Monday, November 14, 2011

The Fishing Industry

The first commercial fishing venture on the coast of Haida Gwaii was probably the visit of the sailing-vessel "Oscar and Hattie," from Gloucester, Mass., in 1887. This schooner was attracted to the north by the possibilities of the sealing trade, supplemented by halibut-fishing for fletching or salting, off Rose Spit and in Dixon Entrance, for off the coasts of Haida Gwaii were some of the finest halibut-banks in the world. Many ships later followed the example of "Oscar and Hattie," though it was not long before the catch was shipped to southern and eastern cities, packed in glacier ice obtained in Alaskan ports. This method was superseded by the use of commercial ice as soon as plants for its manufacture were established in Vancouver and other coastal cities.

Canoe bailer
By the first decade of this century, fears were being voiced over the alarming reduction in the size and numbers of the catches. The Queen Charlotte News of March 27, 1909, devotes four columns to a discussion of the "threatened extinction" of the halibut and the need for more adequate fishery patrols to prevent American vessels "poaching well within the 3-mile limit."

It was a year or two, however, before representation to the Dominion Government resulted in the chartering of two steam whalers, the Germania and the Sebastian, for fishery patrol duty in the northern waters. This increased vigilance, plus the unexpected capture earlier in the year of an American gasoline schooner, the Edric, by H.M.C.S. Rainbow, put and end to the more flagrant breaches of the fishing laws and developed a greater respect for Canadian authority in our Pacific territorial waters.

With the coming of the Grand Trunk (later the Canadian National) Railway to Prince Rupert, the fishing industry grew to such proportions that an International Commission was set up to regulate the catch and to guard against depletion. After 1923 the adoption of the diesel engine made it possible for larger vessels to seek fresher and deeper banks to the far west of Haida Gwaii. In 1927 new regulations were issued by the Dominion Government designed to protect British Columbia fisheries from depletion. In this way, the continuance of an important means of livelihood for both the Haida and non-Haida residents of Haida Gwaii was assured.

traditional Haida fish hook
Whaling was once a profitable undertaking around the Northwest Coast of North America coastal waters. In 1909 Captain G. A. Huff, of Alberni, opened a whaling-station at Rose Harbor, on the north end of Kunghit Island. Two years later another firm put up a station at Naden Harbor, Graham Island. Both of these were operated more or less intermittently for many years. The gradual depletion of the whale herds, together with the increased cost of seeking them farther afield, forced the industry into the hands of large concerns, and in 1918 all whaling companies in the North Pacific area were absorbed into one corporation. By 1928 all whaling stations in British Columbia, with the exception of the two on Haida Gwaii, were closed. Even this consolidation was of little avail against the dwindling supply. By 1941 the last two stations were closed down and dismanted, and the Pacific field was left to the American whalers with their single reduction plant at Eureka, California.

"Victoria, B.C. -- Steam whaling vessels operated off Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Island [Haida Gwaii] killed more than 1,000 whales in season just ended." -- The Day Book [Chicago, Ill.] November 04, 1912

The first manufacturing plant to be established on Haida Gwaii was for the extraction of dogfish-oil. This plant was in operation as early as the 1870s and continued as a minor industry for many years.

The development of cold-storage and fish-processing plants began in earnest during the boom period of the early 1900s and continued during the war years. News reports of 1909 tell of the Pacific Fisheries Limited rushing work on their oil and fertilizer reduction plant and cold-storage warehouse at Pacofi, on Selwyn Inlet.

iron fish hook with sinker
This company was headed by a well-known business man of German origin, Alvo Von Alvensleben, and included several prominent Vancouver and Victoria investors. At a later date this plant was taken over by B.C. Packers Limited, but was burned down in 1943.

The Cold Storage and Black Cod Fishing Company, under the management of D.R. Young, of the Queen Charlotte News, erected a plant at Queen Charlotte City and entered the business arena with hopes of educating the public taste to like "this splendid table delicacy."

One rather grandiose development was begun at Alliford Bay on the south side of Skidegate Inlet. This was undertaken by the B.C. Fisheries Limited, reported as being headed by Sir George Doughty, and Grimsby fish merchant, and other English fishing interests. The plant was to include a cannery, saltery, fish-meal works, and cold-storage facilities. In the spring of 1912 surveys began on 200 acres of Crown-granted land. The old dogfish-oil works at Skidegate was purchased from the Victoria firm of Simon Leiser & Company to be "enlarged and improved." Mr. Leiser, acting for the English Company, bought at auction the American fishing-boat "Edric" (the same one captured by H.M.C.S. Rainbow the year before), together with a tug-boat, to serve as the nucleus of a fleet of fishing-vessels planned for the future.

Little more than high hopes and a few glowing news reports developed from this venture. Just over a year later the Company was in the hands of the receivers. The enterprise was not, however, a total loss. The cannery, after being taken over by the Maritime Fisheries Limited, was operated off and on for several years. Fishing in general boomed during World War I, dogfish oil being especially valuable in the making of glycerine for ammunition purposes.

After the war the fishing industry and its associated fields continued to attract capital to the Islands. The report of the Minister of Lands for 1918 speaks of a steady development along these lines. Besides the cannery at Alliford Bay, a new cold-storage plant was installed at Rennell Sound by the Atlin Fisheries. The Wallace Fisheries built a cannery at Naden Harbor, Colonel MacMillan of Vancouver built another at Lagoon Inlet opposite Louise Island, and a saltery was operation at Jedway. At Pacofi a new plant for making potash from sea-kelp began operations, with plans for extensive development if the venture proved commercially successful. []