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Norwegians in the Pacific Coast Fisheries
    by Sverre Arestad (Volume 30: Page 96)

FOR MORE than a century Norwegians have participated in many branches of the fishing industry from California to Alaska. Norwegians have been dory fishermen, harpooners on whaling vessels, cannery workers, salmon-trap constructors and attendants, crews on fishing vessels of all sizes, owners and superintendents of salmon canneries, managers and owners of shore stations, owners and builders of fishing boats, ship chandlers, owners and operators of factory processors, and prominent members of international fishery commissions. The gradual development of Norwegian participation will he traced in this essay from, so to speak, infancy to maturity, and some attempt will he made to moderate certain overstated claims about the importance of Norwegians in the founding and early years of the Pacific Coast fisheries.

This study will deal with cannery owners, station managers, superintendents, and boat owners, as well as those who performed the grueling physical work. The treatment of the fishermen themselves leans primarily [97] on published material, but some of it is based on personal experience.

In January, 1943, the author published in The Pacific Northwest Quarterly an article bearing the same title as this one, which covered the first sixty years of Norwegian activity. The article was based on extensive research and on numerous interviews with knowledgeable men in the industry. Most of it has been reproduced in the first part of this study, with several changes and a few additions. The changes include elimination of the footnotes, incorporation of several of the original footnotes into the text, and alteration of tenses where necessary. The original version, heavily documented, is readily available.

A few Norwegians were fishermen on the coast from California north to Washington, on Puget Sound, and in British Columbia as early as the 1860s. The first entrepreneur on Puget Sound was John Brygger, sometimes written Bryggot, who established a salmon saltery at Salmon Bay, six miles north of Olympia, Washington, in 1876. A few other Norwegians were also successful, but their activities were minor in relation to the whole salmon industry in the 1870s.

The salmon industry was established relatively early in the nineteenth century, with stations in California and Oregon, and somewhat later in Washington. It was not, however, until the introduction of the canning process that the salmon industry began to attain a dominant position in the fisheries of the Pacific Coast and Alaska. Americans and Canadians organized the fishing companies, built the canneries, acquired the valuable trap sites, and constructed the traps. While Norwegians were not among the early developers of the salmon fishery, several soon became important figures in the Alaska salmon industry. The most noteworthy of [98] these was Peter Thams Buschmann, who organized several canning concerns and built at least five canneries, and for whom Petersburg was named. Several of Buschmann's five sons, all of whom were born in Norway, were active in the salmon industry before 1900. Egil Buschmann, for example, was general superintendent of the Naknak Packing Corporation. In 1905, L. A. Pederson was manager of the Bristol Bay and Naknak packing companies, and in the same year Sofus Jensen was manager of the Altoona Packing Company. By 1918, Norwegians were even more evident. In that year a man named Hawkinson managed the Carlisle Packing Company, and Martin Lund and Chris Tjosevig were owners of the Eyak River Packing Company, both in the Prince William Sound area. Others of importance were O. C. Mehus, Hans D. Sorvik, Einar Beyer, and his nephew Haakon B. Friele.

Einar Beyer of Bergen, Norway, visited Seattle in 1906 and returned in 1914 to settle there. Haakon B. Friele was born February 3, 1897, in Bergen and completed a course in liberal education at Bergen Katedralskole in 1914. Two years later he received a certificate from the Bergen School of Commerce; he arrived in Seattle in December of the same year. Beyer was the principal organizer and first president of the Wise Packing Company. Friele worked for his uncle until 1918, when the company was sold, and continued to work for two successive owners until he went to Copenhagen in 1920 to open an office for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. In the fall of 1921, he returned to Seattle to organize the Nakat Packing Company for the grocery chain, and to serve as its president and general manager. Nakat had six canneries in Alaska with 800 employees, producing 250-300 thousand cases of salmon annually, which were sold through the chain's own stores. Friele was the corporation's buyer [99] for Seattle and the Northwest. He also served as director and vice president of the Association of Pacific Fisheries.

In addition to their activities as fishermen and entrepreneurs, Norwegians were rather early interested members and even officers of various associations of fishermen and of international fish commissions. August Buschmann, H. B. Friele, and Harald Synnestvedt were members of the Association of Pacific Fisheries and the latter two enjoyed the honor of being president of that association.

In the 1920s a Norwegian was operating one of the largest salmon mild-cure stations at Port Alexander on Baranof Island. He was Karl Hansen, from Bø in the Vesterålen Islands, an experienced fisherman but unfortunately prone to seasickness. Seeking relief from the ardors of the sea, Hansen landed at Port Alexander in Southeast Alaska in 1916. When he arrived the place had only one cabin, with a store offering bait, gear, coffee, and snuff, whose proprietor was Per Strømme, also from Bø, who had arrived shortly before.

By 1917 Karl Hansen had opened his mild-cure station. He already had a contact in Seattle, Jorgen Jacobsen, who marketed Hansen's product for lox among Jewish buyers in Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Hansen always competed successfully in that market, largely because he was a perfectionist and had workers who could meet his demands. Jacobsen died in the early 1920s, and afterward Hansen used the brokerage firm of Eriksen and Bye of Seattle as agents. Hansen developed his operation to include a permanent residence, a store, a processing station and warehouse, a dock, a water system, a two story office building, and living quarters and a dining hall for the workers. He also acquired two boats to transport the finished product -- iced down -- to shipping centers [100] such as Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Eventually Standard Oil erected a fuel storage tank and a gasoline tank at the station, which served Hansen's needs and those of fishermen far and wide. At the peak of Hansen's productivity -- in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- 1,000 to 1,200 trollers, with half as many boats, delivered fish to his station. The permanent population increased rapidly over the years.

Originally king salmon provided the product, but no king salmon under fifteen pounds was accepted for mild-cure -- the smaller ones were utilized in other ways. When the king salmon harvest dwindled, large silver salmon were successfully substituted. These, too, eventually ceased to be present in sufficient quantity to warrant continuing the operation. In its heyday, Hansen's station processed more than a million pounds of salmon in a season. The trollers were paid the grand sum of 50¢ for a fifteen pound or larger king salmon but only 25¢ for the smaller ones.

