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AFSC Historical Corner:  Canning, Curing and other Preservation Techniques

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Canning & Curing
Diving Programs
Tools & Equipment
cannery machines
Alaska salmon cannery machines for cutting fish (left) and putting lids on full cans (right).  Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) photos, 1914.

"The fish curing industry of the North Atlantic coast of North America dates back at least to the year 1500. There are authentic records of fish curing activities as of that period, and legends of activities at much earlier date. An extensive fish curing industry along the North Atlantic coast of North America was carried on for more than 100 years before there was any permanent settlement. As early as the year 1580 more than 300 ships from Europe were salting cod in this area. The early colonists in New England and the Maritime Provinces would not have been able to survive without the salt cod and smoked herring they could prepare, for soil was poor and the climate uncertain. While fish meant food to the early colonists, cured fish soon became their capital resource and their stock in trade for the purchase of supplies...

...The fisheries on the Pacific coast of North America did not affect U.S. international relations to the same extent as the fisheries of the Atlantic. This is because 1) their development was much more recent and 2) the development was different in character. The second factor is possibly due to the fact that development occurred at a period when canning and refrigeration were replacing curing as the principal methods of preservation. Then, too, more of the fishing took place in more clearly defined territorial waters...

  cooking the canned salmon
Cooking the canned salmon.  BOF photo, 1921.

...The presence of cod off the coast of Alaska was established in the 1860's, and the possibility of building a prosperous salt cod industry there was one of the arguments advanced in Congress for the purchase of Alaska."
(Jarvis, 1988 *)

One drawback of seafood processing was dealing with the unutilized waste and by-product materials collected at the various fisheries locations, which became both a costly and environmental (and odor) problem for the businesses. Few canneries could afford to establish a fertilizer plant, so they would usually barge out the waste to dispose of in deeper waters. In the 1920s, the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) strove to improve the current practices and equipment in connection with this problem by conducting experiments on the efficient, and odor-reducing, conversion of waste from fish filleting – a growing commercial business – into fish meal and oil products.

The following is a general overview of historical seafood preservation topics (not necessarily relevant to government or Alaska), including some suggestions (in bullets) for additional reading.

Alaska Canneries

  cannery at Hoonah
The cannery at Hoonah, Alaska, celebrated its 100th aniversary in 2012.  BOF photo, 1921.

The importance of the salmon fishery in Alaska was greatly increased with the canning process. The first salmon canneries in Alaska were built in the spring of 1878 at Klawak (North Pacific Trading & Packing Co.) and Old Sitka on Baranof Island (Cutting Packing Co.). The number of canneries in Alaska rapidly grew as other coastal states struggled to keep up with the increased demand for canned salmon. By 1888 there were 17 Alaska canneries in operation with an output of 412,115 cases and 20 more canneries were added the following year (714,196 cases).

Production soon exceeded demand, so to reduce the number of operating plants, the canneries began merging permanently; the first being the formation of the Alaska Packer's Association in 1893. Over the next 30 years demand continued to rise, however, and the daily yield per cannery rose from 150-200 cases to 2,500-4,000 cases. In 1923, there were 130 canneries operating in Alaska.

The salmon being brought to the plants by ship, were at first shoveled by hand into bins on the wharfs. This laborious process was later improved upon by the use of a slanted conveyor (or elevator) whose lower end could be inserted into the holds to scoop up the fish onto the belt and into the building. The methods of dressing, cutting, salting, canning, cooking and packing the salmon had also improved, with the use of specialized devices and machinery.

In 1916, the canning of clams began in the district of Cordova, Alaska.

  • An in-depth account of Alaska canneries in the late 1800s. From Moser, J. F. 1899. The Salmon and Salmon Fisheries of Alaska; Report of the Operations of the United States Fish Commission Steamer Albatross for the Year Ending June 30, 1898, p. 1-178. In Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XVIII, for 1898. Wash. G.P.O. (.pdf, 13.7 MB).
  • Jones, L. E. 1915. Salmon Industry. In Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914. Wash. G.P.O., 155 p.  (.pdf, 17.45 MB).
  • Cobb, J. N. 1921. Methods of Preparing Salmon, p. 111-203. In J. N. Cobb, Pacific Salmon Fisheries (doc. 902). Wash. G.P.O. 268 p.  (.pdf, 6.22 MB).
  • Alaska's Historic Canneries: Celebrating Alaska's canneries from Ketchikan to Akutan and all ports in between. website.  (last accessed 7-3-14).

