Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:35 PM on Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recalling 40-plus years of fishing

For the Homer News


Photo provided

Bob Moss, who recently was named to the Alaska Seafood Industry Hall of Fame, is pictured here on the deck of the Sundog, his son Chris' boat.

Bob Moss might have had a career digging holes.

Instead, he went fishing and spent his life filling holds.

The long-time Homer fisherman was honored earlier this month when the United Fishermen of Alaska named him to the Alaska Seafood Industry Hall of Fame.

Feeling "very humbled" by the recognition, he thanked his fellow fishermen for developing the industry, and urged them to continue participating at meetings of the Board of Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and in their fishing communities. Those efforts are critical to success, he said.

"There's one thing I really believe in," he said. Fishermen must continue devoting "a proportional amount of time when not fishing on fishing business."

In an interview at his home last week, the 89-year-old Moss reminisced about his long career harvesting Alaska's bounty. Still hearty, willingly conversant and exhibiting a healthy sense of humor, Moss said his has been a good life.

Following a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard during which he saw action in the South Pacific, Moss left Connecticut for Alaska in 1947. With him was his older brother Joel, who had done some minerals surveying on the Aleutian chain for the U.S. government.

The two had plans to become miners. That first summer they landed surveying jobs on a portion of the new Sterling Highway.

"We started there at where that brook is a little south of Soldotna and laid the road out all the way down to Ninil-chik," Moss said.

The air was often dense with smoke from a Skilak Lake fire, known as the 1947 Kenai Burn. No one seemed certain how extensive the fire was. Moss said the crew "kind of dragged its feet" knowing their Cat might be needed should the wind shift and people need to cross the Kasilof River to escape. They finally did cross when their cook, "a Russian lady," refused to continue in the foul air and threatened to quit, Moss said.

At summer's end, the brothers set off for a homestead site at Peterson Bay in a dory purchased in Kasilof and powered by a small outboard shipped from Anchorage. They started accumulating the wherewithal necessary to become miners, never suspecting they'd soon abandon their dreams of striking it rich unearthing ore for successful careers harvesting seafood.

Bob returned to Connecticut in 1948 and married his sweetheart, Carol Vath, a high school teacher. Joel, meanwhile, married Flora Banks in 1950. Banks had a homestead on Skyline Drive with her brother Paul Banks, for whom Homer's East End elementary school is named. Recognized in 1998 for their contributions to Alaska's fishing industry, Bob and Joel said the support of their wives was key to their success.

In 1949, the young men patented their homestead. They acquired a small sawmill, built a dock and stockpiled lumber with which to construct a small cannery. One day while hunting seal on the bay, a seaplane approached. The passengers likely represented some form of territorial authority, and Moss said he and his brother tried to remember "how many bones were lying around."

It turned out to be a territorial forester who proceeded to tell them they'd need a permit and to pay a fee for stumpage if they planned on doing any cutting. Meantime, the two were standing atop a fait accompli ... a pile of freshly cut lumber. Moss said the pilot stood off to one side staring out to sea, studiously avoiding having to look at the wood.

"I thought that was really funny," Moss said.

Still eyeing a life of mining, they needed a boat and a livelihood to make ends meet until they were ready. Fishing was available employment, so they set about learning how. A local sale provided the Nell, a 37-foot sailboat with a 16-horsepower Atlas Imperial motor.

"It was a make-and-break engine. Didn't even have spark plugs," Moss said. "It had sails and all. We used that for a year or more."

The two fished in Cook Inlet drifting for salmon, and later shrimp, making monthly trading trips to Seldovia, the center of activity for Kachemak Bay at the time. Those winter voyages meant paying very careful attention to tides and weather. More than once the underpowered engine succumbed to the current, and though they could see into Seldovia Bay they couldn't make it in, forcing them to turn and head back home.


Photo provided

Two crew members empty a completed trawl of 23,000 pounds of shrimp — the best set Bob Moss ever had in more than four decades of fishing — on the deck of the Carol Mary in August of 1980. While the debate remains over why the shrimp in Kachemak Bay disappeared, Moss said the cause was more likely environmental changes than overfishing.

The Mosses built shrimp pots and tried their hands at pot shrimping, cooking the crustaceans in their small cannery and storing them in the hold of the Nell where the weather kept them frozen until they could be delivered to Homer for shipping elsewhere. They soon gave up pot shrimping, however, for trawl shrimping to feed Seldovia's processing market.

It wasn't long before fishing looked to be the more viable future, and they gave up all ideas of becoming miners.

From 1949 to 1962, the Mosses started raising their respective families as they fished salmon, halibut, shrimp and crab in Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. They also found time to build more than 10 boats, which they either operated or sold to local fishermen.

By around 1970, Bob and Joel had formed separate fishing businesses. Joel died in April 2001.

Bob Moss' fishing career spanned more than four decades until he retired in 1988. His success was due, he said, not only to acquired fishing skills, but to business acumen.

"There is a lot more to fishing than just catching fish," Moss said. "You spend a lot of time lining things up and making sure things are going to work out — which is your way."

One of those things was protecting one's market. Competition was stiff during the late 70s and early 80s, Moss said. The peelers at the cannery in Homer could handle only so much shrimp per day, Kodiak-based shrimpers often took some of the bay's local (management) quota, and, in an effort to hold down price demands from fishermen, the local cannery purchased its own vessel.

"You couldn't run over to them and say, 'We're not going fishing today unless you pay us ten cents more.' They didn't care because they'd send their boat out."

As it turned out, Moss said, the cannery crew couldn't handle the boat very well. So in the late 70s, Bob bought the Carol Mary and had it cut in half and extended 15 feet to expand the deck so they could harvest and hold more shrimp. The Carol Mary once hauled aboard 23,000 pounds in one set, the best set in all his years of fishing, Moss said.

Those days are long gone. The shrimp have disappeared. Debate about why continues, though Moss said it wasn't due to overfishing, but more likely environmental changes. Other species tend to fill such voids, he said.

"To me, there are no blank places in the ocean. If something moves out, something else will move in," he said.

A strong advocate for conservative stock management, Moss was appointed to the Alaska Board of Fisheries and Game, serving from 1962 to 1968, including two years as its chair. From the mid-1960s and into the early 1970s, he was a member of the advisory panel to the U.S. delegation on the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission, the precursor of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.

During that same period, he served on the Board of Directors of National Bank of Alaska, and between 1974 and 1985, he was a public member of the Alaska Judicial Council.

Bob and Carol Moss raised two sons, Robert and Chris, both of whom run Homer fishing businesses. Carol passed away in March 2010. Joel died in April 2001.

These days, Moss enjoys a quiet life, spending time tying flies for sport fishers at his home on East Hill and spinning tales from fond memories of a fisherman's life. As for mining, he has no regrets.