Norwegians have been more important as salmon fishermen than as entrepreneurs, although here, too, their importance has been overstated. A few Norwegians, to be sure, became fishermen in the seventies and even in the sixties, but their numbers were indeed small. An analysis of the figures by nationality for the year 1892 shows that Norwegians then composed but a small percentage of the fishermen in the region. In that year there were 3,458 fishermen in Washington, of whom 287 were Norwegians; in Oregon there were 2,822 fishermen, with only 261 Norwegians, while in California there were 173 Norwegian fishermen out of a total of 4,766. Figures for the nationality of the fishermen in Alaska in 1892 are not available, but the percentage of Norwegians would probably be considerably less than in the state of Washington. In British Columbia there were a few. This would mean that by 1892 [101] fishermen of Norwegian birth participated to the extent of 8.9 percent in the fisheries of Washington, 9.3 percent in Oregon, 3.65 percent in California, possibly 3 or 4 percent in Alaska, and scarcely at all in British Columbia. Except for California, the figures apply almost exclusively to salmon. Later, Norwegians became quite active in the Columbia River salmon fishery.

After 1892, the salmon industry on Puget Sound developed rapidly and, as time went on, the pattern in the industry changed in two striking particulars. The first of these was the evolution of the fish trap, which became the most important source of the canneries' supply of salmon. As a result of this change in the method of catching fish, two national groups came to be dominant as fishermen. At the turn of the century, most of the maritime nations of Europe were represented, but by 1930 the Slovenians had become the principal purse-seine fishermen, while the Norwegians led in trap fishing and won a considerable share of the purseseine fishing as well. After the traps ceased to be used, the purse seine came into its own again, and the Slovenians became the dominant salmon fishermen on Puget Sound, with Norwegians participating only to a minor extent.

In Alaska the evolution of salmon fishing was much the same as on the Sound. There, too, Norwegians became the most important trap fishermen, they participated to a large extent as gill netters and trollers, but they were only a small factor as purse seiners. It is estimated that 50 percent or more of the trap fishermen and 25 percent of the gill netters were Norwegian in the 1930s. John Dybdal of Bellingham, Washington, served one of the large salmon canneries there for many years as "outside" man, the company representative who oversees the operations at the fishing banks. In 1942 he estimated that at least 75 percent of the trap fishermen [102] on Puget Sound were of Norwegian extraction before the traps were closed in 1934. Of the 705 gill netters registered in 1939 with the Alaska Fishermen's Union in Seattle, 307 were born in Norway. The same proportion held for Portland, Oregon, but San Francisco had mostly Italians with only a few Norwegians. In 1939 there were 2,810 gill-net fishermen in the Bristol Bay area, of whom approximately 700 or 25 percent were of Norwegian extraction. Elsewhere in Alaska they participated to a very minor degree except in a few areas.

As cannery workers Norwegians have never been and are not now important, although some have been employed as machinists, blacksmiths, tallymen, and carpenters in the salmon canneries of Alaska. Available records do not permit an accurate classification of the cannery workers of that region as to nationality, but an estimate would place the Norwegian participation in the 1930s between 5 and 10 percent, with the smaller figure probably more nearly representing the truth.

A branch of the salmon industry in which Norwegians have been heavily engaged, in such areas as Alaska and the Washington coast, is trolling. This fishery is characterized by the fact that the boats and gear are owned and operated by the individual fishermen. Previous to 1905, trolling was done from hand powered canoes or row boats and Indians were the principal fishermen. As the mild-cure industry was developed and as the fresh fish markets increased, the demand arose for more king salmon and cohoes. These two species of salmon became more and more scarce within a reasonable distance from the markets, and eventually the salmon fleet of Puget Sound became a deep sea fleet with stations on the Washington coast and in Neah Bay. The trolling fleet, with headquarters in Seattle, was composed of 750 boats, employing 1,500 fishermen. From late spring until early autumn the trolling fleet caught an average of [103] some six million pounds of salmon annually. After the regular salmon fishing season was over, about 250 of the sturdier boats augmented their crew of two with a third man and went fishing for albacore tuna off the Washington and Oregon coasts. The average annual catch of tuna was about twelve million pounds. When the season was over, some 250 boats of the fleet fished for dogfish and soupfin shark, which were valued for their livers. This provided the fishermen with employment for the months during which they otherwise would have been idle or forced to seek other work.

From the time of World War I up to the mid-1930s, the salmon trollers often complained that they were not given fair consideration by the fresh fish buyers. Prices fluctuated according to the amount of fish on the market; the trollers were often dissatisfied with the grading and with the system of disposing of their fish at the fishing grounds. As a result of these grievances there emerged, in 1935, a Fishermen's Cooperative Association, with offices in the Bell Street Terminal, Seattle. This was an association of the boat owners, but since all boat owners also fished it was a form of fishermen's association as well. The primary purpose of this organization was to act as agent for the fishermen in their dealings with the fresh fish buyers. It maintained three stores, one at Westport, one at Neah Bay, and one at Seattle, which supplied the fishermen with ice, oil, food, and gear.

Arne Antonsen, who was manager of the Fishermen's Cooperative Association when it was founded in 1935, stated that the salmon trolling fishery on the Washington coast was developed principally by Norwegians and was for years dominated almost exclusively by them. He knew most of the fishermen and estimated that about 90 percent were of Norwegian extraction The figures for the number born in Norway dwindled with time, and many of the later salmon trollers were American-born [104] Norwegians. William Hecker was agent for the Alaska Fishermen's Union in Seattle in 1941 and knew hundreds of fishermen personally. He estimated that about 35 percent of the Alaska fishermen were of Norwegian extraction. 3,239 fishermen were then registered with the Seattle Union, of whom 762 were born in Norway and perhaps 350 were second generation Norwegian Americans. This is approximately 34 percent, very close to Hecker's estimate.

Norwegians have been particularly active in the Alaskan cod fishery, both as fishermen and as entrepreneurs. In the early years, cod fishing was carried on by large vessels sent out from San Francisco. Later, vessels were also sent to the fishing grounds from Seattle, Anacortes, and Poulsbo. Some time in the 1870s the first shore station was erected, and after that time, particularly after 1886, numerous shore stations were built. At first the fisherman attached to the shore stations fished from oar driven dories, but in the 1920s gasoline driven boats of from two to twelve horsepower came into general use. These boats were usually owned by the fishermen themselves, cod fishing being in that respect much like salmon trolling. Despite these developments, the larger vessels have always been more important to the industry, and have taken the bulk of the fish.

