Schooner Oscar and Hattie arrives at the port of Tacoma with 50,000 pounds of halibut, inaugurating the commercial Pacific halibut fishery, on September 20, 1888.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/27/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8745

On September 20, 1888, the schooner Oscar and Hattie reaches the port of Tacoma with 50,000 pounds of halibut on ice. The iced halibut is shipped from Tacoma to Boston on the Northern Pacific's transcontinental rail line, marking the beginning of commercial halibut fishing in the Pacific Northwest. With North Atlantic halibut stocks depleted, the Oscar and Hattie is one of three halibut schooners from Gloucester, Massachusetts, sent around Cape Horn to fish the rich halibut grounds on Flattery Bank off the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From this three-vessel beginning in 1888, the Pacific halibut fleet will grow rapidly, resulting in a rapid decline in Pacific halibut stocks. The halibut industry will respond by pushing for a United States-Canada treaty that leads to creation of the International Pacific Halibut Commission to regulate and restore the Pacific halibut fishery, which is currently (2008) among the healthiest fisheries in the world.

Halibut Fisheries

Halibut are flatfish, like flounder and sole, swimming on their sides along the sea bottom (both eyes are located on the top side), and they can reach hundreds of pounds in size. In both the Atlantic and the Pacific, seagoing peoples harvested halibut for centuries. Europeans, and later their descendants in North America, depended on Atlantic halibut since at least the Middle Ages, but by the mid-1800s, the Atlantic halibut population was in decline due to large-scale commercial fishing to satisfy the rising demand from growing urban populations.

In the Pacific, halibut was a mainstay in the diet of indigenuous peoples living along the Northwest coast from northern California to Alaska. As late as the late 1880s, according to an early report on the efforts to begin a non-Indian commercial fishery in the Pacific, "the halibut fisheries of Washington have been almost exclusively the property of Indians resident upon certain portions of the coast" (McDonald, 162).

Flattery Bank

One of the most productive halibut grounds off the coast of Washington, and the first to be exploited by commercial fishing vessels, was Flattery Bank, located northwest of Cape Flattery (the northwest tip of Washington) and off the coast of Vancouver Island, on the north side of the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Flattery Bank was part of the territory of the Makah Indians, whose traditional homeland (and current reservation) centers around Cape Flattery. For generations, Makah families, each of which had a recognized property interest in a particular ocean area, fished the rich halibut banks using highly developed and specialized fishing technology. Large cedar canoes designed specially for halibut fishing traveled over miles of open ocean to the banks, where the crews fished with lines of cedar, sinew, or kelp that were hundreds of meters long, weighted at the end and floated on the surface with bladders, and lined with hooks whose barbs were designed to fit the halibut's vertical mouth. The Makah halibut fishery was so productive that in addition to providing a major part of the tribe's diet, it produced a substantial surplus that was traded to other tribes and later to non-Indian settlers.

Non-Makahs, including some commercial fishing boats, had caught halibut on Flattery Bank before 1888, but that year marked the first concerted attempt to establish a commercial fishery there and elsewhere in the Pacific. The effort was made not by vessels from Puget Sound ports, but by three halibut schooners that Captain Sol Jacobs of Gloucester, Massachusetts, sent around Cape Horn from the depleted Atlantic in search of fresh fishing grounds. At the time, commercial fishermen used the same basic technique as the Makah, fishing from small boats using long lines. The Oscar and Hattie, the Mollie Adams, and the Edward E. Webster each carried six dories from which two-man teams caught halibut that was then loaded aboard the schooners.

The First Shipment

The Oscar and Hattie earned a place in history because it was the first of the three Gloucester schooners to land a Pacific halibut catch (the Mollie Adams undertook a seal hunting voyage before proceeding to the halibut bank). Fishing on Flattery Bank, the Oscar and Hattie caught 50,000 pounds of halibut, which the crew packed in ice. On September 20, 1888, this first large commercial shipment of Pacific halibut was unloaded at the Tacoma docks of the Northern Pacific Railroad for shipment east.

Tacoma was a logical port for the first halibut shipment because the Northern Pacific had completed its transcontinental line to the city the year before. Still packed in ice, the halibut was loaded onto rail cars and shipped to Boston. The Oscar and Hattie made only one fishing trip in 1888, but the Mollie Adams made four voyages to Flattery Banks, bringing in a total of 145,000 pounds of halibut, which was shipped east from Seattle. Neither boat made much profit that first year because the costs of ice and shipping were high, but the large catches demonstrated the viability of commercial Pacific halibut fishing. Both schooners continued fishing in 1889, with the Oscar and Hattie ranging as far afield as Alaska.

The Commission

From that point, the Pacific halibut fishery grew exponentially. By 1915, the fleet numbered 97 vessels, all gasoline powered except for five steamers, and most owned by corporations. Soon the catch was declining noticeably and fishermen and fish processors began pushing the Canadian and American governments to take action. Efforts to reach an international agreement failed in 1919, but in 1923 the two governments signed the Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean. The Convention called for a commission, eventually named the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), to regulate the halibut fishery.

After the IPHC imposed regulations, including catch limits and prohibitions on some gear, the halibut population and harvest rose for several decades. Population fell again in the 1970s, and with more, and more efficient, boats in the fleet, the fishing season in some areas was limited to only a few days per year. The situation changed in the 1990s when first Canada and then the U.S. replaced the "derby-style fishery" ("Pacific Halibut," 7), where a season opens for a few days or hours and boats race to catch a year's worth of fish, with innovative quota systems, giving individual boats a percentage of the total season catch and allowing the captains to decide when to fish. As a result, fishing is safer and more profitable, fresh halibut is available throughout the season (March to November), and the total catch is a sustainable portion of the total biomass of the halibut population. The IPHC, headquartered on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, continues to research Pacific halibut and manage the fishery, which as of 2008 is among the world's healthiest.


Sources: Eric Chastain, "Barn Doors of the Sea: A Fish Story," Edible Seattle, Spring 2008, pp. 36-38; International Pacific Halibut Commission, Technical Report No. 40: The Pacific Halibut: Biology, Fishery, and Management (Seattle: IPHC, 1998) (copy available at IPHC website accessed August 27, 2008 (http://www.iphc.washington.edu/HALCOM/pubs/techrep/tech0040.pdf); "History," IPHC website accessed August 27, 2008 (http://www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom/pubs/pamphlet/1IPHCHistoryPage.pdf); Marshall McDonald, Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. 12 for 1892 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894), 160-64; Hugh M. Smith, Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1918 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 92-94; Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by E. W. Wright (Portland: Lewis & Dryden Printing Co., 1895), 432; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 402; D. H. Cushing, The Provident Sea (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 125-28; United States v. Washington, 384 F.Supp. 312 (W.D.Wash.1974).

Related Topics:   Firsts | Maritime | Northwest Indians

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