Jerry Lavarne did not use nets to catch sharks in Resurrection Bay, as the U.S. Fisheries Bureau suggested. He was clear about this in a feature article in the January 1920 issue of Pacific Fisherman: “At the present, line fishing method is the only one which presents itself as practicable for application and it is the one we will employ in our operations off the Pacific coast.” As an experienced halibut fisherman in Alaska he knew from experience. “I have not arrived at this conclusion without the consideration for all of the other forms of gear which might be available for the capture of sharks.”
Nets just didn’t work, and Lavarne was convinced that they were, “unfit for commercial use,” with sharks. “In fact,” he added, “I feel confident in saying that the difficulties confronting the use of a net large enough to capture leather-bearing sharks will bar it from ever becoming a factor in the shark fishing industry.” A net large enough to capture a 12-foot shark would be too heavy for the average fishing vessel to handle, he insisted and, “when loaded with sharks each weighing thousands of pounds it would be impossible to even raise the load out of the water.” These live and powerful sharks would thrash and fight within nets, but with line fishing, Lavarne noted, “it is possible to play the victim out.”
Two articles about his fishing method – from the June 1917 Alaska Railroad Record and from the July 28, 1917 Tampa Florida Times – spell out Lavarne’s methods. Lavarne used fifty-foot sets of half-inch Manila line with 2.5-inch shorter lines with five to six-inch hooks attached at intervals of six to twelve feet. He baited the hooks with salmon heads. He sometimes had a three-foot rope between the main line and the hook. “But a better way than that is to put a piece of chain about a foot long between the hook and the small rope,” he noted. Sometimes the shark swallowed the hook and the bait cutting the rope “and in the morning, instead of having a shark on the hook you have no shark and no hook.”
He attached one end of each longline to a heavy anchor descending anywhere from 100 to 400 feet. He attached the other line to a large buoy. “We use the buoy only when we are out into the ocean and away from the landmarks,” Lavarne explained, “as we would not know where our lines are set only by compass, which is difficult.” When he set the lines in bays ten or twelve miles wide, he had landmarks.
Lavarne left the lines out for several hours. “Then the little outboard motor boat comes chugging along and the line is gradually taken in.” Most of the sharks are dead by that time, and if not “they are dispatched by a blow on the head with an ax.”
The process usually went smoothly, but not always. One day Lavarne returned to a set after a few hours in his small boat and found three live and feisty sharks. Suddenly they all started to swim off in the same direction towing his little craft all over the bay and almost swamping it several times. He and his crew finally got near a beach, jumped out in shallow water, attached the line to shore, and let the sharks tire themselves out.
After they are caught, the sharks are brought to shore, and skinned on the beach – “every skin being carefully preserved in two pieces for treatment at the tannery.” He was able to extract up ten to forty gallons of oil from each shark liver. “The oil is valuable for a great many purposes,” Lavarne explained, “among them being the softening of leather, for lubrication in grinding and for general chemical purposes.” Much of what was sold as cod liver oil in those days was actually shark liver oil.
At the time Lavarne was expanding his business and working out of Resurrection Bay, the demand for shark products was substantial. He had no difficulty selling his hides. He told the press that the demand was so great that he needed to immediately expand his capacity to meet market expectations. Lavarne planned to build a large tannery along Resurrection Bay and purchase a wooden steamship as a tender that would transport his by-products to Seattle. He built a large plant at nearby Edmonds.
Lavarne named his unique process of tanning shark hide – or shagreen, the rough rawhide – as the Charadon method. “The secret in preparation of fish skins for the market,” he told the press, “lies not so much in the actual tanning of the leather as in the curing of it. In my early experiments…one of my greatest difficulties was to get away from the idea that fish skins could be cured by the method used in cow hide curing. Another difficulty which proved to be an early stumbling block in shark hide tanning was the question of supplying ingredients to the leather.”
After tanning and neutralizing, the hides were coated with paraffine and oil, tacked and dried. Then they were smooth plated and shaved on the grain side to remove the coarsest denticles – the small V-shaped, teeth-like scales that allow sharks to swim quickly and quietly by decreasing drag. For this he used a carborundum grinding wheel. The entire process varied depending whether the hide is meant for shoes or some other product.
Jerry Lavarne’s shark leather factory in Edmonds, Wash. was not only thriving, but it was open on Sundays to the public so they could watch production and buy goods. On Sept. 19, 1921, the Seattle Star wrote, “Lavarne has perfected a method of French marbling that produces an endless variety of beautiful color effects on soft-tanned shark leather. A vast array of articles made from sharkskin are on display in the Universal By-Products Co. offices. An exhibit is to be put on at the Eastern Washington Fair at Yakima next week.”
To be continued
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He is the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.