A large percentage of the fishermen at the Alaska stations have been Norwegians. They have also been skippers and owners of vessels, agents at shore stations for the large codfish companies, and founders of shore stations. In 1905, for example, King & Winge, Seattle shipbuilders, were the principal owners of the King & Winge Codfish Co. Winge was a Norwegian. Other Norwegians, like John Einmo and Lars Mikkelson, opened codfish stations in Alaska. Their countrymen also founded the Pacific Codfish Co., a home curing station, in Poulsbo, Washington, in 1911. [105]

Norway was once the principal whaling nation in the world, but Norwegians in America were never important in the development and growth of that industry here. Whaling was introduced to the Pacific Coast in 1855 with the erection of a kind of shore station by Portuguese fishermen in California. Because of their success, other stations were soon established and in a few years Pacific Coast whaling had risen to the dignity of a real industry. By 1899. there were thirtysix vessels in operation, employing 1,240 men. Of these men, fifty, or only about 4 percent, were Norwegians. In the same year the whaling fleet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, operating in the North Pacific with twentyone vessels carrying a total crew of 645 men, had but fourteen persons born in Norway -- less than one sailor per vessel. Later, however, Norwegians became more important as sailors and even gunners and skippers on these vessels. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Pacific Coast whaling industry had dwindled to practically nothing. After 1905, however, it was revived by thorough modernization and in this Norwegians played a larger part.

Norwegians came to the Pacific Coast in comparatively large numbers at about the same time that the herring and fish oil industries were being developed. So, although not the founders of these industries, they were important as their developers. The herring fishery was established in 1888, the same year that fishing for halibut began, but for a score of years herring was used principally as halibut bait. As late as 1910, only 180 men were employed. After fifteen more years of development, the herring fishery had reached its heyday, with fiftyfour salting plants and reduction plants for converting herring into meal and other products, which employed 1,839 persons. By 1935 the number of persons employed in the industry had been reduced by exactly 500, to 1,339. [106]

There are no records which reveal how many of the herring fishermen were Norwegians, although people in the industry are inclined to believe that the percentage was large. For a number of years the Alaska herring fleet was called "The Norwegian Navy," and the term was apparently justified. Edward Weber Allen wrote in North Pacific in 1936: "We were a little too early in the season to see what those who would follow in a month or so would find at the Ketchikan waterfront -- its pilings, docks and floats fairly alive with cannery tenders, purse-seine boats, tugs, and scows; and the brawny, tough, swearing, but withal good hearted, honest and self reliant salmon, herring, and halibut fishermen, mostly Norwegian." The records of the United Fishermen's Union of the Pacific at Seattle show that in the late 1930s the largest number of boats clearing through its office for herring fishing in Alaska were manned by Norwegian fishermen. Peter Thams Buschmann of Petersburg, Alaska, was the first to salt herring in commercial quantities. In 1898 only a few thousand barrels were packed and marketed among the Scandinavians in the Middle West. Other Norwegians followed Buschmann -- Storfold & Grondahl Packing Co., of Washington Bay, Baranof Island, and Einar Beyer, in Southeast Alaska, -- so that by 1918 100,000 barrels were being packed. Carl Overby and Chris L. Foss were also prominent entrepreneurs in this business.

The sardine industry, founded in 1904 and almost exclusively confined to California, attracted quite a number of Norwegian fishermen. In the late thirties, as many as sixtythree Norwegian owned boats engaged in the California fishery. After 1934 a small sardine industry operated on the Washington and Oregon coasts and the fishermen engaged in this industry were principally Norwegians. Norwegians were also involved in processing and marketing. [107]

Another of the fish industries on the Pacific Coast in which Norwegians were extremely active was the dog-fish and soupfin shark liver fishery. This industry, which increased in importance after the supply of liver oils from European and other areas was cut off as a result of World War I, was a boon to the seasonal fishermen. Most of the fishermen engaged in the liver oils industry were Norwegian-American halibut fishermen and salmon trollers. Some idea of the importance of the industry to the men who engaged in it can be judged from the following figures. By November 15, 1941, after a month's fishing, over a quarter million dollars worth of soupfin shark livers and over half a million dollars worth of dogfish livers had been unloaded in Seattle, a tremendous increase over 1940. The largest individual catch came in March, 1942, when the crew of the halibut schooner Tordenskjold, whose captain was the Norwegian-American Carl Serwold, landed $60,000 worth of soupfin shark livers from a two weeks' fishing trip. Each fisherman received a share amounting to $6,000 for that single trip.

Although not the founders of the halibut fishery, Norwegians became its principal developers in the second phase of the evolution of the industry. The uninterrupted development of this industry in the Pacific Northwest dates from 1888, when two vessels from Gloucester, Massachusetts, made catches of halibut on Flattery Bank and in the adjacent region. For several years thereafter, two methods of catching halibut were in use. At first eastern interests, with Pacific Coast headquarters located in Vancouver, British Columbia, took the greater part of the catch in North Pacific waters, using large vessels and steamers. Individual fishermen, however, used small halibut schooners of from five to ten register tons. The large vessels, the steamers, and the small schooners increased in numbers for a period [108] of years, with the large vessels catching the greatest share of the halibut. Small boats increased in importance, however, after the turn of the century, especially after 1905, the year which marks the change to small power driven schooners. By 1910 the power driven schooners, which were the property of the fishermen themselves, occupied the most important position in the halibut industry; by the early 1920s they enjoyed full control of the field. As the operations of larger vessels and steamers became unprofitable, the eastern financial interests withdrew from the industry, leaving it one whose capital investments, aside from receiving stations and wholesale departments, were owned by the fishermen themselves.

In this second phase of the industry, Norwegians began to participate actively as halibut fishermen. During the years of transition, they became increasingly important as fishermen and as boat owners, and by the 1920s they had become the dominant group. Concerning the position of Norwegians in the halibut industry in 1940, Harold Lokken, then manager of the Vessel Owners' Association of Seattle, wrote to the author: "At the present time, there are approximately four hundred American vessels engaged in fishing halibut in North Pacific waters. These vessels are manned by from three to eleven fishermen each, making a total in all of approximately three thousand fishermen engaged in catching halibut as a livelihood. . . At the present time over nine persons in every ten engaged in the [halibut] industry are Norwegians. This average will hardly be exceeded by any other industry in the country. Several years ago, the Norwegians in the industry, with a few exceptions, were all born in Norway, but today, due to immigration restrictions, to the inroads of old age among the old-timers in the industry, and to the lack of better opportunities in other industries [109] for the sons of yesterday's halibut fishermen, the pattern in the industry is being changed by the replacement of the Norwegian-born fishermen by youngsters born of Norwegian parents in this country."

