PAT NEAL: The seeds of our fishless halibut fishery

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news for the diminishing breed of fishing-license buyers who insist on fishing in Washington.

Oregon has a halibut season.

British Columbia has a halibut season.

But the poor anglers in Washington state are stuck with a three-day opening sometime this spring.

It is a never-ending source of amazement how crossing an imaginary boundary line in the ocean can determine your angling success.

Halibut-fishery management has been described as being not unlike dividing a pie, wherein you buy the pie and watch it get cut up and distributed until all you are left with is a few crumbs of crust and a pile of dirty dishes.

This pathetic three-day excuse for a halibut season has been reduced to a token gesture of contempt from the corrupt managers of what is a public resource.

If tradition holds, these three days of halibut fishing will not be on a weekend when working people can participate.

Coincidentally, the three days of fishing will most likely be declared during extremely low minus tides when it is all but impossible to get the gear down to the halibut and keep it there for the time required to catch one.

Add to this the frequent, violent springtime storms that batter our coast and make fishing impossible without risking your life to get out on the water.

It’s fair to say that halibut fishing in Washington has been stolen from us by the same mismanagers who took away our salmon fishing.

This is a catastrophic but not surprising development in light of the management of the rest of our natural resources, which were traditionally described as inexhaustible by the early promoters of the Olympic Peninsula.

James Swan, a chronicler of life in Washington Territory, reported excellent halibut and cod fishing when he anchored up in Port Angeles Harbor in March of 1859.

Having no refrigeration or ice, Swan and his shipmates hung the fish in the rigging of their schooner, where the fish kept very well.

Unfortunately, even if fishing in Port Angeles Harbor was still possible, it would not be recommended after being used as an industrial dump for a pulp mill, Rayonier, that was honored as Washington state’s top polluter in 1993.

A hundred years of industry turned this scenic waterway into a devil’s brew of PCBs, dioxins and wood waste that has yet to be cleaned up 20 years after the mill shut down.

Pulling his anchor and sailing west to Neah Bay, Swan described the halibut fishery of the Makah Tribe.

In his book, “The Indians of Cape Flattery: At the Entrance to the Strait of Juan De Fuca, Washington Territory,” Swan said Makah fishermen could predict the weather “with almost the accuracy of a barometer.”

On clear nights, he said, they would observe the stars looking for a “slight scintillation” that would indicate calm weather in the coming day.

With a good forecast, the Makah would set out at midnight from Neah Bay to what we now call the Swiftsure Bank west of Cape Flattery.

This amazing feat of seamanship, which is dangerous enough in the modern day of diesel fuel, electronics and Coast Guard rescue helicopters, allowed the Makah to fill a canoe with halibut in just a few hours and trade it with other tribes.

Barely a century later, in 1941, Elizabeth Colson, an anthropologist from Radcliffe College, described the destruction of this halibut fishery.

By 1891, the halibut fishery was being exploited by commercial fishermen of European descent.

By 1934, the fish had been depleted to an estimated one-fourth of its former abundance.

So I guess we shouldn’t worry too much about the halibut.

They were pretty much fished out before we were born.


Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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