Left: Net Loft – photograph by Brian Wallace. Right: Inside the Net Loft – photograph by Brian Wallace.
Moving these heavy nets in and out of the water to pick out the gilled salmon was backbreaking work. The labor of plying these nets offshore halted over the weekend when fisherman would return to the cannery to dip their fragile nets in a copper oleate bluestone treatment to prevent rot. The fisherman would rest, refresh their clothing, restock their provisions, and repair their nets. The Net Gang would repair badly torn nets on large racks if the fisherman were unable to patch them before returning to sea. At the end of the season after the nets have been “blued,” all the nets and equipment would be returned to the net loft for winter storage. As motors replaced sails, nylon replaced linen, foam corks replaced wood ones, and independent fisherman replaced cannery fisherman.
The Art of Hanging Nets Film
Famed Naknek net hanger, Marcia Dale, reflects on the art of hanging Bristol Bay gillnets. Filmed by Jensen Hall Creative, edited by Sharon Thomspon of Steelbird Productions. Support for this film came from the Bristol Bay Borough and the Rasmuson Foundation.
Today, cannery net lofts are divided into “lockers” where each independent fisherman stores nets, equipment, provisions, and tools they own. Some fishermen continue to hang and repair their nets, but more often the work is outsourced to professional net hangers. The hydraulic power now used to haul nets filled with fish aboard modern aluminum fishing boats has significantly changed materials, maintenance, and demand for net hanging services. Outsourcing net hanging to specialized professionals is another result of the broad mechanization of the salmon industry.
The Boat Yard
The modern-day Net Locker is not necessarily in a cannery anymore. More often fishermen utilize lockers that are issued for a fee in massive boat storage yards. Professional net hangers often hang their shingle in cannery net lofts or stage their shops in the bustling new hubs of the industry—boat yards. Despite these dramatic changes, the net locker name remains the same for all the iterations of these open work areas. Modern locker spaces are used for work, storage, and networking. Their proximity makes them ideal spaces for making deals or finding work. Many greenhorns—new uninitiated fisherman—find their first job here by strolling through the yards.
Jack lights are floating devices attached to the end of a gillnet to mark the net so it can be clearly seen in the dark. They improve safety and prevent damage to nets or approaching vessels at night during the short but furious 24-7 Bristol Bay salmon fishing season.
Old Net w/ Wood Corks
Early gillnets in Bristol Bay were constructed with waxed cedar corks that were attached to bales of linen webbing with cotton lines and twine so that the top of the net floats on the surface of the water. Cast metal “leads” attached to the outside of cotton lines weighted the bottom of the net so the web of the net sinks and hangs like a curtain. Fish get caught by their gills when they attempt to swim through the mesh.
Oars were issued to sailboat fishermen along with other equipment supplied by the canneries for the fishing season. They were commonly called “Scandinavian Kickers” and were used to propel and orient the wooden “double-ender” sailboats while delivering large loads of salmon to the tally scows, or when there was no wind in the bay. They were also used as a ridge pole to support tents for sleeping, cooking and drying clothing, or in emergencies to stabilize the boats against the drastic tides in the shallow sandbars that are scattered throughout the bay.
Needle winders are mechanical rotary devices used to load lengths of twine onto shuttle style needles. They are used for making “hangings” that attach lines to bales of webbing, and for repairing broken or missing meshes in commercial fishing nets.
Two different stove types were used during the early sailboat days in Bristol Bay from 1894 to 1951. Each stove type was primarily used by specific nationalities of fishermen to cook food, dry clothing, and heat their onboard tents; gas primed stoves were known as “Swede Stoves” because they were favored by Scandinavian fishermen. Coal stoves were called “Dago Stoves” because they were favored by Italian fishermen. Coal stoves left black smoke stains on the white sails that identified the likely nationality of the fishermen from shore.
Net Hanging Bench
Net hanging benches increase productivity, improve consistency, and ease the laborious hours spent assembling commercial fishing nets. They typically host a cushion and simple jig fixtures that enable net hangers to support lines and control the spacing of twine used to connect the web to the lines.