Fisherman’s Wharf showing Major Bay on the landward side. British Columbia Archives, ref. # I-26933
The Lekwungen have been harvesting the bounty of harbour’s and its surrounding water’s long before the arrival of the “newcomers”.
The Lekwungen had learned to preserve vast quantities of the fish for winter use, and for trade with other Indigenous groups. Although food, including salmon, was gathered by individuals, it was often done so from sites owned by specific families. The gathering of food was subject to special regulations that acknowledged its connection to the spiritual world. Salmon were honoured by the Lewungen peoples as gift-bearing relatives, and were treated with great respect and were eaten after a ritual of thanks. The Lekwungen preserved vast quantities of the fish for winter use, and for trade with other Indigenous groups.
Until recent times retuning salmon had been harvested in the harbour as they returned to spawn up Craigflower Creek. To harvest the vast schools of salmon that coursed by the mouth of the harbour on their way to spawning grounds up the Fraser and other major coastal rivers, the Coast Sailish developed the reefnet. At places where it was shallow enough for canoes to anchor, such as Mukwuks off Macaulay Point, they set their reefnets. The nets were fashioned from stinging nettle fibre and camouflaged with seaweed. They were suspended across the current between two canoes twenty or thirty feef apart and anchored to the sea floor.
With the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1849, its inhabitants depended heavily upon the Lekwungen to supply dried salmon before the Hudson’s Bay Company started curing its own salmon.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca’s tides have always drawn see life into the harbour and the Lekwungen were adept at harvesting this ever-changing bounty. Whosaykum or muddy place provided the people with a reliable crab fishery. Whosaykum reached from the Inner Harbour inland almost to today’s Blanshard St. Whosaykum was renamed James Bay by the newcomers, and in 1906 the Lekwungen lost a valuable food source when the bay was filled in. Also, there was a significant bay inland of what is now Fisherman’s Wharf that was an important source of shellfish, though the newcomers filled it in as well.
In the early 1900s, many First Nations people began to make the transition from traditional dugout canoes to Columbia River fishing boats made of planks and rigged with sails.
Upon colonization, first the British, then Canadian and Provincial governments imposed restrictions on Lekwungen fishers that forced them into dependency on large fishing companies to finance the boats and equipment they needed to compete with European fishers. By the early twentieth century the Lekwungen peoples, who had once fished these waters uninhibited, found themselves under a number of legal restrictions that had profound negative economic and cultural upon them.
Today, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations maintain the right to fish, hunt and gather food on their traditional territories as guaranteed by the Douglas Treaty signed by the Governor James Douglas in 1850 on behalf of Queen Victoria before Confederation.
The Lekwungen peoples traditionally harvested shellfish on the mud flats of what became known as Major bay, site of today’s Fisherman’s Wharf and James Bay, site of today’s Fairmont Empress Hotel.
For centuries the Lekwungen harvested shellfish from the mud flats of the bay that, with the establishment of Fort Victoria in the 1840’s, became known as Major’s Bay.
In 1859, Robert Laing, a Scottish shipwright, founded one of Victoria’s earliest shipyards, Laing’s Ways in Major Bay. Over the half a century following the demise of the shipyard, the shore became heavily overgrown. Its quiet waters became a free-use home for day-fishing boats, transient barges that moored to pilings beyond the low tide line, and float-home dwellers. Early BC float homes were built on log rafts and provided their residents with affordable housing.
With the close of World War Two, fishing was becoming increasingly important to Victoria’s economy. The single finger float at the foot of Johnson Street that had served fishers was replaced by the $100,000 federally-funded facility called Fisherman’s Wharf at the foot of Erie Street. The new wharf spelled an end to free-use in Major’s Bay. Opened on March 31, 1948, the new wharf was built to accommodate the larger fishing vessels that were beginning to dominate the industry. The facility’s 390-feet long main float ran parallel to the shore had moorings for up to 60 large fish-packing vessels along its six finger floats. The wharf was bookended by two floating fuel barges, with Esso at the west end and Texaco at the east end. The Texaco float had showers, a plus for those who lived afloat at the wharf and dined at Vinnie’s Eats who’s motto was “Dine afloat or Dinah Shore”. The “live aboard” docks were home to a diverse and often eccentric community right up until the turn of 2000.
In the winter of 1965 infill was undertaken in what was Major’s Bay west to the rocky point of land had been called Shipyard Point. In those early years Fisherman’s Wharf was part of a largely industrial waterfront. Hundreds of trollers made Fisherman’s Wharf home until the 1990s.
