, 1882
Early BOF Patrol Boats
FWS Vessels
Newer Research Ships
Pribilof Tenders
Launches/Small Craft
Charters/Other Boats
Vessel Links
fishery patrol boat
Early fishery enforcement boat (probably the Auklet or Murre) patrolling the waters of Southeast Alaska.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1918.

In the early 1900s, the increased amount of fishing in Alaska resulted in the need for a radical change in the way fishing industries were being governed since 1889. In June 1906, a new Alaska alien fisheries act for the protection and regulation of the Alaska fisheries established restrictions on the use of fishing apparatus and cannery operations, and authorized the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) to enforce these regulations. This responsibility brought about the urgency for appropriating additional resources for governing these industries in the large territory, and requests were made each year thereafter for more personnel and vessels.

Patrol Boats Acquired 1912-30
(length,  yr built)  
1912  Osprey (72 ft, 1895)
1917  Auklet (48 ft, 1917)
1917  Murre (48 ft, 1917)
1918  Swan (36 ft, 1917)
1919  Kittiwake (70 ft, 1908)
1919  Petrel (54 ft, 1917)
1919  Merganser (54 ft, 1909)
1920  Tern (38 ft, 1920)
1921  Widgeon (57 ft, 1914)
1922  Scoter (65 ft, 1920)
1923  Ibis (30 ft, ?)
1924  Blue Wing (55 ft, 1918)
1924  Sea Gull (31 ft, ?)
1926  Brant (100 ft, 1926)
1926  Red Wing (40 ft, ?)
1927  Teal (78 ft, 1927)
1928  Crane (92 ft, 1928)
1929  Coot (50 ft, 1929)
1930  Pelican (78 ft, 1930)
1930  Eider * (88 ft, 1913)
1931  Heron ** (36 ft?, 1913)
*    Eider  transferred from service as
      a Pribilof Island tender in 1930
**  Non-enforcement research launch
Note:  Also find out more about the
smaller craft  and  stream watchmen
used in fisheries enforcement.

The vessels used for patrol work during this time were either chartered or provided by other agencies; like the the U.S. Coast Guard revenue cutters that, for the most part, protected the seal migrations from illegal takings. Other craft, such as open dories, proved too small and often dangerous for the exposed Alaska waters.

Boats were frequently used to transport supplies and personnel to and from Seattle, Washington, and areas around the Alaska territory. The local canneries often provided free transportation to the government agents on their vessels which, while considered gratuitous and unethical, was unfortunately the only means for the Bureau to get into certain remote and otherwise inaccessible areas.

These factors led to the Bureau purchasing its first patrol boat, the Wigwam (renamed the Osprey), for $13,000 in 1912. In July of the following year, appropriation for a crew was effected and the vessel was put into commission. A week later she was sailing for Alaska. The Osprey was followed by a pair of sister boats in 1917, the Auklet and Murre, both built for the BOF's fisheries enforcement work in Southeast Alaska.

After World War I, the BOF purchased and built more enforcement vessels, while others where removed from service. In 1920, an elaborate plan (see box below) was even devised to create a significant fleet of enforcement ships, including those from other agencies. By 1930 the number of Alaska fisheries boats grew to nearly 20, with each one usually assigned to patrol in a given district. As was typical of the earlier federal vessels in Alaska, they were named after water birds common to the territory.

In addition to salmon fishing enforcement, some boats were used regularly to patrol the northbound spring fur seal migrations in Alaska and off the Washington coast. On 25 October 1928, several BOF vessels were tasked to assist in enforcing the provisions of the 1924 Northern Pacific Halibut Act, whereby their operators were granted all powers of search and seizure in accordance with the act. By the 1930s, some of the boats were supplementing their patrol duties by assisting in salmon spawning stream surveys, water obstruction removal, fish tagging, and other projects.

The BOF's fleet of Alaska enforcement vessels proved invaluable, not only for fisheries patrol and transportation of goods and personnel, but for towing other vessels, rescues, and assisting in the various research done by the BOF and other federal agencies in Alaska. The boats would often spend their winters in Seattle for overhauling and repairs. In the winter of 1933-34, an allotment of $20,000 by the Public Works Administration funded the overhauling of nearly all the Bureau's Alaska fleet.

A Request for Enforcement Boats in 1909
"The most urgent need of the Alaska salmon-inspection service is proper vessels for carrying on its work. In no part of Alaska are means of local communication other than very meager. The regular steamship lines visit only the more important points, and in some sections the call of such steamers will not average more than one or two a month. Then, as they cover a wide area in their travels, the steamers can remain but a few hours at any one place, a time not sufficient for an inspector to look over the fishing grounds, which are usually off the regular line of travel. Even if these vessels were available, however, the inspectors should not be compelled to depend upon them, for the fishermen would in this event be able to prepare for the arrival of the vessel with the inspector aboard, and thus to conceal any illegality that might be in practice.

