Without question, Halibut is one of the most iconic and beloved species in the North Pacific. Despite its balanced distribution, the one place Halibut fishing has had the most influence is probably Alaska. Here, the diamond-shaped Flatfish has been a sustenance staple for ages, as well as a cultural and commercial centerpiece that influenced local communities in a big way. Today, we’re exploring the history of Halibut fishing in Alaska.
As we take this trip through history, we will take a look at the first Alaskan Halibut fishers, examine its commercial fishing history, and what the Flatfish means for Alaskans today.
How Did Halibut Become so Important?
The first records of Halibut fishing in Alaska date as far back as the late 18th century. While passing near the Shumagin Islands in 1788, Captain Cook witnessed First Nation people catch as many as a hundred Halibut in a single day. Many other explorers recorded the local First Nation’s Halibut fishing prowess since.
The locals originally fished for Halibut exclusively for food. They would catch as many as they could, eating what they needed, and drying the rest for later. However, it would not take long for the tradition to evolve into a valuable source of income.
History of Commercial Halibut Fishing
At the dawn of the 20th century, the long-awaited railroad finally arrived in Alaska. This opened up a whole new world of commercial opportunities for local fishermen. The demand for Halibut from the eastern markets was great, however, it was the southern fisheries of Victoria and Seattle that had the biggest piece of the commercial pie.
This was because at that time, Halibut fishing was still mainly done on schooners, which patrolled inshore waters. The south also had better connections to any potential buying markets. But Alaska’s time was coming. The year 1899 saw the launch of the first cannery and wharf in Petersburg, allowing fishermen to bring in more fish than ever before.
Still, the southern ports had bigger boats and better transportation opportunities. It wasn’t until 1910, when the steamer fleet began exploiting these waters, that Alaskan Halibut started being fished on a larger scale. The steamers made regular trips to Stephens Passage, Chatham, and Icy Strait. That, coupled with the opening of a new cold storage plant in 1909 at Ketchikan, meant that large and small boats could fish year-round.
The development of commercial Halibut fishing in Alaska fueled the growth of local towns faster than they could have ever hoped for. The other side of the coin was that the species became seriously depleted. Recognizing the peril, the United States and Canada established The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) in 1923, with the purpose of researching and managing an optimum yield of the species.
Halibut in Numbers
To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at the commercial catch numbers through the years. In 1915, commercial Halibut catches hit 69 million pounds. After the establishment of the IPHC, the numbers dwindled to 44 million in 1931.
A period of fluctuating numbers followed, and in 1962, commercial fishermen caught 70 million pounds of Halibut. The 1970s saw a significant drop in catch numbers, with only 21 million pounds caught at the end of the decade. The ‘80s saw a steady rise in catch numbers, which lasted all the way to the early 2000s. The commercial catch has been decreasing ever since then.
Seeing as Halibut was one of their primary food sources, Alaskan natives had to learn how to develop adequate fishing gear for catching these bottom dwellers. Some of these tools are quite unique, and still very effective in catching Halibut to this day. The best example of such craftsmanship is the iconic Wooden Halibut Hook.
The locals made these hooks by shaping two different types of wood together. The upper arm was traditionally made out of yellow cedar, because of its buoyancy, and because Halibut were apparently attracted to its smell. For the lower arm, the fishermen used heavier wood such as Pacific yew to anchor the hook to the bottom. To tie it all together, they used twine, bull kelp, or cedar bark.
photo by Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 3.0]
During the late 1800s, locals used slivers of black or brown bear femurs to make their fishing hooks, and added herring or octopus for bait. These fishermen knew that Halibut prefer sucking their prey in rather than nibbling around it. This is why their hooks faced backwards, like barbs. As soon as the flatfish realized what was in its mouth, it would try to spit it out. Only now, the hook would pierce right into its jaws.
And now comes the ingenious part.
A recent study, examining how these early hooks had changed over the years, found that they were exactly the right size to catch Halibut between 20 and 100 pounds. This meant that locals purposefully spared juvenile and breeding Halibut, preserving the species for the future!
Although rarely used today, the hook still remains one of the most fascinating pieces of fishing craftsmanship and a very effective fishing tool.
Over the years, the natives started adding intricate carvings and paint work to the hooks, adding a spiritual element to their practicality. Gradually, the wooden hook evolved into more of a symbolic object, now linking Alaskans to their ancestral heritage.
Halibut and Mythology
Halibut has a very important place in First Nation mythology. For example, the Kwakiutl tribes believe that their first ancestor transformed from a Halibut into a man. To the Haida tribe, Halibut are a symbol of prosperity. Some Northwest Coast tribes carve Halibut into totem poles, and use the fish as their clan crest. Other fishermen make special offerings with the first Halibut they catch each season, similar to a ritual done with Salmon.
The Jackpot Halibut Derby
Another testament to a deep connection Alaskans have to Halibut is the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby. The first Derby took place in 1986, beginning on Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day. What started as a modest effort to promote local business and tourism quickly grew into one of the biggest fishing derbies in Alaska.
Today, the event is the longest-running derby in Alaska, boasting the biggest jackpot overall. The derby also helped spread the news on how special this fishery is, attracting anglers from all over to fish here. As a result, Homer is now widely celebrated as the Halibut Capital of the World.
That’s not to say that Homer is the only place to catch this Flatfish, however. According to many, the title of Halibut Capital should have gone to another port on the Kenai Peninsula – Seward. We’ll let you be the judge of that.
Whichever you choose as your favorite, one thing is clear: Halibut is intricately linked to Alaska’s history and identity. As any Alaskan will tell you, the love for this fish goes beyond fishing. Through myths, stories and symbolic objects, native Alaskans have preserved one of the most important links they have with their rich ancestry.
On the fishing side, traveling anglers return to the Alaskan waters year after year to catch their favorite Flatfish. They celebrate Halibut on feasts, through storytelling, and through the act of fishing itself. Commercial fishers also pay their respects by honoring the preservation laws for this special fish. With the combined efforts of all three groups, we can ensure that Halibut is still alive and well for many years to come.
What do you think is most impressive about the history of Halibut fishing in Alaska? Have you ever caught this Flatfish yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments below.