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The Early Fishing Industry in Washington State

Typical Puget Sound fisherman, Washington, n.d.
Typical Puget Sound fisherman, Washington, n.d.

Agriculture, irrigation, logging, and industrialization in general profoundly affected both salmon habitat and local fisheries. Before 1850, Indians were the primary suppliers of salmon. Early trade placed Indians as producers and whites as consumers but this relationship changed as disease, relocation and violence kept Indians from fishing sites. Fearing that Americans might seize the salmon trade, the Hudson Bay Company took an early interest in fishing to maintain its control over natural resources. (Taylor 1999, 60, 135-137)

Industrial fishery moved into the region, as immigration made the fish trade more lucrative. Many fishermen, like lumbermen, moved to the Northwest in search of resources that they had depleted in California and on the Atlantic coast. In 1866, Hapgood, Hume and Company established the first fish cannery on the Columbia River and packed 272,000 pounds of salmon. By 1881 there were some thirty canneries in the Northwest. (Taylor 1999, 137-138) The expansion from a local to a global market further accelerated production. To gain an edge over their competition, fishermen added more layers to their gillnets and also introduced traps, poundnets, and fishwheels in the 1870s. (Schwantes 1996, 202; Taylor 1999, 63)

Mechanization Impacts the Fishing Industry

Increased competition and mechanization led to consolidation. The development of the ‘iron chink’; and other machines made Chinese and other laborers less indispensable to cannery work. Between 1900 and 1919, the salmon industry produced more than a million cases of sockeye and pink salmon per year. (Gates 1948, 217) Consolidation, overproduction, and marketing problems led to the establishment of several packing associations, such as the Columbia River Packers Association. (Johansen and Gates 1957, 482)

Besides salmon, the Northwest had two other fishing specialties: halibut and shellfish. The decline of Atlantic fish banks, increased transportation, and improved refrigeration all led to a rapid increase in Northwest halibut fishery. By 1915 the annual catch of halibut reached 66 million pounds. Though smaller in scale, shellfish was also an important commodity. Willapa Bay had exported its famous oysters to San Francisco since the early 1850s. By 1915 shell fishery was a million-dollar industry, though harvests had also begun declining.(Johansen and Gates 1957, 484-486)

Washington Faces the Depletion of Fish Stocks

From Salmon of the Pacific Coast by R.D. Hume
From Salmon of the Pacific Coast by R.D. Hume

The depletion of fisheries brought about measures to preserve the region’s resources. The International Fisheries Commission began studying halibut fisheries in 1924 and imposed closed seasons, catch limits, and nursery maintenance beginning in 1932. (Gates 1948, 229) To protect salmon in the Columbia River and Puget Sound, Washington state began outlawing certain types of gear (fish wheels, for example, in 1935), but restrictions on one kind of gear simply led to the use of others. The construction of Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams further complicated preservation efforts. (Gates 1948, 229; Taylor 1999, 299; Schwantes 1996, 481) Fish ladders and screens were installed at Bonneville. Salmon migrating upstream, however, still suffered a 15 percent mortality rate. (Ficken and LeWarne 1988, 122) Too tall for ladders, the Grand Coulee alone eliminated over one thousand miles of salmon habitat. Artificial propagation and hatcheries were established in an attempt to restock depleted areas. (Taylor 1999, 175)

Declining natural resources and the depression of the 1930s led to both conservation measures and economic planning. Always dependent on harvesting or extracting natural resources for a larger market, Washington’s economy would remain so with the explosion of economic activity related to government contracts and wartime production in the 1940s. (Gates 1948, 230)


Ficken, Robert E., and Charles P. LeWarne. 1988. Washington: A Centennial History Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gates, Charles M. 1948. A Historical Sketch of the Economic Development of Washington since Statehood. Pacific Northwest Quarterly 39: 214-232.

Johansen, Dorothy O., and Charles M. Gates. 1957. Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Schwantes, Carlos A. 1996. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Taylor, Joseph E. 1999. Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. Seattle: University of Washington Press.



Fisheries Books, 1820-1945 (pdf)

Fisheries Journals, 1820-1945 (pdf)

Fisheries Theses, 1820-1945 (pdf)

Fisheries titles filmed by the project (pdf)

†University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Negative Number: UW5702.
•University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.