Mild Curing

  saltery on Copper River
A saltery on Copper River.  BOF photo, 1914.

1914 - "Mild curing is a very desirable and popular way of handling the salmon and makes of it a most palatable food. The process consists of lightly salting the fish and keeping them at a low temperature until ready for the consumer or for smoking, as is often the method of treatment before they are finally marketed.

The mild-curing business has reached considerable propotions and the popularity of the product has extended over two continents. The industry is confined to the utilization of king salmon and, to a small extent, to cohos..."

From:  Jones, L. E. 1915. Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914, 155 p.  (.pdf, 17.45 MB).

Fish Cars

  fish car
Bureau of Fisheries fish car.  BOF photo, 1922.

Initially, fish fry were transported in railway baggage cars to the U.S. West Coast in 10-gallon ice-cooled milk cans that required frequently aeration. Government "messengers" rode along to care for the fry. The Fish Commission purchased its own baggage car in 1881 and renovated it into a dedicated fish car. The Bureau's fleet grew. "No. 4" was one of the heaviest railroad cars in the country, "No. 7" in 1916 was the first steel car and had 50 percent more capacity than it predecessors, and the Bureau's last car, "No. 10" (1929), was an immense 81 feet long with insulated compartments for the fry. Over time, improvements were also made to the design of the cans (e.g., pails with built-in spaces for ice) and aeration techniques. Trucks (and airplanes) replaced trains as a more efficient means of transporting fish and in 1947 the last fish car, "No. 10", was removed from service.  (more photos).

Shipping Live Crabs:  New way to ship live crabs to market is perfected by NMFS (1973-74)

About four tons of live Dungeness crabs were trucked to West Coast retail outlets over comparatively long distances recently in a unique system developed by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists. Heretofore only minor amounts of live Dungeness crabs have been airshipped to markets.

The new shipping method, successfully tested twice by NMFS laboratories at Seattle, Wash., may make possible the sale of new varieties of live shellfish to customers far from the site of the catch. The NMFS investigations were undertaken in response to the request of a commercial fishing company which supplied equipment and financing.

Experimentation involved the use of a 27-foot Fiberglas-lined trailer truck, equipped with a specially built system which circulates refrigerated water from a 400-gallon capacity reservoir fixed to vehicle's underside. The trailer accommodates 4,800 large crabs, each in its individual compartment, into and out of which chilled salt water flows continuously, and then is filtered and recirculated.

The water system was of particular significance to the survival of the crabs -- in earlier experiments, the scientists had ascertained that dehydration of the crabs' gills during shipping periods was a leading cause of mortality. Also important to the crabs' well-being were low temperatures (43°F.), high humidity (90+ percent), and as little handling as possible.

Losses -- considered acceptably low for such shipping methods -- amounted to four percent for the first shipment, five percent for the second. The surviving crabs (96 and 95 percent) were lively, healthy, undamaged when they reached their destinations. Seafood market proprietors to whom the live crabs were delivered reported favorable customer reaction to the new product.

From:  NOAA Week newsletter 5(5), January 25, 1974, p. 3.


  • Gamgee, J. 1879. On Artificial Refrigeration, p. 901-972. In Report of The Commissioner for 1877 (Part V). Wash. G.P.O. 981 p.  (.pdf, 6.57 MB)
  • Taylor, H. F. 1927. Refrigeration of Fish (Doc. 1016), p. 501-633. In Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1926. Wash. G.P.O. 633 p.  (.pdf, 10.48 MB).

Other Additional reading:

  • * Jarvis, N. D. 1988. Curing and Canning of Fishery Products: a History. Mar. Fish. Rev. 50(4):180-185.  (.pdf, 1.14 MB).
  • Barnett, H. J., F. E. Stone, G. C. Roberts, P. J. Hunter, R. W. Nelson, and J. Kwok. 1982. A Study in the Use of a High Concentration of CO2 in a Modified Atmosphere to Preserve Fresh Salmon. Mar. Fish. Rev. 44(3):7-11. (.pdf, 3.16 MB).

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