Halibut 100 years ago laid the foundation for all regional fishery management organizations active today.

by | January 19, 2024

Filed Under Events | Halibut | Management | Meetings

Holy Halibut! IPHC celebrates 100 years!

Celebration on Monday eve kicks off annual meeting being held in Anchorage

Hally-butte – literally meaning “holy flat fish” and revered at high holiday dinners in medieval Europe– will be celebrated in Alaska next week for the historical role it has played in U.S. fisheries.

Halibut is also the fish that 100 years ago laid the foundation for all regional fishery management organizations that are active today. 

Industry stakeholders will celebrate the world’s largest flatfish from Jan. 22-26 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage at the 100th anniversary of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). Since 1923, the IPHC has overseen research and management of the single halibut stock that extends from the West Coast to British Columbia to the far-flung nursery grounds in the Bering Sea.

The IPHC, which has three commissioners each from the U.S and Canada, also sets catch limits for subsistence, commercial, personal use and sport users and announces the numbers at its annual meeting in January.

A special reception will kick off the celebratory event on Monday starting at 7pm featuring prime rib and hors d’oeuvres, guest speakers, musical entertainment by Pamyua and over $20,000 in raffle and door prizes.     https://www.iphc.int/

Halibut Crest adapted from Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida designs

Some Pacific halibut history

The International Pacific Halibut Commission was originally established in 1923 between Canada and the United States as the International Fisheries Commission, following the signing of the Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea.  

It was the first environmental treaty aimed at conserving an ocean fish stock, and the first international agreement for joint management of a marine resource.

Halibut was also the impetus behind the first treaty that the Canadian government negotiated and signed independently, as from 1763 until 1982 Canada was part of the British Empire.

When Canada became a nation in 1867, Britain’s Parliament retained the ability to consent, repeal and override laws passed by Canada’s Parliament, and to create laws for Canada. Britain also negotiated and signed international treaties. But Canada contended that it alone should sign the Halibut Convention because it dealt with domestic matters. Great Britain eventually agreed that the Government of Canada could sign the Halibut Treaty on behalf of the Crown and the Convention was signed on March 2, 1923.

Some halibut fishing history

Today’s commercial Pacific halibut fishery started in 1888 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a passage between the U.S. and Canada off the southern end of Vancouver Island and the tip of Washington state. Fishing was from dories that delivered to larger sailing ships.

From F. Heward Bell’s “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 14—the number depending on the number of two-man dories carried.”

“On September 20, 1888, the schooner Oscar and Hattie reached 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,” writes HistoryLink.

“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.”

The schooner Oscar and Hattie in 1888

By 1900, the sailing fleet all had auxiliary gas engines and began to supplement the production of much larger, company-owned steamers, wrote Bell. Increasing vessel and engine sizes meant the fleet could range to Southeast Alaska and further offshore.  The era of steamers lasted until 1920, when it was clear that owner-operated vessels could deliver halibut more efficiently and economically.  

Halibut in Alaska today

Since 1995, the Pacific halibut fishery has been managed by the federal government according to an Individual Fishing Quota plan whereby fishermen received poundage of halibut based on their historical catches. For Alaska, that comprises about 2,000 IFQ holders who catch halibut with long lines with baited hooks attached at intervals that are set on the sea bottom. The fishery begins in early March and ends in early December.

In 2023, Alaska fishermen caught just over 15 million pounds of halibut out of the total coast-wide allowance of 29 million pounds. They received an average price of $5.73 per pound making the fishery worth about $86 million at the Alaska docks.

Homer regained its title of the nation’s #1 halibut port in 2023 after being toppled by Kodiak the previous year. About 3.3 million pounds of halibut crossed the Homer docks last year, followed by 1.93 million pounds at Kodiak and 1.28 million pounds at Seward.

Pacific halibut, sometimes called “barn doors,” can attain a length of more than 8 feet and a width of more than 5 feet. They can live to 55 years, but seldom are fish over 25 years found today.

Looking ahead, the status of the Pacific halibut stock remains on a downward trend and catches   are likely to be reduced again.

 The halibut catch numbers for 2024 will be announced at the IPHC meeting on Friday.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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