Owing to the lack of suitable vessels it was found impossible in 1908 and 1909 to inspect any of the fisheries of central Alaska. In these sections vessels of sufficient size and seaworthiness can not be chartered. In the protected waters of southeast Alaska launches can be used, but as they must, under present conditions, be chartered with their crews, it is almost impossible to prevent notification of the fishermen in advance. Frequently, also, when a launch is most needed, all of the few available will be under charter and the trip must be abandoned.

More inspectors, also, are needed in order to cover the territory properly. But it is useless to have these unless there are vessels available for their use. Under existing conditions the additional inspectors would merely be marooned for weeks at a time, and, as the salmon fishing season in central and western Alaska is comprised within four months' time at the most, almost nothing could be accomplished.

Three vessels are needed for this service. In southeast Alaska a comparatively small launch (about 60 feet long, 12 feet beam, and fitted with a 60 horsepower gasoline engine) would answer the purpose. In western Alaska a much larger vessel is needed, one of at least 100 tons displacement, as the waters in this section are open and storms are frequent.

The Dominion of Canada, although having only about one-fifth as much coast line on the Pacific as Alaska, maintains two steamers, and is now building a third, for the purpose of protecting her fishing grounds."

From:  Marsh, M. C., and J. N. Cobb. 1909. Fishery Laws and Their Enforcement - Needs of the Service, p.27. In Fisheries of Alaska in 1909. Bureau of Fisheries Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1909.

Bristol Bay marine ways – Regional districts had been established throughout Alaska where each enforcement vessel was typically assigned to patrol during the summer fishing seasons. For the large Bristol Bay area the BOF set up its district headquarters on the Naknek River at their marine ways. Built in the summer of 1925, the ways provided care and winter storage for the power launches and other small boats that operated in the region (see photo below). Originally acquired in the mid-1920s, these small low-draft launches, identified by numbers rather than names, were ideal for use on the region's rivers, streams and lakes.

marine ways
Bristol Bay patrol boats at the Bureau's marine ways on Naknek River.  At the far end facing forward is probably the 65-foot lead ship, Scoter.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1926.

In addition to the Bureau's fisheries patrol fleet operating throughout the Alaska waters, several other boats were being chartered each year. Small private power boats were also used for enforcement work by the "stream watchmen", wardens and other special employees.

For added patrol during fishing seasons, three speedboats were built by the BOF in the spring of 1933, each one powered by an 82-horsepower Chrysler motor. More speedboats and engine upgrades followed, including one in 1938 with a 225-horsepower motor. By 1940, the acquisition of these boats, coupled with the growing use of aircraft, resulted in fewer vessels chartered. By the early 1950s, 11 speedboats and about 60 small outboard-powered craft were being used.

In 1940, the Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to become the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the existing BOF boats became part of the new FWS fleet. During World War II, some of the vessels were requisitioned by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard to provide transportation, support coastal lookout stations and patrol the waters of Alaska against enemy forces. After the war, the FWS's Alaska fleet changed as new vessels dedicated to exploratory fishing and research were acquired. In 1956, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF) emerged as a part of the USFWS. Several of the vessels were transferred around 1960 to other agencys – primarily the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) – as a result of Alaska's statehood in 1959. The boats remaining with the BCF now focused on research and the work of fisheries enforcement was adopted by the ADFG. 

An Elaborate Plan
In an effort to increase the presence of enforcement vessels after World War I, an arrangement was made in March of 1920 between the Governor of Alaska and heads of the U.S. Navy Department, U.S. Treasury Department (Coast Guard), and U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC - Coast and Geodetic Survey), whereby certain boats from each department would be used for fishery patrol work.

This fleet consisted of the Navy's Eagle 57 and two submarine chasers; the Treasury Department's Algonquin, Bear, Bothwell, Earp, and Unalga; and the Explorer, Lydonia, Surveyor, and Wenonah from the Department of Commerce. The Eagle 57 was disabled after striking a reef at Gambier Bay in July and was replaced a month later by the mine sweeper Swallow. The Coast Guard continued its annual patrol of the North Pacific and Bering Sea as it had done since 1867, and at times extended coverage to the cod fishery in the Aleutian Islands region.

Some of the officers on these ships were commissioned as deputy U.S. marshals; at least one was appointed U.S. Commissioner. They were authorized to conduct searches, seizures and arrests in compliance with the 1906 alien fisheries act. These boats also engaged in other services, such as providing medical assistance to the native Alaskan people, aiding distressed vessels, and transporting people, mail and various supplies to isolated communities.

Additional reading:

Anonymous. 1929. The Bureau of Fisheries' Alaska Fleet. Pacific Motor Boat, June 1929. p.18-22.
Jones, N., 1933. Motor Boats Guard Alaska's Fisheries. Pacific Motor Boat, Apr. 1933. p.12-16.

Unfortunately, the available history for several of these old vessels is sparse. Though a few boats are known to have been restored, and still exist as of 2013, the fate of many others, especially after 1940, is unknown. Your help is needed in providing the missing pieces and historical stories for these government fisheries vessels that had operated in Alaska. You are welcome to contact  Victor Lundquist  (

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