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Canada and the United States sign the Pacific Halibut Convention on March 2, 1923.

HistoryLink.org Essay 9152 : Printer-Friendly Format

On March 2, 1923, Canadian Minister of Marine and Fisheries Ernest LaPointe (1876-1941) and U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) sign the "Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean." The treaty establishes an international commission to regulate the northern Pacific halibut fishery, where fish stocks have declined rapidly since large-scale commercial fishing began in 1888. The Pacific Halibut Convention marks two significant firsts: It is both the first treaty signed by the Dominion of Canada on its own behalf (previously Great Britain also signed Canadian treaties) and the first international agreement anywhere aimed at conservation of an ocean fish stock. The pioneering conservation effort will prove highly successful as regulations imposed by what becomes the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) allow the depleted halibut population to rebound significantly. In 2009, the IPHC, headquartered at the University of Washington in Seattle, manages one of the world's healthiest fisheries.

Harvesting Halibut

Halibut are flatfish, like flounder and sole, swimming on their side along the sea bottom (both eyes are located on the top side), and they can reach 500 pounds in size. In both the Pacific and the Atlantic, seagoing peoples harvested halibut for centuries. Pacific halibut was a mainstay in the diet of indigenuous peoples living along the Northwest coast from northern California to Alaska. As late as the 1880s, Indians still dominated halibut fishing in Washington.

Large-scale commercial exploitation of Pacific halibut began in 1888 after completion of the Northern Pacific Railway made it possible to ship fish from the northwest to the populous Eastern states. Increasing demand from the growing urban population of the Eastern U.S. -- and of Europe -- had decimated the Atlantic halibut population that Europeans, and their descendants in North America, had depended on since at least the Middle Ages.

From the time that the Oscar and Hattie, which landed the first commercial shipment of halibut at Tacoma, and two other halibut schooners from Gloucester, Massachusetts, combined to catch nearly 200,000 pounds of halibut for railroad shipment east, the Pacific halibut fishery grew exponentially. By 1915, the fleet numbered 97 vessels, which brought in 69 million pounds of halibut. Already some fishermen and fish processors were calling for controls on fishing, although they were motivated largely by a desire to limit production and keep prices up.

A Conservation First

Within a few years, as annual take dropped to 50 million pounds and studies showed halibut populations declining, the need for conservation provided additional motivation to seek government regulation of the industry. Because Canadians as well as Americans participated in the fishery, which occurred largely in international waters, regulation required international agreement. The negotiations between the two countries, which began in 1918, were a milestone in conservation history because they were the first international effort to conserve and rebuild an ocean fishery. A convention was drafted in 1919 but it included some controversial provisions and was not ratified.

As calls for conservation measures continued, U.S. and Canadian negotiators produced a new version, eliminating controversial sections and focusing on conservation. The Canadian Minister of Marine and Fisheries, Ernest LaPointe, and the American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, signed the treaty, formally titled the Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean, on March 2, 1923. The convention then went to the U.S. Senate and Canadian Parliament for ratification.

A Canadian First

In Canada the Pacific Halibut Convention took on an importance beyond its fishery conservation subject-matter. Canada's process from British colony to partially self-governing Dominion to complete independence from British parliamentary rule was a lengthy one, and the 1923 halibut treaty marked an important step. Until then, British government officials, as well as Canadians, had always signed Canadian treaties. This time only LaPointe, the Canadian fisheries minister, signed for Canada. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) assured Parliament that the minister had full authority to sign and Parliament approved the treaty. A legal scholar later wrote, quoting the Irish Times, that it was with the 1923 signing "that, in the picturesque language of an Irish editor, Canada really began to 'sign her own cheques'" (Wilson).

The 1923 Pacific Halibut Convention closed the halibut fishery during the winter months and established an International Fisheries Commission -- the first such body anywhere -- to research halibut biology and recommend ways to preserve and restore the fishery. (When other fisheries commissions were later established, this pioneering body was renamed the International Pacific Halibut Commission). During the 1920s, as the commission conducted its studies, the halibut catch continued to fall, reaching 21 million pounds in 1930. By then the commission had prepared regulations and the two governments signed a new convention giving it additional powers to implement them. (Additional conventions were signed in 1937 and 1953, with a protocol in 1979.)

Regulation and Innovation

By 1932, regulations including catch limits, prohibitions on certain gear, and closure of nursery areas were in place and the halibut population began to stabilize and then rise. As it did, the commission was able to increase the allowed catch while keeping it below the level of population growth. The effectiveness of the conservation efforts was demonstrated as the catch rose to 54 million pounds in 1940, 58 million in 1950, and set a new record of 71.5 million pounds (finally surpassing the 1915 total) in 1959.

However, in the 1970s, as more boats entered the fishery, halibut biomass again declined. In addition, with more, and more efficient, boats competing for the allowed annual catch, seasons in some areas were reduced to only a few days long. The situation changed in the 1990s when first Canada and then the U.S. (in Alaskan waters) developed innovative quota systems, giving individual boats a percentage of the total season catch and allowing the captains to decide when to fish. As a result, fishing is safer and more profitable, fresh halibut is available throughout the season (March to November), and the total catch is a sustainable portion of the total biomass of the halibut population.

Douglas M. Johnston, The International Law of Fisheries: A Framework for Policy-Oriented Inquiries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 81, 372-84; Robert R. Wilson, "Canada-United States Treaty Relations and International Law," in Canada-United States Treaty Relations ed. by David R. Deener (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1963), 12-13, 20-21; International Pacific Halibut Commission, Technical Report No. 40: The Pacific Halibut: Biology, Fishery, and Management (Seattle: IPHC, 1998), copy available at IPHC website accessed August 27, 2008 (http://www.iphc.washington.edu/HALCOM/pubs/techrep/tech0040.pdf); "History," IPHC website accessed August 27, 2008 (http://www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom/pubs/pamphlet/1IPHCHistoryPage.pdf); "Fishery History," IPHC website accessed September 2, 2009 (http://www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom/history.htm); Eric Chastain, "Barn Doors of the Sea: A Fish Story," Edible Seattle, Spring 2008, pp. 36-38; HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Schooner Oscar and Hattie arrives at the port of Tacoma with 50,000 pounds of halibut, inaugurating the commercial Pacific halibut fishery, on September 20, 1888" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org (accessed August 31, 2009).

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Cleaning halibut aboard fishing vessel, ca. 1920s
Courtesy International Pacific Halibut Commission

First transcontinental shipment of Pacific halibut, caught by schooner Oscar and Hattie, Tacoma, September 20, 1888
Photo by N.B. Miller, Courtesy National Archives (NWDNS-22-FA-197)

Halibut worker prepares to head about 1500 pounds of fish with a machete, ca. 1920s
Courtesy International Pacific Halibut Commission

International Pacific Halibut Commission port sampler Lynn Mattes with fishing crew and halibut, Juneau, 2001
Courtesy International Pacific Halibut Commission

Coils of fixed-hook halibut fishing gear stored in tubs
Courtesy International Pacific Halibut Commission

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