Alaska Marine Highway – Caught in the Salmon War

Melissa Cook's family on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, the MalaspinaCook Family on the Malaspina Deck

Inside Passage, Alaska 1997 – A sockeye salmon followed the scent back to its Fraser River breeding grounds, still 500 miles away near Vancouver, BC. In its path, an Alaska fisherman’s net hung ready as the unsuspecting fish became entangled, hoisted to the fresh air above, and dropped into an icy tank. With tons of salmon in the haul, the Alaskan vessel made its way to a cannery in Prince Rupert, BC, only to be turned away.

At the same time, the Alaska state ferry, the Malaspina, loaded 88 vehicles and 135 passengers from the Prince Rupert terminal. One hundred Canadian fishing vessels tied their boats together to block the ferry and prevent its departure. They burned an American flag and ignored a court order to cease the blockade. Some called it the “Salmon War” – a battle over a $300-million industry.

Elgin & Melissa Cook on the Alaska ferry, the Malaspina
Elgin & Melissa Cook on Malaspina

Protesting Alaska Fishermen’s Catch

The Canadian fishermen blocked the ferry to draw attention to their protest and complaint. They claimed U.S. fleets had taken five million salmon above their entitlement or three to four times their share of the catch under the Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985. However, the American fishermen believed the Canadians were harvesting too many fish.

Three days later, at 10 p.m. on July 23, 1997, the Malaspina sailed away and did not return to the port until the following year. The Alaska Marine Highway canceled all ferry service to Prince Rupert until the Aurora arrived on December 4, 1997. The two countries signed a new salmon treaty in 1999, but it continued to have issues with wording.

The cancelation of Alaska ferries impacted tourism in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Prince George, and all the communities along the Yellowhead Highway and beyond. The disruption cost Canada millions of dollars as thousands of travelers scrambled to find alternative routes to and from Alaska.

Dave Kiffer wrote a comprehensive article about the Salmon War of 1997 for Sit News entitled, “Alaska/Canada Salmon ‘War’ Was 10 Years Ago.”

Now for the rest of the Alaskan story.

Spending time in Wyoming with family, we were unaware of the fishermen’s dispute. Moving from Nelson Lagoon to Craig, Alaska, we planned to travel on the Malaspina from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan. I received a call from the Alaska Marine Highway the day before our departure explaining a change to our reservation. Instead of driving through Canada as expected, we departed from Bellingham, Washington.

Everett Cook on Malaspina deck 1997 moving to Alaska
Everett Cook on Malaspina deck 1997

We arrived in Bellingham in early August 1997 and waited three hours in line to board the Malaspina for our first ferry ride to Alaska. Our entire family couldn’t wait to explore the large ship. Upon boarding, we noticed and read a framed newspaper article on the wall about the fishermen’s blockade a couple of weeks earlier.

You can read more about our Malaspina trip and life in remote Alaska in The Call of the Last Frontier.

Melissa & Sutton Cook on Malaspina Deck moving to Craig, Alaska
Melissa & Sutton Cook on Malaspina Deck
Elgin & Ethan Cook on Malaspina Deck heading to Alaska
Elgin & Ethan Cook on Malaspina Deck

Other Alaska Marine Highway Posts

Alaska Marine Highway – An Unusual Roadway of the North – Learn more about the Alaska Marine Highway system in this post about traveling on these ferries.


Associated Press. “Armada of Canadian Fishing Boats Blocks Alaska Ferry in Salmon Dispute.” The Spokesman Review. (accessed January 10, 2023)

Kiffer, Dave. “Alaska/Canada Salmon ‘War’ Was 10 Years Ago.” Sit News. (accessed January 12, 2023)

Reuters. “Canadian Standoff Ends; Ferry Heads to Alaska.” The New York Times. (accessed January 10, 2023)

Tampa Times. “Canadians block U.S. ferry in fight over salmon stocks.” (accessed January 10, 2023)

Tribune News Service. “Canadian Fishermen End Blockade.” Chicago Tribune. (accessed January 10, 2023)