Prince Rupert as the Halibut Capital of the World

When we host visiting travel writers or tour operators, the stories we tell are almost as well received as the sights and experiences.

When we host visiting travel writers or tour operators, the stories we tell are almost as well received as the sights and experiences we promote.

In fact, we typically include a driving tour of the city as part of any itinerary on these occasions. We explain how the island and harbour were originally home to important winter villages for the Tsimshian, how the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway selected Kaien Island as the terminus of their transcontinental line and sent in the first survey crews in 1906. We talk about the population explosion of the war years, and the vitality of the place as a result of resource-based industry in the late 20th century.

One story that seems to mesh particularly well with what visitors experience today, and thus finds its way into many of the stories told of visiting Prince Rupert, is how we were once the “Halibut Capital of the World.”

A series of events quickly made Prince Rupert the Halibut Capital of the World. First came the construction of the Canadian Fish and Cold Storage in 1910, and the establishment of smaller companies such as Atlin Fisheries. The last spike on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1914 opened seafood markets in eastern Canada and the United States, and an Order-in-Council of 1915 allowed U.S. halibut fishermen to ship their catches in “bond” from Prince Rupert.

In 1915 a “mosquito fleet” of about 50 halibut boats, carrying crews of between four and 20 men, operated out of Prince Rupert, and under the new Order-in-Council American boats unloaded here as well. During the month of September 1915 alone, 2,165,500 pounds of halibut were unloaded in Prince Rupert, and 62 carloads shipped fresh by the Grand Trunk Pacific into markets in eastern Canada and the United States in addition to that shipped out by steamship.

The Prince Rupert Fish Exchange was incorporated in October 1915, an auction system where members of the Exchange would buy the catches of each arriving halibut boat. Over the next 60 years the Exchange would sell over a billion pounds of halibut – eventually in a dedicated building immediately north of Atlin Market. There are many stories of the “halibut trains” shipping fish from Prince Rupert to markets throughout North America, and oldtimers still smile at the thought of how these dripping rail cars must have smelt as they passed through prairie towns.

It’s seldom remembered today how significant this halibut fishery was in its time, or the great community pride that stemmed from such a volume of business. The bragging rights generated by the halibut fishery were such that postcards used to be produced to document the biggest landings: March 1, 1921, when 445,000 pounds… February 27, 1925, 658,500 pounds… and the largest ever, September 27, 1937, 677,000 pounds.

Today a visitor might ask about the commercial halibut boats, perhaps even join a local charter operator to try landing one for themselves, or simply enjoy it prepared in myriad ways in local restaurants. But in each case they have established their own connection to the tale of how Prince Rupert was once the Halibut Capital of the World.

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