Fishermen on the Channel Islands lived in camps along the islands’ coasts in the late 1800s and early 1900s as an extensive fishing industry developed. As the demand for fish increased, so too did the industry. Fishermen rented space on island shorelines or squatted as trespassers, living in makeshift shacks. They were often subsidized by businesses such as the Larco Fish Company or the Castagnola Brothers who made frequent pick-ups of lobsters, crabs and fish from the various camps. World War II brought with it the end of the island fish camps, and the U.S. government used all of the islands for Coastal Surveillance Stations. Although the fishing industry resumed after the war, the fish camps did not. Today, place names such as Dick’s Harbor (Santa Cruz Island) and China Camp (Santa Rosa Island) commemorate some of these early fishermen.
Santa Catalina Island had dozens of resident fishermen who served as big fish guides.
Northern Channel Islands fishermen include:
- Peter Cruz ~ killed at Blue Banks, Santa Cruz Island in 1916
- Scotty Cunningham
- Hjalmar Englund
- Charles Erickson
- Christian Gunderson ~ killed at Blue Banks, Santa Cruz Island in 1916
- Charlie Gunderson
- Sam Haggares [Gherini 1966]
- Frank ‘Wild Man’ Hansen
- Ben Journey
- Raymond "Frenchy" LaDreau
- Shorty Larsen
- Linscows ~ 1909 Johnson Canyon, Santa Cruz Island
- Clarence Libbey
- Albert Newton
- Isaac Newton
- George Nidever
- Frank Nidever ~ died in 1923 in Eagle shipwreck near Scorpion
- Jake Nidever
- “Kangaroo Fred” Peterson ~ died at his shack at China Harbor in 1939 [Caire 1993:142]
- Danny Pico ~ seal catcher for Capt. McGuire 1938
- Dutch Schultz ~ drowned near Blue Banks in 1933
- Big Jerry Shively ~ died in 1923 in Eagle shipwreck near Scorpion
- Axel ‘Big Swede’ Swanson ~ drowned [Gherini 1966/Caire 1993:142]
- Wes Thompson ~ fell off bluff at Pelican Bay and was killed in 1916
- Arturo Valdez
Southern Channel Islands fishermen include:
- Ernest Erenberg ~ San Clemente Island resident fisherman.
- “Tuna George” Farnsworth
- “Russian John” Kirshfelt ~ San Clemente Island resident fisherman.
- Charles Peterson ~ died on San Nicolas Island in 1910.
- “Mexican Joe” Presiado ~ Santa Catalina Island
- Al Shade ~ Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands
» Stuster, Jack. The fishermen, proud hunters of the sea in Santa Barbara Magazine (34-47) Winter 1977-1978
Karasik, Gary. Uni: The golden harvest in Santa Barbara Magazine 8: 2 (16-23) April/May 1982
Lowenkopf, Anne. Lobster catch, mavericks of the sea in Santa Barbara Magazine 10: 5 (14-18, 31-32) September/October 1984
In the News~
June 12, 1883 [SBDP]: “...While cruising about the west coast of San Miguel Island, Larco discovered two reefs of rocks off the shore which are the resort of millions of red and dark blue cod of extraordinary large size. He says he could take enough of these delicate fish from these two reefs to supply all of San Francisco.”
January 26, 1902: “The gasoline schooner Santa Cruz sailed last evening for Santa Cruz Island with 2000 feet of lumber for the fish cannery company stationed on the island.”
In 1906, Margaret Eaton reported:
- “There were 18 of them living there [at Forney’s] in the large hay barn that belonged to the owners of [Santa Cruz] island. There were George Nidever and his brother Jake, Clarence Libbey, Wes Thompson, Big Jerry [Shively], Little Danny, Kangaroo Joe, Hard Working Tom, Big Swede [Axel Swanson], Arturo, Cooney...” She continued: “When Ira returned [to Santa. Barbara] after Christmas , he said that a good time was had by all [in the barn at Forney’s.] The men had captured two wild hogs and fattened them for Christmas dinner. Ira, Clarence Libbey, Big Jerry and Hard Working Tom had gone over to Santa Rosa Island and shot 35 wild geese, and brought back Frank Pepper, the superintendent, to be a guest of the fishermen for 3 days.” [Eaton 1980: 30].
The fishermen knew each other and were united in their hatred of competitive foreign fishermen such as the Portuguese and “Slavonians.” Clifford McElrath stated:
- “The Yugoslav and Italian fishermen were a tough lawless crowd, and they were about as tough a bunch physically as I ever met. In some ways you had to admire them. The local fishermen out of Santa Barbara hated them” On Santa Cruz Island, camps were often located at Yellow Banks, Blue Bank, Coches Prietos, Willows, Morse Point, Gull Island, Dick’s Cove, Chinese Harbor, Potato Harbor, Scorpion, San Pedro Point and various others.
August 18, 1908 Fred Caire “expressed satisfaction with the action of the legislature in prohibiting the catching of crawfish or abalone for two years,” and stated “there will be no fishing parties on the island this year, in consequence.”
In 1925, the Caire estate brought suit against seven individuals alleged to have moved into fish camps at Yellow Banks, Blue Bank and Willows without permission. Pier Gherini wrote :
- “In those days, there was an unwritten law that each camp had its own lobster grounds. For example, Charley Gunderson would fish from Chinese Harbor to Cavern Point; from Cavern Point to approximately halfway between Scorpion and San Pedro, and so on around the island. These men used wooden lath traps built by them in the off season. These traps were weighted with rocks. They covered their fishing grounds in 14 to 16-foot skiffs, and in almost all cases used oars as power. Charley Gunderson was one of the first to use an outboard motor. All of these men lived in an informal type of servitude to the fish company. They always managed to spend their season’s earnings and go in debt. As a result, they needed advances for the next season’s gear and equipment. Payment of these advances would be made out of their catches. Usually a large boat owned by the company would make the round of the camps once every week or ten days, and pick up the catch of each camp. The week or ten days figure was always qualified by the term, ‘weather permitting.’”