Aside from their activities as fishermen and as entrepreneurs in the Pacific Coast fisheries, Norwegians have been engaged both as workers and as employers in allied industries: as chandlers, boat builders, and inventors of fishing gear and canning machinery. They have been marine architects, fish brokers, and financial backers of fishermen who acquire their own boats and gear. They have been actively interested in all legislation that has affected the fishing industry, and they have aided the work of the halibut and sockeye commissions. They have held important positions in both employers' and workers' organizations, such as the Association of Pacific Fisheries, the halibut vessel owners' associations of Seattle and Ketchikan, the various fishermen's co-operatives, and the trade unions of the fisherman and the cannery workers. Such activities show Norwegians' interest in the fisheries aside from their work as entrepreneurs and fishermen. It might be added that after the entry of the United States into World War II, the Alaska fishermen, particularly, were in a position to render important service to the Navy and the Coast Guard, by assisting in patrol and rescue work.

During the past forty years notable changes have occurred in the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest which have dramatically affected Norwegian participation in them, with the result that their activity is now confined to three or four branches of the trade, unlike the first sixty years when they were pursuing a dozen avenues. Norwegians no longer engage in the tuna fishery off the California coast nor do they fish for soupfin shark and dogfish on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Dogfish [110] is now commercially harvested, filleted, and shipped to England and West Germany for fish and chips. Whaling, of course, is no longer pursued. At one time, the craft fishing for herring were largely Norwegian, but this activity has virtually ceased. Salmon trolling on the Washington coast has been somewhat reduced, although Norwegians, aided by a marketing association, still constitute the major element in this fishery. Some school teachers on vacation and others who are seasonally unemployed fish during the summer if they can finance a modest operation. Norwegian trollers are still quite active in Alaska, but not nearly to the extent that they were in the 1920s and 1930s. Some Norwegians still fish for albacore tuna off the coast of Oregon and Washington, and Norwegians are still leaders in the yet flourishing cod fishery of Alaska.

Norwegians, as stated earlier, were the principal constructors and tenders of fishing traps in Alaska and on Puget Sound in the 1920s and early 1930s. Traps were the main source of fish for the canneries. Since traps were outlawed on Puget Sound in 1934 and in Alaska in the 1940s, these jobs have disappeared. When the traps were outlawed, the principal source of salmon for the canneries became the purse-seine. Always active as purse-seiners, the Yugoslavs often referred to in the literature as Slovenians, though in Anacortes, Washington, they prefer to be called Croatians) became the principal commercial salmon fishermen. This situation changed drastically when the now famous Boldt decision of 1975 allotted half of the salmon catch in Puget Sound to the native Indians. Having fewer boats, the Indians are allowed to fish uninterruptedly, while other fishermen are drastically restricted.

Although few Norwegians are directly affected by this decision, it has been mentioned to show general trends in the fisheries. As a result of the Boldt decision, [111] hundreds of fishing boats are now for sale, and many owners have gone bankrupt. Many more face a doubtful future because there are now far too many boats for the decreasing supply of salmon on the Oregon and Washington coasts and in Puget Sound; Alaska, however, is still productive, particularly Bristol Bay.

Fewer Norwegians than formerly are cannery superintendents, machinists, and carpenters in Alaska, and there are fewer Norwegian entrepreneurs in all these industries. They have, however, retained their relative Share as ship chandlers and boat architects.

Two fisheries still attract numerous Norwegians: halibut, for decades a virtual Norwegian monopoly in Alaska based on boat ownership; and the kingcrab fishery. A more recent development is the entry of Norwegians into the catcher processor business. These three areas will now be examined.

Norwegian participation in the halibut fishery has changed in two essentials: those who now man the boats and own them are usually sons, grandsons, or sons-in-law of the original Norwegian immigrants; and the equipment now is more sophisticated and much more expensive. Looked at in the proper perspective, the earlier generation of halibut fishermen may prove to have been relatively as prosperous as the current ones. Several halibut fishermen built schooners valued at $40,000 in the early 1940s. But despite the drastic devaluation of the dollar in the past forty years, halibut boats built now for $800,000 are obviously more sophisticated and more expensive than those of four decades ago. While Norwegians are still very active in halibut fishing, they are no longer dominant as they were forty years ago. This is particularly true of Alaska based boats.

The kingcrab fishery is a different story. From rather modest beginnings several decades ago, the kingcrab [112] industry has risen to a multi-million dollar enterprise. In 1976, the United States established a 200 mile coastal limit and a three mile management zone. This greatly enhanced the kingcrab fishery for American fishermen, because it prevented the Japanese, Russian, and other fleets from exploiting or disrupting the breeding grounds of the king crab and taking unlimited quantities of fish on the high seas. It has had a similar effect on the halibut, cod, and salmon fisheries off the Alaska coast, principally in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

In 1980 there were 200 boats in the kingcrab fishery with a total allotment of 185,000,000 ponds. The 1981 season had an augmented fleet of 225 boats but the kingcrab population had declined and the allotted catch was reduced by more than one half. In 1982, the allotment was reduced still further. Many of the kingcrab fishermen who have been riding high on the accelerating crest are finding the immediate future crucial, as 1983 has shown. Poaching, always present to some extent, is also likely to increase.

In the kingcrab fishery Norwegians have been the innovators in methods. In a letter of November 12, 1981, Harold Lokken states that while Norwegians do not own most of the boats, although they skipper more than they own, they have produced the most technical advances. These have then been exploited by others. So, while some Norwegians are doing exceptionally well as boat owners and fishermen, they are in the minority. A few of the more successful ones will be considered here, beginning with Oddbjørn Nordheim, Peter Njardvik, and Einar Pedersen.

Captain Nordheim came from Hallingdal in Norway in the late 1950s, and Njardvik arrived from Iceland as an adult. They engaged in crab fishing. With their shares of the catch, running into tens of thousands of [113] dollars over the years, they formed a partnership and built their own boat. In 1980, Nordheim's daughter Birgit christened the third vessel in their growing fleet, a 122 x 32 x 16 foot super boat, a crabber-trawler.

