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AFSC Historical Corner:  Stream Watchmen

Early Pioneers
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The Albatross, 1882
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stream guard camp
A temporary stream guard camp in the Copper River district.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1923.

"For the fishing season of 1918 the Bureau inaugurated an additional feature for securing a more adequate enforcement of the fishery laws. A number of temporary employees, designated as stream watchmen, were detailed to important fishing grounds in southeastern and central Alaska. Each watchman was assigned a limited area to patrol, which he was expected to keep under continuous observation.

In certain regions where fishing is carried on by means of gill nets, haul and purse seines, or other movable apparatus, these watchmen will be much more effective than patrol boats. Patrol boats can enforce the law in respect to movable apparatus only while actually present at the fishing grounds where it is used. The appropriation necessarily limited the number of men who could be advantageously employed in this way. However, by selecting certain strategic points for operations and by shifting watchmen from one stream to another in response to changing conditions in respect to fishery operations it is thought that a very considerable amount of protection may be afforded the fisheries at comparatively small cost.

Ten men were employed to undertake this work. Seven of them were secured through the dean of the University of Washington, five of the seven being students at the university and two being professors, while an eighth was a graduate of the university. One man was secured in the State of Washington, and the tenth man was engaged in southeastern Alaska. Five of the men were assigned to work in southeastern Alaska and five in central Alaska under the immediate direction of the Bureauís regular officers. A number of small boats were hired for the use of these men."
From:  Smith, H. M. 1920. Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1918. U.S. Dep. Commer., BOF Doc. 862:84.

marine ways
A floating trap.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1916.

During the next several years the number of stream watchmen (or "stream guards") increased dramatically. In 1922 they numbered 59 men, growing to 220 in 1931. These men were selected for this work based on their familiarity with the country and interest in the Alaska fisheries. The length of annual employment ranged from 2 to 5 months.

To cover larger areas and more streams, some of these men provided their own power boats. Occasionally they were used to maintain lights and free floating fish traps from drift. In addition to these guards, special wardens and operators of chartered boats were employed.

There was no doubt that the presence of the stream watchmen on the mouths of spawning streams successfully deterred illegal fishing, facilitated prosecutions of violators, and was of great benefit to the conservation of Alaska salmon runs.

A Significant Trial
In 1926, complaints continued of fish trap robberies in southeastern Alaska. A number of the larger canning companies had established a patrol of 17 launches, while a few other companies took similar action individually to protect their traps. Numerous cases of this so-called piracy were reported, however, few arrests were actually made.

On 16-17 September 1926, a trial of "United States v. Val Klemm et al." took place in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the defendants, Val Klemm and Walt McCall, were accused of robbing fish traps. It was believed that this extensive practice would be greatly curtailed by holding the trail. It was also reported that the general impression prior to this case was that trap operators had no legal rights to the fish alive in the traps until they were actually removed from the water.

The two defendants were found guilty and sentenced to three years in the Federal penitentiary at McNeil Island in Puget Sound, Washington. The Ketchikan Chronicle newspaper headline read, "Verdict is First Ever in Alaska for Fish Piracy."

The following is extracted from the charge by Judge Reed to the jury in this case:  "When fish are impounded - that is, enclosed - in a trap and separated from the sea by said trap, so that they are in the actual personal or constructive possession of a person, they become subject to larceny, and any person who takes, steals, and carries away fish that have been impounded in a trap belonging to any person, he has a special property in them by reason of having the fish impounded in the trap."

Additional reading:  Harrington, L. B. 2007. Val Klemm: Miner, Fish Pirate. Part of "Pioneers of Southeast Alaska" series. Stories in the News (SitNews), Ketchikan, website.  (last accessed 3-28-13).

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