After lunch on 24th June, the “Sea Lion” relocated further north up Chatham Straight to Sitkoh Bay which is a narrow inlet on the southern end of Chichagof Island and directly across the Straight from Angoon.
The story of this bay provides an insight into the consequences of the way resources are harvested and why it’s so important to understand and respect relationships in the environment. This is a story that wasn’t told to us on board the ship, but it probably should have, could have, been. It’s a story I’ve had to piece together from my own research.
This 8 km (5 mile) long bay is fed by the Sitkoh River which, in turn, is fed by a mountain lake. And that’s just the type of environment Sockeye salmon require in order to spawn. But this type of stream is comparatively rare in South East Alaska and, when man changes and spoils this pristine environment, so the numbers of Sockeye decrease markedly.
The first humans known to come to this bay were groups of native Tlingits who made their summer camps along the edges of the bay. Tlingits had lived in South East Alaska for 10,000 years before the first white men arrived. They were subsistence harvesters of fish and they understood the importance of not over fishing and also the need to keep the environment clean for the fish to spawn. They fished according to their need.
Each year, the Tlingits harvested some of the Sockeye as they moved upstream. At that time, the fish were full of fat; good food but difficult to smoke for later consumption. These were eaten immediately. Fish caught after spawning, the ones that would die naturally anyway, were less fatty and able to be smoked for later use in winter. There was a healthy balance between man and resource.
The first pressure placed on the numbers of Sockeye in the bay came after the Russians took the land around Sitka by force in 1804. Many Tlingits fled over the hills from Sitka to live in the Chatham Straight area. More people put pressure on the bay in summer and fights broke out between the different groups. But there were still sufficient Sockeye salmon for all.
This balance in nature changed dramatically in the years after the Chatham fish processing plant was built in 1900. It was set up to take advantage of the rich resources of Sockeye in this bay. When the Tlingits expressed their views on the way the fish were being over-harvested, they were silenced by armed US guards. The price for good red Sockeye was high in the market and the Cannery made of the most of Sitkoh’s summer spawning runs.
While some Tlingits were employed by the cannery, at a very low rate of pay, the owners of the cannery continually refused to listen to them about the need to take fewer fish. As a result, by 1920, the numbers of Sockeye had begun to diminish markedly. Eventually, the cannery closed in 1974 but not until the Sockeye had been almost totally fished out.
The third pressure that beset the Sockeye salmon was forest logging around the mountain lake that fed their spawning stream. Logging took place in this pristine valley between 1969 and 1974 and, according to research reports, silt had a big effect on muddying the stream and on changing the water temperature. Since logging ceased, efforts have been made to clean up the water ways and the Sockeye are recovering in number. Fortunately, nowadays more is known about the interdependence of life in the wilderness and changes are being made.
There’s not much left of the Chatham Cannery site and its village. When in use by the Cannery, the inhabitants were segregated into three areas; White owners, Asians and Tlingits. It’s still used by Tlingit peoples for summer harvest of salmon.
Much of the once bustling village is now derelict!
No-one uses this jetty anymore. It stands as a mute reminder of the days of the cannery and the consequences of not understanding the needs of a natural resource.
Jennie and David
* A good report and commentary on the story of Sockeye in Sitkoh can be found on:
‘Use of Sockeye Salmon in Sitkoh, Alaska’
Technical Report Number 174
T F Thornton, R F Schroeder and R G Bosworth
All photographs copyright © JT and DY of jtdytravels
If you enjoy these armchair travels, please pass our site onto others
more of our travel stories and photos can be found on
More of our travel photos are on