Nordheim and Njardvik have made their mark in the kingcrab fishery; the Norwegian-born Einar Pedersen has also been important. His father, Reinhold, had come to Seattle in the middle 1920s and immediately found a job as a halibut fisherman. Soon he was able to bring his family over. In 1928, Einar arrived in Ballard with his mother, four brothers, and a sister. No sooner had he landed than Einar went to work as a doryman on the halibut schooner Aleutian. This was exhausting, grueling work, but in that first season, from March to late fall, he earned $800, good money in those days. Soon Pedersen bought a half interest in the halibut boat Oceanus and skippered it to the halibut banks off Alaska. An enterprising man could rise rapidly in the trade; in 1940 Pedersen built the sixty foot Susan and fished for many kinds of fish from the Bering Sea to Mexico. In 1958, Pedersen entered the kingcrab fishery off Kodiak Island with the Susan, a kind of shoestring venture, it seems, but he succeeded.

In 1958, fishermen got 9¢ a pound for king crab, which gradually increased over the years so that now the price is $2.00 a pound or more. As a result of excellent management of resources and higher prices for kingcrab, Pedersen was able to build the $1,500,000 Mark I, with a 42.3 percent subsidy from the Federal Fishing Fleet Improvement Act. His son Mark, for whom the boat was named, still skippers it out of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Pedersen sold the Susan in 1965, and she is still fishing halibut off Kodiak. By 1979 Pedersen, in addition to Mark I, owned or had an interest in five crab boats, from 94 feet to 110 feet in length. These are for the most part skippered and manned by Norwegians. [114]

But Pedersen, although retired from active duty, was not through yet. In 1978 he, his son Mark, Stan Hovik, and Martin Stone discovered a mothballed AOG-I Navy gasoline tanker in Honolulu and paid about $400,000 for it. After being towed to Seattle, it was to have been converted into a processing ship at a cost of $7 or $8 million. Pedersen had intended to follow his fleet for crab, herring, salmon, and bottom fish from Alaska to Mexico. He predicted that his vessel would be processing quantities of abundant bottom fish all along the Pacific Coast, catching some species which are edible although they have not been marketed before. Unfortunately, lack of capital for remodeling has prevented his processor vessel from leaving Seattle.

The Norwegians who participated in the fisheries after 1940 were those who had risen from the ranks in the late 1920s and 1930s. They were replaced by a younger generation, who are now in their late fifties and early sixties. Several of these men were born in Norway, others, American born, are sons, sons-in-laws, grandsons, or more distant relatives of the older generation. Later, a select few from among this group will be considered individually.

Until fairly recently Norwegian fishermen on the Pacific Coast were either owners of their own boats or crew members for other individual owners. The halibut vessel owners would load their schooners at the fishing banks and transport them to receiving stations in Alaska, British Columbia, or Seattle, and then return for another catch. Over the past two decades, however, this pattern has changed. Before the establishment of the 200 mile limit, several foreign nations, notably Japan and Russia, brought their processor vessels into Alaskan waters and along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Russian vessels, particularly, have harvested tens [115] of thousands of tons of hake (now called Pacific whiting) off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Fishing interests in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and other Washington coastal communities, Norwegians among them, have considered establishing shore plants for Pacific whiting, but nothing has come of it because the fish are caught 150 or 200 miles offshore and they deteriorate very rapidly. They have to be processed almost immediately after being caught in order to retain their prime quality. This the Russians and others have been doing. Since the 200 mile limit was established, American boats are now catching this fish and selling it to the Russian processors and others.

It was noted earlier that Einar Pedersen had intended to enter the fish processing business, which he described as "the wave of the future," but that he failed to accomplish his goal. Several Norwegians, however, are riding this wave, which may be characterized as the last phase of their hundred year participation in the fisheries of Puget Sound, the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts, and Alaska. The most notable example of Norwegian activity in the fish processing field is Trans Pacific Industries, whose subsidiary is Trans Pacific Seafoods, with head offices in Seattle. According to Michael Nordby, an officer of the firm, there are two Norwegian partners, John Sjong and Konrad Uri. Sjong is president, Uri vice president. Uri was born in America of Norwegian parents, but the family returned to Norway for a few years after World War II. Sjong, who was born in Sykkylven, where the Uri family came from originally, recalls that his introduction to Uri was by a swift kick in the pants. The boys were playing soccer. Both later migrated to Seattle, where they have made their homes since. They are now in their late fifties.

Konrad Uri's father was a dragger and halibut fisherman. The son worked on his father's boat when it [116] operated off the Washington coast. Sjong and Uri became joint owners of a kingcrab boat in 1971. They soon formed Trans Pacific Industries and it has had a phenomenal growth, with the result that it is, at present, an enterprise with assets of over $20 million. The company may be characterized as a catcher-processor operation, with five boats performing varied operations. The largest boat in the fleet is the Arctic Trawler, the only American factory trawler in Pacific waters and the largest fishing vessel in the United States, measuring 296 feet in length. It was built in 1961 by the United States government and remodeled by Trans Pacific at a cost of $3 million. This vessel harvests bottom fish in the Bering Sea carrying a crew of forty. The fish are cleaned and filleted immediately and packed and frozen in fifteen pound cartons'. By the end of September, 1981, the Arctic Trawler had brought to Seattle, in four trips, 4.65 million pounds of Pacific true cod fillets. The trips lasted 98, 117, 86, and 98 days, with over a million pounds being processed on each trip. A fifth trip was completed before Christmas with equal results. These fish are sold by Trans Pacific to American markets.

