Fishing

KINGPINS: Fisheries old-timers, front left, Al Burch and Bix Bonney, and Jim Major, standing, reminisce about the ‘golden years’ of fishing.

KODIAK — Back in the day, Al Burch, Jim Major and Bix Bonney were household names in Kodiak. Al and his brother, Oral, ran the big boats, Dusk and Dawn, and later operated a draggers association. Jim and Bix were cannery operators. Giants of a bygone era.

In recent history, these three fishery king-pins got together in the home of Al and Barbara Burch to reminisce about the “golden years” of fishing. 

Each of these guys has a legacy of his own, but at some points their histories converged – often in the shrimp fishery.

Shrimp was big in the 1960s. It eventually brought the three men to Kodiak. 

Al and Oral Burch got into the shrimp fishing in Seward after selling their airplanes and buying a boat. Their first was the Marigold, originally a yacht built in 1898 for novelist Rex Beach. 

While in Seward, the Burches invested in a new type of net: nylon which was replacing cotton. “Everybody thought we were crazy,” said Al.

But Jim Major, manager of Seward’s Eastpoint processing plant, which took the Burches’ shrimp, didn’t think they were crazy.

Jim appreciated any improvement in fishing equipment or gear.

Jim grew up in South Bend, Washington, picking oysters.

He ended up working for Erling Bendickson who invested in processing projects in Ouzinkie, Seward, Kodiak and Bristol Bay.

In 1962 Jim and his wife, Sharon, moved from Seward to Kodiak where Bendickson opened an Eastpoint plant in the Alaska Ice and Cold Storage building. The operation was moved to another location before Bendickson bought land from the Halls on the Near Island channel and built a large structure in the early 1970s. Jim managed the plant until it was sold in 1995.

One of Jim’s fellow processors was Bix Bonney, who started his career as a chemist. He was the first environmental engineer at a pulp mill in Everett, Wash. Later he worked at pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka. 

In 1962 Bix came to Kodiak to manage Alaska Ice and Storage.

Partnering with a Japanese company, Bix formed B and B Fisheries.

Bix also attempted to start an international company in Ecuador, but the plan fizzled. 

Al was grateful to Bix for providing finance for him to buy the boat, the Dawn, but the two had their disagreements.

Al recalls delivering shrimp to the B and B cannery with the Dawn, tying up at the dock. “Bix had his office on the top corner of the cannery,” recalled Al. “He would stick his head out of the window, swear at us and tell us to get out of town. ‘You can’t make any money in town,’ he would say.”

Inserted Bix, “I enjoyed doing that.”

Continued Al, “Bix would do that to us quite often. Finally one day, we were getting ready to leave, getting groceries on board and Bix slides his window open … hollering at us… and I was waiting for him.” 

Al picked up his black muzzle loader that he had loaded with black powder and stuffed full of toilet paper, and shot it in the air. “There was confetti and black powder smoke all over,” he laughed.

“Scared the crap out of me,” said Bix.

The three kingpins meeting at the Burches pointed out marked changes in the fisheries and also talked about personal changes.

Al got off the boats in 1977 and managed the trawler association. He served on various state, national and international fisheries boards. 

He and fellow fishermen and processors started the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, which is now owned by Bix’s daughter-in-law, Julie Bonney. 

Bix left the fisheries altogether. He started a high class employment company in Anchorage and later had a guiding business on the Kenai River. 

He has lived in various parts of the country with family members. Now he resides in Kodiak.

Jim continued working after Eastpoint sold its facility in 1995. He was a purchasing agent for APS, the plant that Bix’s son, Tuck, was employed with for many years. 

The men noted how bureaucracy has made the fishing business more complicated and time-consuming.

“Through just a handshake we bought the (Marigold) without having even seen it,” said Al. “When we sold the Dawn and Dusk, we had to go through 38 pages of paperwork.”

“There’s been a lot of change since we started,” said Jim. “There’s so much regulation out there.”

Recalling what he told a young fishermen several years ago, Al said, “You have to remember that without fish, you don’t have a fisheries.”

The men agreed that fishermen, processors and their crews need to work together for the good of the fisheries.

In the 70s, the fishermen were butting heads with the canneries, noted Al. “There wasn’t much coordination between them. Over the years we developed a relationship of international, scientific concerns.” 

Al said that canneries and fishing associations need to work together. 

Al recommended that men and women in the fisheries join an association so they can have a voice.

Al’s advice was a symbolic “handing of the torch” to the younger generation. 

Al, Jim and Bix have done their part – and they’ve done it well.

“One of these days,” said Bix, “there won’t be any of us old-timers.”

“That’s what’s good about this interview,” said Al. “It’s on record now.” 

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