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The Dynamic and Volatile World of Commercial Fishing

December 17, 2015

It is said that George Moskovita bought, repaired, traded, and sank more boats than most fishermen would work on in a lifetime. Moskovita spent his adult life out on the Pacific Ocean. When he first started fishing at the age of 16, he thought to himself, “Boy, this is not for me!” but he couldn’t have been more wrong. “But of course it was for me!” he later said. There is nothing like being out on the open ocean, surrendering yourself to the dangers of the waves and witnessing the beauty around you.

 

Captivated by Moskovita’s stories and unique perspective on maritime life, Carmel Finley, a historian of science and researcher of fisheries and fisheries science at OSU, approached us about publishing Moskovita’s memoir. She wrote the introduction to Living Off the Pacific Ocean Floor, and today she joins us to share her enthusiasm for Moskovita’s extraordinary stories.

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I fell in love with George Moskovita on p. 37. I had been attracted earlier, on the first page, by the horrendous story of the sinking of the Treo on the Peacock Spit during a dark December storm in 1940. I loved that his family had loved this man so much they had collected his stories and photographs, publishing his memoir in 2000. But I really fell for George on p. 37, as he wrote about getting $14.40 a pound for his shark livers. “I almost fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I said I would be right down. I couldn’t get there fast enough.”

 

I was laughing out loud. It was so easy to imagine I was hearing George himself tell the story. And that’s when I knew that Oregon State University Press should republish George’s stories.

 

Most of the literature about the development of fishing emerges out of the Atlantic, where fishing developed over centuries. There were highly developed native fisheries for centuries, but when industrialization arrived, fisheries developed very rapidly, especially after 1930. New technologies, such as refrigeration and nets designed to avoid catching small fish, spread quickly throughout the fishing world. George’s stories detail just how that technology spread and how fishermen used new gear to catch new species of fish.

 

Trawling—pulling nets in the water to catch fish—was slow to come to the Pacific Northwest. There were attempts going back to the 1880s, but either the boats sank or the companies went bankrupt—and the fish had to be transported to San Francisco for processing.1 

 

That changed in 1940, when four Puget Sound boats moved to Astoria and started the trawl fishery. At 26, George Moskovita already had a decade of experience fishing in Puget Sound and Alaska. He arrived with a camera and a cranky old purse seiner called the Treo, and started landing dogfish that he sold to a fish plant owned by a mink rancher. The Treo promptly sank off Peacock Spit, almost costing George and his crewmen their lives.

 

George Moskovita lived in the dynamic and volatile world of commercial fishing between the 1930s to the 1970s.  He bought, sold, sank, and traded boats, and he made deals on all kinds of other things. He was quick to see an opportunity where he could make money. Over his lifetime, he caught salmon and sardines, sharks during World War II and pink shrimp in the 1950s. When he retired from ocean fishing, he and his wife, June, fished a gillnet boat out of Bellingham, where he had been born.

 

“He called me the best engineer,” George wrote. “I told him I was just a curious person. I like to see how things work.” George combined that curiosity with resourcefulness, great personal bravery, a willing to trust his intuition—and to trust his boats (sometimes a little too much). Along with his sense of humor, it all made for wonderful stories.

 

It is easy to romanticize the world of fishing; especially stories are accompanied by pictures of beautiful boats. The story George tells has little romance; fishing is hard, dangerous work. Other fishermen are jealous of their fishing secrets. Crewmen sometimes wind up a trip with less than they started. It was hard to make enough money to cover basic expenses, let alone pay the bills. If the boat wasn’t fishing, it wasn’t making any money.

 

I’m delighted that OSU Press has decided to share George’s story by re-publishing his memoir. And I’m sure I will not be the only reader to chuckle at George’s wry, funny, account of making a living off the ocean floor.

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1 George Yost Harry Jr., “Analysis and History of the Oregon Otter Trawl Fishery, 1884–1961,” Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington School of Fisheries, 1956. http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/handle/1957/16899, downloaded March 1, 2013.

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