Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Oct 31, 2010 - 5 comments



Part Eight


Second in importance to the salmon fishery were the commercial fisheries for halibut and herring. Most of the Aboriginal groups on the coast exploited these two species for food, either as a primary staple or as a backup when for some reason the salmon failed. A commercial fishery for halibut began around 1890 and until 1924 it was unregulated by government. Halibut, which can grow up to three metres in length and weigh between 200 and 300 kilograms, were sold fresh or frozen; they were not canned. They were caught on hooks which were attached to a long ground line, or skate, that lay on the ocean bottom. Prince Rupert emerged as the halibut “capital” of the coast, especially after the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1913 made direct shipment of frozen fish possible.

Fishing grounds close to shore were depleted quite quickly, causing the fleet to move to deeper waters farther off shore, a move made possible by the development of larger, more powerful vessels. This led in turn to a shift in fishing method. Originally a “mother” vessel had deployed a small fleet of dories or canoes to do the actual fishing. Many of these small boats were crewed by First Nations. By the 1920s the newer, diesel-powered boats handled the lines themselves and the elimination of the dories led to the near elimination of First Nations from the halibut fishery. By the 1920s as well the resource had begun to disappear, leading to the first regulations, including a closed season during spawning months and a system of quotas.


Herring, small, silvery, oily fish which school together in large numbers, were caught easily using nets. Prior to World War One, the commercial fishery exploited herring mainly as a bait for catching halibut. During the 1920s the government began to allow a reduction fishery; that is, processors cooked and ground up the fish for use as fertilizer and animal feed. Japanese-Canadian fishers conducted a specialty herring fishery from small salteries along the coast. The fish were salted and shipped to China and Japan. This specialty industry ended just prior to the outbreak of World War Two when access to the Japanese market closed and then, in 1942, Japanese-Canadians on the coast were interned.


A short-lived fishery based on the pilchard, also known as the Pacific sardine, flourished on the west coast of Vancouver Island between the world wars. The Nootka Packing Company built a cannery in a small bay on the east side of Nootka Island not far from Yuquot (Friendly Cove) in 1917 and during that first season the plant manager, William Lord, noticed that a few pilchard had been taken as bycatch in one of the salmon nets. Lord experimented with processing the small, oil-rich fish and the Nootka plant became the first in Canada to send canned pilchard to market. Each season the silvery sardines became more plentiful along the coast. “The pilchards were so thick the propeller used to churn them up,” reported one fisher from Barkley Sound. In 1925 processors switched from canning to reduction. Through heat and pressure the catch was reduced to oil, used in margarine and salad oil, cosmetics and paint, and fish meal, used for animal feed. A get-rich-quick mentality prevailed among processors as they rushed to build reduction plants. Eventually twenty-six opened in Barkley Sound alone and dozens more at other locations. Usually the fish did not venture north of Vancouver Island, though during some seasons, when the ocean was especially warm, pilchard migrated as far as Rivers Inlet and Bella Coola.


During the interwar period the annual catch averaged 40,000 tonnes, making the pilchard the largest fishery in BC at the time. And then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the fish disappeared. The 1947 season saw the last big run on the west coast. At the time it was believed that the pilchard stocks were destroyed by over-fishing, but in 1992 the species returned to the coast and it is now thought that changes to the marine ecosystem account for its cyclical appearance in BC waters.


Another byproduct of the fishery was dogfish oil. From the 1850s the First Nations were producing this oil by boiling the fish in large kettles, then selling it as a lubricant for machinery and a lighting fuel in the coal mines of central Vancouver Island. It was also used to grease the skids in the logging industry. Later, purpose-built oileries opened along the coast, often owned by Japanese. The livers of the dogfish, a species of small shark, became a source of vitamin supplements and the carcasses themselves were reduced to make meal for animal food. A limited commercial fishery for dogfish continues down to the present.

Note to readers: I began posting installments of my new history of the BC coast a year ago and I have almost reached the end of Chapter Four. Loyal readers will have noticed, however, that this fall my production has slowed down. As so often happens, life has intervened and other projects have had to take precedence. I intend to continue posting the history -- the story of coastal logging is next! -- just not as frequently as I have been. Keep watching this space.