The next two boats in size, which catch, cook, and freeze in sixtyfive pound boxes both king and Tanner crabs, are the Pavlof and the Pengwin. Michael Nordby explained that the latter boat was named with a Norwegian and an English component: Peng, money in Norwegian, and win. And in fact it and its companions live up to the Pengwin's name. The fourth boat, the Isafjord, catches crab, which are processed aboard either the Pavlof or the Pengwin. The fifth boat is the small container ship Trans Pack, which carries eighteen refrigerated containers. With this fleet, Trans Pacific Seafoods grosses over $15 million annually. Although, as indicated elsewhere, numerous fishermen are experiencing difficult times, the people at Trans Pacific seem optimistic. [117]

It is impossible to name all the Norwegians who are engaged in various branches of the industry at present, but a representative few will be mentioned. These men are all from Seattle. Bernie Hansen is partowner with Kåre Ness and Rudy Pedersen of the Pat San Marie, a dragger which operates successfully out of Westport, Washington. They drag for rockfish, ling cod, Pacific cod, perch, and other fish. They deliver their catch to Westport, and the general view is that they operate one of the best draggers on the coast. Their boat is often commissioned to make resource assessments of fish all along the coast for the state of Washington, Alaska, and the United States government. Three other Norwegians now active are: Ken Pedersen, owner of two crab boats, one of which is Americanus No. 1, and Severin Hjelle and Reidar Tyness, who have operated two crab boats, but have now expanded significantly. In late December, 1983, these two men together with John Boggs, Alf Sorvik, Rich Hastings, and Eric Breivik, accepted delivery of a 201 foot trawler-processor, Northern Glacier. It was designed by the Norwegian-American firm of Jensen's Maritime Consultants in Seattle and cost $11,000,000. The Norwegian firms of A/S Atlantic and A/S Longvatrål are also partners in the venture. The firm has also acquired a warehouse in Seattle, the Glacier Fish Company, where the frozen cod will be stored. Northern Glacier carries a crew of forty and can take on board 40,000 cubic feet of cleaned and frozen cod in fifteen pound cartons. The boat will fish for cod in the Bering Sea and is expected to return with its first load in January, 1984. According to Hjelle, cod is in good supply, and the owners express the same optimism that Michael Nordby did about the 296 foot Arctic Trawler, owned by Trans Pacific Industries in Seattle.

This section has emphasized the American catcher-processor to give credence to the idea that enterprising Norwegians do not have to remain dependent on [118] foreign processors. It should be emphasized that Norwegians do still participate extensively in halibut and cod fishing and salmon trolling and crab fishing in Alaska and elsewhere. So there are many successful men who have not been named in this short review. It may be of interest that various Norwegian bankers and doctors are now financial backers of some fishing ventures. The former banker, Asbjørn Nordheim, for example, is an owner of crab boats.

The preceding section ends on a somewhat sanguine note as far as many Norwegian fishermen are concerned. Since they are part of the larger picture, however, one must look briefly at the prospects for commercial fishing as a whole. The situation in all branches of the industry from California to Alaska may be said to be in a state of flux. The salmon population on the Oregon and Washington coasts and in Puget Sound falls far short of the demands of the overextended commercial fleet, not to mention the increasing number of sport fishermen. The Boldt decision in 1975, which allotted one half of the salmon catch in Puget Sound to the native Indians, dealt a severe blow to the other gill netters and purse seiners there.

Despite a bonanza salmon run in the Bering Sea in 1982, the overpopulation of fishermen and the depressed prices, particularly for humpback salmon, called humpies, kept it from being a good year. The depressed prices were due in large part to the botulism scare: One man in Belgium died from eating a defective can of salmon from a cannery in Ketchikan and the and Drug Administration was forced to recall fifty million cans of salmon. This left a glut in the warehouses and caused the closing of several canneries in Alaska --- at least for 1982. Also the salmon fishermen in the Bering Sea sat on the beach for two weeks in a dispute with [119] the cannery owners, with the result that millions of sockeye escaped, and the price of humpies fell from 37¢ a pound to 29¢. In Southeast Alaska humpies sold for 20¢ and many fishermen did not even bother to market them. The drastic reduction in the kingcrab population has already been noted. During the past several years, cod and halibut are about holding their own, as is true also of such bottom fish as ocean perch, ling cod, snapper, and sole. And there seems to be an endless supply of Pacific whiting off the Oregon and Washington coasts and of pollock in Alaska.

Though not as dominant as they once were in the cod, halibut, kingcrab, and salmon-trolling fisheries, the Norwegians are still active in all these branches. Now, however, the situation is quite different from what it was in 1940, when the only possible direction was up. As Michael Nordby so succinctly put it recently: "It is not as it once was. Licenses are going up, gear is going up, gas, wages, interest, and cost of equipment are all going up. The prospects for many of the thousands of fishermen -- including Norwegians -- are dismal, if not nonexistent."

As indicated above, however, there is some feeling of optimism, especially among the successful. The enterprising will survive: by inventing and building better equipment; by entering the processing field; by encouraging bankers and doctors to invest in enterprises, as some have already done; and by cooperation with the several foreign countries which have an allotted quota of fish in American waters. Obviously, the 200 mile limit has aided American fishermen and entrepreneurs immensely.

The author's own experience with fishing in the Pacific Northwest goes back a long way. Seventy years ago our family caught fall salmon near our farm on Snus Hill, [120] twelve miles northwest of Bellingham, Washington, and we children pursued the fish half a mile through the woods along the big creek which emptied into Birch Bay. There we watched them spawn in a clear sand- and gravel-bottomed pool, thereby adding knowledge to our previous observation of the breeding habits of animals and fowl. As teenagers we learned about the relative costs of food, including salmon. The Indians fed humpies to their dogs and the early settlers found them a poor substitute for the superior species: sockeye, king, and silver. The story goes that it was not until an enterprising pre-Madison Avenue chap got the bright idea of putting this label on cans of humpie -- "Guaranteed not to turn red in the can" -- that the Scandinavians in the Middle West began buying them. Now they are one of the most widely distributed kinds of salmon, both here and in Europe.

During World War I our father hired a team of horses for $2.50 and a gravel box and we drove to Lummi Island and bought approximately a cubic yard of humpies for $1.25, probably about a cent per fish. We salted most of them and the rest we shared with our neighbors.

Many teenagers in our community had been in Alaska and soon our turn came. We hired out with the Fidalgo Island Packing Company, with headquarters in Anacortes, Washington, whose owner and president was "Old Sutter," a taciturn man who was constantly out where the action was, invariably sitting in his dark undertaker clothes and whittling away at a stick. He had disposed of his extensive holdings on Puget Sound in the early 1920s and had moved the company operations to Pillar Bay, Southeast Alaska.

