The Dorothy - an early halibut schooner
The Pacific halibut commercial fishery began in the late 1800s. Then, as now, processors valued their close ties to the men and women who skippered the halibut boats and made up the coastal communities. The processing industry continues to be an important economic partner with these communities, many of which are located in remote areas of Alaska and British Columbia.
Todays commercial Pacific halibut industry started in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a passage between the U.S. and Canada known for its beauty, strong tidal currents, and unpredictable weather. It took some skill to fish, land, and ice halibut aboard a sailing vessel in 1890. Most of the smaller sailboats delivered to the nearby settlements of Victoria, B.C. and Pt. Townsend, WA.
As the East Coast halibut fishery dwindled, word of the great abundance of Pacific halibut reached New England, where skippers were ready to try their hand in unfamiliar waters.
From F. Heward Bells The Pacific Halibut, The Resource and the Fishery: The only vessels of a substantial size during the period of sail were the three that arrived on the coast in 1888 from New England, the Oscar and Hattie, Edward E. Webster, and the Mollie Adams. They were the typical Gloucester schooner ranging from 81 to 117 tons each with six dories carried in the waist of the vessel and a crew of about 14the number depending on the number of two-man dories carried.
By 1900 the sailing fleet all had auxiliary gas engines and began to supplement the production of much larger, company-owned steamers. Increasing vessel and engine sizes meant the fleet could range beyond these waters to Southeast Alaska and further offshore. Glacier ice was used to keep the catch cold and for re-packing at the terminal.
The era of steamers lasted until 1920, when it was clear that owner-operated vessels could deliver halibut more efficiently and economically. Less than 30 large halibut steamers made up the fleet during this period. Each vessel was responsible for an annual catch of nearly three million pounds.
In 1944, nets were outlawed and all commercial halibut were caught with a set-line: long lines with baited hooks attached at intervals that are set on the ocean bottom.