Local News

Talk like a (fish) pirate

Crews brail fish from a trap in 1946. Photo courtesy Tongass Historical Museum

Wednesday, Sept. 19, is the 10th anniversary of a silly holiday. Talk Like a Pirate Day started as a joke between two friends, but in 2002, syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry turned it into a national, and eventually an international, phenomenon.

With that anniversary in mind, KRBD took a look at piracy around Alaska’s southernmost city:

Ketchikan has a legacy of piracy, but not the walk-the-plank, skull-and-crossbones version that usually springs to mind. Old-time pirates here quietly paddled up to fish traps in the middle of the night, scooped up as much scaly booty as their boats could hold, and resold it the next morning, often to the trap’s owners.

Local historian Dave Kiffer said there were a lot of fish pirates back in the day.

“I’ve tried to figure out … who the first fish pirate in Ketchikan was. We probably have no idea,” he said. “I’m sure that at some point in prehistory, a group of Natives made one of those high-tide fish traps, where you build up the rocks and the fish get trapped. And someone else came along and took the fish. That was probably the first fish pirate.”

Kiffer said fish piracy became a true phenomenon in Southeast after J.R. Heckman invented the floating fish trap in 1909. Fish traps, which became illegal following statehood, were large wooden structures that sat near the mouths of salmon streams and trapped the fish as they headed upstream to spawn. Some commercial fishermen took advantage of the easy access.

“I don’t want to say that fishermen are lazy, because as a person whose grandfather, great-grandfather and father were all fishermen, fishermen are not lazy,” Kiffer said. “That said. I will admit that even people in my own family, I will not name any names, in the past, found that rather than going out and catching their own fish, sometimes it was easier to re-catch some fish that someone else had already caught.”

Yes, you read that right. Kiffer, Ketchikan’s borough mayor, just admitted that his not-too-distant ancestors were fish pirates. He said he’s not alone.

“Just about every fishing family in Ketchikan at one point or another had people in there

A 1918 ad offers a reward for information about fish pirates. Image courtesy Tongass Historical Museum.

who would think, ‘Well. You have this fish trap. It’s full of fish,’” he said.

The underpaid trap watchers were easily bribed – or locked into their watch sheds. And fishermen didn’t feel too guilty about stealing from the efficient traps, which they believed would wipe out the fisheries.

“It was no skin off their nose to steal from traps,” Kiffer said. “The best part there was that you would steal from the trap and then sell it to the canner, which was the trap owner. So you’re basically stealing it from them, and selling it back to them. It’s a win-win situation.”

While pirates elsewhere were feared, despised and avoided by the general public, fish pirates in Ketchikan were pretty much accepted.

OK. Enough with the history. Now on to the important question: With the 10th anniversary of Talk Like a Pirate Day looming, how did Ketchikan’s fish pirates talk?

“Well, in all my years of growing up fishing, I never heard anyone say ‘argh’ or ‘avast’ or any of that stuff,” Kiffer said. “Actually, if they talked like fishermen talked, they used a lot of words that we can’t use on the radio. I’d love to be able to give you natural fish pirate lingo, but I suspect it would be: Bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep.”

Considering the ethnic heritage of many Southeast fishing families, along with intermittent bleeps, some fish pirates may well have had Norwegian accents. Partly inspired by that, Ketchikan has a history of theatrical pirate hijinks.

The community’s long-running original musical melodrama, “The Fish Pirate’s Daughter,” first was performed in 1966. It features a fish pirate of Norwegian ancestry, and Dave Porter, who doesn’t actually have a Norwegian accent, has played that role annually for many years.

“The paper said 10 years I’ve done J.P. Svenson,” Porter said in his well-known over-the-top imitation of a Norwegian fisherman. “And I don’t have to learn any more lines. I’ve got the same lines over and over and over. That’s good for me.”

Kiffer said that although the fish traps are long gone, some forms of fish piracy remains. Fishing in closed waters, for example, or fishing over the established limit.

“As to the fish pirates that we imagine in the humorous kind of way that the Fish Pirate’s Daughter shows them, that certainly is gone on that scale,” he said. “But there’s still piracy on the high seas.”

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