An improbable fish story

A Bellingham fishing company built a business partnership with the Soviets—and brought home some Russian connections for Western
John Stark
U.S. fishing vessels harvested hake, which had little market in the U.S. Russians were happy to buy hake, but Soviet fishing vessels were prohibited from fishing in U.S. waters. The solution: U.S. boats caught hake and brought it to Soviet ships.
Jim Talbot’s son Stowe returned to Nakhodka, Russia, in 2014, with a U.S. delegation to commemorate the fishing partnership.

Fresh from his 1987 graduation as a Yale University Russian history major, young Stowe Talbot found himself on the bridge of a Soviet factory trawler in the Bering Sea, testing out his Russian language skills with the captain as Soviet fishermen unloaded nets bulging with tons of Pacific hake.

“After four years of academic Russian, I was not as fluent as I thought I should be,” Talbot says. “I learned all the Russian swearwords.”

It was Talbot’s first big job in the family business. His father, Jim Talbot, owned Bellingham Cold Storage, and under the elder Talbot’s leadership, that company had forged an improbable partnership with the state-controlled Soviet fishing industry when relations between the two nuclear superpowers seemed to be at a low point.

The partnership appeared logical in purely business terms: Americans had smaller fishing trawlers with the legal right to harvest the hake in U.S. territorial waters—but there was no U.S. demand for hake and they had nowhere to take the perishable catch for processing. The Russians had big factory ships that could clean and freeze the hake at sea, and they had access to millions of Russians more than happy to eat them—but U.S. law forbade them from catching fish within 200 miles of American shores.

Jim Talbot had to convince two sets of skeptical government officials that bridging the Cold War divide to make some money on seafood was a good idea, in an era when there were frequent news reports of Soviet “fishing vessels” loaded with electronic gear, running surveillance operations just off our coastline. Against all odds, the governments eventually agreed, and American skippers quickly overcame their own misgivings and began bringing catches to their new partners in 1978.The joint venture was known as Marine Resources Co., and had offices in Seattle and Vladivostok, Russia.

Stowe Talbot says the Russian vessels were big enough to be stable even during North Pacific storms, so seasickness was never an issue for him. The vessels had large crews, including those who operated and maintained the vessels themselves, and those who had the humbler task of cleaning the catch. One of the vessels that Talbot served on had 200 men and women aboard. Eventually, U.S. fisheries entrepreneurs built their own processing ships, and the binational fishing effort ended in 1991.

Want to go to Vladivostok?

But years after the last load of squirming fish had been dumped into the hold of a Russian factory ship, Jim Talbot was able to use his Russian connections to build links between Russia and Western and its Huxley College of the Environment, as well as to the city of Bellingham.

Jim Talbot, who died in 2014, served on the WWU Foundation Board in the late 1990s. He and his wife Joyce later established the James and Joyce Talbot Scholarship in the College of Fine and Performing Arts.

Talbot was eager to build connections between Western and the Russians, even though there was no obvious business angle. “He is one of the people I am most proud to have known in my life,” former Huxley Dean Brad Smith says of Talbot. “He was very humble. You’d never know he had two dimes to rub together.”

Smith says he had never met Talbot before he showed up in Smith’s Huxley office one day in the early 1990s to ask if Smith might be interested in building academic relationships with the school then known as Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok. As a key Russian naval base, that port city near the Chinese border had long been off limits to Westerners. But by the 1990s, Russia was easing its restrictions a bit and Talbot had cultivated business connections there.

Smith, who had studied in the Soviet Union as an undergraduate, liked the idea.

Not long afterward, Smith found himself in Vladivostok with Talbot, talking to people at the university. Smith addressed some classes and talked to Russian environmental scientists, who were enthusiastic about bringing Russian students to Bellingham. Eventually, Smith says, Russian students came to WWU to audit classes and tour the area to see how Americans were confronting environmental issues. They visited the city wastewater treatment plant, national parks, and the pollution controls in place at the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill then operating on Bellingham Bay.

The Russians’ educational experiences had stressed memorization rather than creativity, Smith says.

“They were the kind of student that can recite the periodic chart, but if you asked them how a wastewater treatment plant works, they couldn’t tell you,” Smith says. When they visited Bellingham’s wastewater plant, they told Smith they were certain that Vladivostok had something similar. Smith told them their city was piping its sewage directly into Peter the Great Bay.

