The Kodiak Maritime Museum has long worked to tell the tales of the fishing industry on the island of Kodiak, and with a new series of aluminum panels depicting Kodiak locals who worked and fished the island since the start of the Kodiak crab fishery, it goes the extra mile to enshrine the stories of fishingfolk with a visual representation.
More than a decade ago, the “When Crab was King” exhibition combined a series of vignette audio stories with a matching series of portrait photos of the storytellers themselves. The photos are now on display all over cannery row, looming large and bright over a street once defined by the king crab fishery.
The stories themselves are remarkable; tales of heroism and vice, innovation and immense fortune- and no small amount of loss. For Toby Sullivan, executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum, it’s a history shared in the very places that these stories took place.
“We decided to somehow put these outside where people can see them because again, we don’t have exhibit space of our own. And we came up with the idea of a permanent exhibit that would be on exterior walls around the downtown area. That way, people could see them as they drove to work or drove around town,” Sullivan said. “And those pictures would be part of the urban environment of Kodiak. And there was a QR code which we’re in the process of printing right now, which will go on each portrait and that QR code can be scanned with a camera on your cell phone, and it’ll bring you to the website where the oral histories are.”
The Kodiak King crab fishery began in the 1950s and lasted until 1982. During its time many young people from around the world flocked to Kodiak, attracted by the lucrative but dangerous life of a crab fisherman. Bars could fill in the early morning and still be full when they closed in the wee hours.
“Some were fishermen, there were bartenders, we had area biologists for King Crab- Guy Powell- and there were housewives and all kinds of people who were here during those days, and all of their experiences were what it was like to live in Kodiak,” Sullivan said. “Some of the stories are– they’re just out and out sea stories; people getting washed overboard, boats sinking. Some of them are kind of technical. It’s like, ‘how did they come up with the design of a crab pot? And how did that work?’ Some of them are about what it was like to work in a bar in Kodiak in those days, when it was, in some ways, kind of a wild west town.”
Kodiak is a different place today, but the legacy of the crab fishery lingers on– in the boats in the harbor, on calloused hands, in the memories of the generation that lived it, and in the aspirations of a new generation of fishermen.