Shifting Tides: From Canned Fish to Caviar

Photo Courtesy of Svitlana Tereshchenko / Dreamstime #86996187

At one time, massive fish canneries dominated the West Coast. Built to exploit the then untapped resources of huge salmon runs on the West Coast’s rivers, canneries were a powerful force that shaped the history of the coast and employed thousands of fisherman and employees. Many factors caused a shifting tide in the industry from once-upon-a-time mass production to today’s boutique production environment. What has remained are select products that are in such demand that they are hard to keep on retail shelves.

Swimming Upstream
The first salmon cannery on the Columbia River opened for business in 1866 providing an affordable food source for the working class. Large canneries would ultimately provide fish year-round to the urban-dwelling middle class. Due to ample availability, modernized production processes and improved transportation through railroad lines, canned salmon could be found stacked on the shelves of every grocer and in the cabinets of every kitchen.

According the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, at the industry’s peak in the 1880s there were 39 canneries on the Columbia River alone and many more up the West Coast through Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. The demand for canned salmon peaked during World War I and remained stable for years.

Decades of overfishing, however, contributed to both a decline in availability and an increase in price. The last major cannery on the Columbia, the Bumble Bee facility in Astoria, closed in 1980.

Those tides have since turned. As interest resurges in both the restaurant industry and consumer markets, small production farms and micro-canneries are once again thriving as the public seeks out gourmet specialty items and sustainable and organic production. Today, a handful of salmon canneries remain, from Southeast Alaska (Ketchikan was once the salmon-canning capital of the world) to the Oregon Coast.

Recipes: Find easy, do-at-home recipes using canned salmon, albacore and more at

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