When they got back to Russia, the students got to work on that. With support from WWU, the university in Vladivostok organized a 1994 sustainability conference focused on their bay. Robin Matthews, director of the Institute for Watershed Studies at Huxley, traveled to Vladivostok to participate in the conference. She told the Russians how university, business, community and state and local government officials had joined forces to protect Lake Whatcom, the source of Bellingham’s water supply.

Matthews saw Russian scientists getting their work done amid conditions that American scientists might have considered intolerable. “They couldn’t really rely on electricity being there,” Matthews says.

The Russian scientists did all their math by hand, and then checked their work on computers during the periods when the power was on.

Her most harrowing moment came during a bus ride with the U.S. delegation, from the port city of Nakhodka to Vladivostok.

“It was getting very dark and the bus started filling with smoke,” Matthews recalls.

The bus driver didn’t seem too concerned, but eventually he heeded his passengers’ pleas and stopped the bus. Then—lacking a flashlight—he soaked rags in some kind of flammable liquid and used the flame as a light source as he crawled under the bus to figure out what was wrong.

A balky brake was to blame. The driver hammered on it until it was ready to behave, and everyone got back on the bus to finish the trip.

Matthews was impressed by Russians’ eagerness to work on environmental issues even as they struggled with shortages of so many things that Americans think of as necessities.

“I found that just humbling,” Matthews says. “We tend to want to set our human needs first and ecological needs second. I was stunned.”

Despite the obstacles they faced, Smith said the Russian students were quick to recognize the value of what they heard and saw during their time at Western. “Sustainability was a new concept in their vernacular,” Smith says, adding that the students went home to apply the things they had learned at WWU.

“They all went on to really solid careers that did involve the environment,” Smith says.

A small number of WWU graduate students also had opportunities to study in Russia stemming from this exchange, Smith says.

Stowe Talbot, Jim Talbot’s son, still owns Bellingham Cold Storage. While the fishing venture ended in 1991, the partnership survived for another 10 years, with Russian vessels coming into Seattle for maintenance until that business also faded out as economic conditions changed.

Stowe Talbot and his sister Jane later donated $100,000 to Huxley College in honor of their father, setting up the James G. Talbot Fund for Sustainability Studies at Huxley College of the Environment.

“I give a lot of kudos to my dad for sticking with it and trying something, when everyone told him it couldn’t be done,” Stowe Talbot says. “It was financially successful, but the more lasting and important result was all the friendships that were formed by the people who worked at the company over the years.”

Common interests will bridge the divide

Stowe Talbot says he would welcome the opportunity to do business with Russians again, but the immediate prospects for that appear bleak.

“The rule of law is so much less than it was then,” Talbot says. “It’s a very risky environment in which to be doing business. “People say it’s more of a free enterprise system now and that’s true. But it’s not a level playing field, where the hardest worker or the best idea wins out … It’s kind of rigged.” He thinks the situation will improve eventually.

“Russia has a tendency to bend towards the West, then bend back towards the East,” Talbot says. “We just happen to be in one of those periods where they’re turning away from the West.” Tim Douglas, former WWU dean of students and former Bellingham mayor, agrees. Douglas says he and Jim Talbot shared a belief that citizen diplomacy had played a significant role in bridging the divide between Russia and the U.S. during the Soviet era.

Douglas worked with Jim Talbot to establish Bellingham’s sister city ties with Nakhodka—a relationship that survives today.

Douglas thinks the common interests of the U.S. West Coast and Russian Far East will eventually bring the two peoples back together.

He noted that Talbot cherished an unfulfilled dream of setting up an international conference center in his Barkley development in northeast Bellingham, on land he had once acquired as an industrial site. Douglas says that type of center would also be a natural for Bellingham’s redeveloping waterfront, where the university hopes to have a strong presence. Environmental issues of mutual concern would be a logical focus for such a center. Douglas, who also lived in Moscow for two years as country director for the Peace Corps, says the two countries have much to learn from each other.

“The current relationship between the two countries has slid so far back that it will take some effort to rekindle those possibilities, but I’d like to believe it can happen,” Douglas says.

John Stark is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

courtesy of Stowe Talbot

Jim Talbot (left) and Bellingham accountant Dick Metcalf traveled to Moscow in 1975 to negotiate the terms of the joint fishing venture with the Soviet Union.
Jim Talbot