My oldest brother Trygve, in his early twenties, myself, nineteen, my brother George who was seventeen, and a neighbor, Walter Oiness, who was my age, made up the capping crew. Our responsibility would be to lay [121] the initial logs that are placed on top of the vertical pilings in constructing the fish traps. Trygve was to be "skipper" of our boat the Wanderer, a former purse seiner which bounced like a cork on any sea. He did not skipper the Wanderer independently but followed the Mutual, an eighty foot diesel cannery tender, with William (Bill) Cackley as skipper. Cackley had run the tender aground once with slight damage, but he was retained because he was known as the best skipper on the Inside Passage. The Mutual was towing a scow of creosote pilings for a herring reduction plant at Pillar Bay. From Anacortes we had a marvelous cruise through the placid waters of northern Puget Sound, the American and Canadian San Juans, and finally the Inside Passage, which was like a trip through a Norwegian fjord. The only drawback was the cook, "High Pants," about five and half feet tall, whose hand-me-down trousers came just under his armpits. He was an abominable cook.

One evening toward dark we arrived at Swanson's Bay, just south of Queen Charlotte Sound. The tide was full and the lights from the dock cast a mellow pastel glow over the scene. During the night the wind came up and small-craft warnings were issued the next day for the Sound. But Bill and Barleycorn had been quite intimate in the skipper's cabin, so he ordered a departure at 4 p.m., with almost disastrous results. We set out bravely, following the lights of the Mutual, but soon the crew, including "High Pants," passed out, though Trygve remained at his post. Unfortunately, about midnight he got disoriented and forsook the swaying topmost light on the Mutual for the permanent glow of a lighthouse. We were rescued in the nick of time and when we entered calm waters again we realized what a near call it had been. We never encountered such adverse conditions again.

At Pillar Bay, we settled into roughhewn but [122] comfortable quarters, with all the amenities and
an abundance of excellent food. We made up the wire for the lead, the hearts, and the two pots for the fish trap. Then we moved onto the pile driver, where we had dismal facilities and High Pants as cook. He had been relegated to cook's helper at the cannery mess hall. Twelve men were quartered on the pile driver. The foreman and the engineer had quarters off the engine room and the cook slept somewhere in the galley, but the rest of us were quartered in between, where there were two three tier bunks on one side and two two tier bunks on the other, with the dining table in the middle. This was tolerable because both ends of the driver could be opened, so a few minutes of fresh air cleared the atmosphere. Our toilet facilities were the open sea, and a shallow, warm stream along shore was our bathtub. When adverse weather confined us to the driver, about all we would do was to play cards.

After trap no. 4 had been constructed, some of us moved to a spacious area just off the beach, which had ample accommodations. Here we had the most marvelous cook of all, a Swede. Our tasks were routine and undemanding, requiring at most ten or twelve hours a week to keep the trap clear of kelp and seaweed and assist with taking the salmon out of the trap. Time hung heavy on the hands of the nonreaders, and I experienced vicariously something of the hopelessness of the young men who realized that they would be following this line of work all their lives. Boredom is difficult to live with when there is no apparent relief in sight. The only bright spot was that their work was limited to the summer months.

When one thinks now of the once seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish in the world's waters and realizes that in many areas this population has been sharply reduced, even to the point of marginal survival, one [123] begins to wonder whether the fishermen of the world may not have been as shortsighted as the lumber barons once were. An experience in Alaska illustrates this.

All members of the company's boat and trap crews were allowed to take fortyeight cans of salmon and a ten gallon keg of the salted fish home. About the fourth of July we had an exceptional run of salmon in trap No. 4. Our cannery could not handle them all, and boats came from Baranof Island to load the excess, but there were still a couple of thousand fish left in the spiller, which seemed lifeless because of the pressure on them. Old Sutter simply said: "Dump them overboard." Shortly after this it was my turn to salt my salmon. My Norwegian fellow crewmen insisted that the belly of the fish was the only suitable part to preserve, and they proceeded accordingly. The cannery did not process king salmon, although many were eaten there. One day a couple of dozen kings appeared in the trap, which I kept. Having filled my keg with the bellies, I consigned the carcasses, with most of the fish left on, to the waves. I can still see them floating out to sea, as I contemplate how many hours of fishing it now takes to catch even one of these thirty pounders.

I was in Pillar Bay again in 1928, but that summer I was stationed on a new trap, No. 1. Three of us trap tenders -- I a cook -- lived in a 10 x 12 foot shack on top of the trap, with no room on shore. Monotonous, that is no name for it. The only break came one evening at dusk when a swarthy man in a small boat tied up to the trap. He produced a bottle of moonshine, and offered us $5.00 apiece for a certain number of fish. We innocents accepted. On the way home, one of my companions was horrified to read in the ship's newsletter that two of his friends had been arrested for selling fish.

In 1929, I was a trap tender on Salmon Banks, San Juan Island, which turned out to be the easiest job I [124] have ever had, with ample time to read, flirt with the cook, and explore the island. Later in the summer I worked briefly in a cannery at Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. This was confining, mindless work in a smelly building, quite unlike the outside jobs I had always had. But there was one memorable man, a fish pitcher, short and sturdy, who wore the same shirt for a week -- until the traditional Saturday night bath -- with accumulated dried fish blood and scales on it. He informed us that his wife had tried to get him to remove the shirt, at least at night, but with no result, so she had to seek repose elsewhere.

In 1943 I was cook on the fish buyer Sonja, which ran out of Anacortes to Neah Bay and throughout the San Juan Islands to collect fish from the seiners -- mostly Croatians -- of the Fishermen's Packing Corporation. Our skipper was Scotty Lewis, a native of Guemes Island. He was typical of many in the industry. Telling of the summer he was in Ketchikan and his crew consisted of nothing but Indians and Norwegians, he commented: "I was the only white man on board." When I reminded him that I was Norwegian, he replied: "But you're different, Professor." So it was!

Norwegians operated as individual fishermen, using hook and line or the baited skein, working from oar driven boats, almost from the moment they arrived from Norway. When the fisheries on the Pacific Coast were in their infancy, a century and a quarter ago, a fisherman's job was brutal. This was especially true in the coastal waters off Vancouver Island, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Sea. The crew of a harpoon dory often encountered hazards when they left the security of the whaling vessel. Parent vessels fishing for cod launched a dozen or more one man boats over a wide area before returning to their designated anchorage. The fishermen had to [125] string out their baited skeins and wait several hours before hauling in the catch. Then the task of rowing back again began. In rough seas this was always difficult and at times hazardous. The waves were not the worst obstacle, however; the impenetrable fog, which could settle during the fisherman's wait for his haul, could sometimes be fatal when he could not find the parent vessel. These conditions had to be tolerated, in part because of the method of capture used and also because there were as yet no bargaining associations for the fisherman. Einar Pedersen stated that as late as 1938 he found the work of a halibut doryman as tedious as that of the cod fishermen decades earlier, although the risks were less. The doryman is now gone, but even on the larger and more sophisticated vessels the work still requires stamina.

Sometimes shoddy workmanship can cause disaster. A year or two ago, two modest sized fishing boats, built in a New Orleans yard, sank off the Oregon coast. Recently a large Canadian factory-processor, on entering Queen Charlotte Sound, encountered mountainous waves and had its superstructure, along with the crew, washed overboard. The men survived a twentyfour hour ordeal on a life raft. Oddly enough, the processor's motor kept running with the result that the boat was brought safely to port with its 600,000 pounds of frozen cod fillets. The young skipper, when questioned if he would go out on the boat again, replied: "What else is there to do?" In the fall of 1983, during the kingcrab season in the Bering Sea, two boats built in Anacortes, Washington, as well as one built in Tacoma, sank on their first trip without a trace: boat, crew, and gear. Human error may have been a contributing cause. Deep sea fishing is never risk free.

It might be recalled, however, that the Norwegian immigrant fishermen in the North Pacific were veterans [126] of equally forbidding fishing conditions, where the life toll was heavy even well into this century. Johan Bojer gives a vivid description of this in Den siste viking (The Last of the Vikings), published in 1918. Remember too that the successful entrepreneur Karl Hansen was driven from the Vesterålen Islands by the fury of the North Atlantic to the relative calm of Port Alexander, Southeast Alaska. Whatever the fishermen in the North Pacific had to endure was in no way comparable to the atrocities committed against crews on the early sailing vessels. Kenneth O. Bjork in West of the Great Divide gives a graphic example of several Scandinavian sailors, among them two Norwegians, who were either beaten to death on the spot or died from their injuries as late as 1872.

Rumblings of discontent were already evident in the mid-1920s. Some men in our crew found fault where none was called for, complaining about the food, and about having to sweep out their quarters. The latter would have required five minutes a day. One chap took the matter up with the superintendent and got the following valid response: "You've got brooms, but if you want to live like pigs, that's your business!" The same fellow became obsessed with the idea that the boat crew had canned strawberries, raspberries, and loganberries, which the trap tenders did not have. Not being too familiar with English, he dictated his complaint to me, laboriously copied it, and sent it off to the superintendent. It was the most abusive and vulgar message imaginable, but on the next boat he got his fruit. These were minor grievances, but they relieved frustration.

The only incident which could have been disastrous occurred when we were unloading material off a freighter for the herring plant and a loaded sling swerved toward the dock. We rushed out of the way and the sling crashed onto the dock. The foreman was [127] furious: "Why didn't you prevent it?" We protested: "And be killed?" His response was: "Forget about the men, save the material." During the summer, however, he learned that matters were changing with respect to the workers' concern for their own safety, and he eventually agreed with our position. These incipient protests of the 1920s gradually resulted in better working conditions.

At times one wonders whether changes, supposedly for the better, always produce the desired results. In the early 1930s longshoremen won the right not to lift anything over fifty pounds -- in general, a notable victory. But during World War II we unloaded fortyeight pound eases of canned salmon. With the weight of the ease itself, they came to just under fifty pounds each. But if one stood in the hot hold of a freighter, lifting case after case for eight hours, he knew he had had a workout. Overbargaining by union members can in some instances be counterproductive, as illustrated in the Bering Sea salmon fishery in 1982, but workers will continue to bargain to try to secure what they hold to be their rights.

Few men could endure the rigors of the sea as do the men who fish the Pacific from Alaska to Chile or the Atlantic from Norway to Argentina. Lives are still lost occasionally on all oceans despite growing safety precautions. Television clips show fishing vessels out of Boston or those in the Bering Sea coming to port ice laden. Arne Olson, a neighbor for some years, was a cook on crab boats in Alaska. He tells of times when there were sixty mile winds and twenty foot waves. The boat not only rolled but pitched, creating a heaving and twisting effect which made it necessary to secure cooking pots to the range with metal bars and the diners' dishes to the table in similar fashion. These conditions [128] are not abnormal. Winds can attain 160 miles per hour and produce sixty foot waves. Who would choose this kind of occupation? A lot of men do because, like those on oil rigs, fishing boat crews have made very good money.

In Pillar Bay, Alaska, from April 13 to August 27, 1928, I made $432.50, plus passage and my keep. My brother thinks I was overpaid because in the depression year 1932 he earned $231.00 for the same work. Today, fishermen who are regularly employed do exceptionally well, especially the crabbers. In a season some may earn between $40,000 and $80,000. One would think they could retire after a few years. Most men husband their earnings, but some novices squander their money on loose living. Others make reckless investments. Rob Betts, an estate planner with a Seattle law firm, conducts investment seminars. He tells of a young Norwegian crabber who returned with $60,000 for the season and invested all of it as a down payment on an expensive house in the Ballard section of Seattle. Out of cash and seasonally unemployed, he lost heavily because he could not meet his monthly payments.

So the substantial wages won by enduring the ardors of hell may slip through fingers unused to wealth. This situation fortunately is not universal; some men have prospered, but even for them circumstances grow more uncertain.

The testimony of a neighbor just returned from the Bering Sea after a short sockeye season will help to bring the story up to date. He said there were not nearly as many fish this year (1984) as last, but still enough for profitable fishing. Conditions from Southeast Alaska all the way to Oregon were again disappointing. The diminished salmon population is no doubt partly the result of overfishing, but may also be attributed to El Nino, the recurrent heating of the equatorial Pacific [129] Ocean which had unusually severe and widespread effects in 1982. King crab in Alaska has also been further reduced and more and more boats have been forced to withdraw, causing numerous bankruptcies.

Studies of Norwegian activity in all areas of the Pacific Northwest will no doubt be published in the coming decades. In the meantime, someone will write a definitive account of the fisheries, which will, I hope, corroborate some of the observations contained here and draw broader conclusions. There is a wealth of fascinating material awaiting the enterprising inquirer.

 

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