Today Fisherman’s Wharf is a unique marine destination with a distinct flavour. Working fishing vessels, pleasure boats with live-aboard residents, float homes and commercial businesses are all moored at the docks. The wharf is a great destination for those seeking fresh fish or seafood. The Fisherman’s Wharf marina is located northeast of the Shoal Point condominiums. Water is available on each finger pier, as well as 30 and 50 amp electrical connections. There is no transient moorage available at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to small crab and prawn fleets. Both are trap fisheries, with participants limited to 300 pots per license. Prawn fishing occurs in May and June and is generally conducted in waters between two and four hundred feet deep. Crabbing is usually done in waters less than one hundred and fifty feet deep. In addition, there is a small quota-based fishery for red and green urchins occurring in the winter months. After heading to their favourite spots, divers descend beneath the surface to harvest these sought-after animals. These catches are also offloaded at the Huron St. Dock and trucked to Vancouver.
Trolling was the preferred means of fishing for the Victoria commercial fleet catching pelagic fish such as salmon, mackerel and kingfish. Trolling is the most viable, sustainable method of commercial fishing. A number of fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water. Outriggers lowered from the vessel spread the multiple lines to reduce the chance of tangling. Downriggers are used to keep the lures or baits trailing at the desired depth. Trolling can be phonetically confused with trawling, a different method of fishing where a net or a trawl is drawn through the water instead of fishing lines.
Trollers tend to stay less than one hundred miles offshore, but may cover an area stretching from northern California to Haida Gwaii.
Victoria’s trolling season ran from mid-April to the end of October. The first and last month were predictably rough with bad weather. For many, trolling wasn’t merely a way to make money, it held the lure of the wild, drawing trollers to our country’s the last great frontier. In their vernacular, high -liners were commercially successful trollers and there was nothing more demeaning than being referred to as a lowliner, someone who barely scratched out a living, struggling to make mortgage payments and licence-renewal fees every year.
The Boom Years
Though not to the same extent as the Lekwungen, fishers of European descent were also exploited. They often found themselves indebted to the large fishing companies for their boats and equipment. The companies had complete control over fish prices so fishers had no guarantee their catch would pay for the cost of their boats, equipment and crew, not to mention feeding their families.
This is not what Finnish settlers who had moved to Malcolm Island had in mind in their quest for a Utopian society. To escape corporate domination, the Finns created BC’s first fishing co-operative, the British Columbia Fishermen’s Co-operative Association. Though the co-op was short lived, the idea took root. By the early 1930s, fishing co-ops began springing up along the coast. With the help of educators from the University of British Columbia Extension Department, co-ops became a new force in the industry.
Between 1902 and 1997 BC Packers, based in Steveston BC was the largest fish processor in the British Commonwealth. Circa 1928 the company built a five storey fish processing and cold storage plant on Ogden Point, current site of Victoria’s cruise ship terminal. With the decline of west coast fisheries, B.C. Packers went bankrupt in 1990 and the plant was subsequently demolished in 1993.
Kyoquot Trollers Co-operative Association
Co-operative marketing had become a way of life among the trollers of Vancouver Island’s west coast in 1928. Frustrated with annual “tie-ups” during the busy season, the members of the West Coast Trollers’ Association decided to sell their catch collectively to the highest bidder. Although lacking formal knowledge of co-operative theory, the fishers recognized the benefits of mutual aid, and began constructing their own collecting station in Dolly’s Cove near Nootka. The Kyuquot Trollers Co-operative Association (KTCA) was formed in 1931. In 1934, KTCA built a new store and office on the shore at Kyuquot and began saving for their own packer vessel. Members loaned money to the co-operative, and Co-operator 1, formerly one of Al Capone’s rum-running ships, was purchased in 1936. That year the KTCA opened its business office in Victoria to facilitate communication between the fishers and their markets.
In 1943, KTCA secured a loan from the Royal Bank of Canada to begin mild-curing spring salmon, the co-op’s first foray into fish processing. That year, 462 boats caught over 4.5 million pounds of fish – the co-op’s biggest catch ever.
In 1947, the KTCA set up a new fish cold-storage and ice facility for the fleet of fish packers at Victoria Chemical Company’s wharf. Through mutual co-operation members freed themselves from company domination. Initially co-ops were simply collection agencies, but by the 1950s they were had sophisticated to store, process and market their members’ fish. Members of the KTCA enjoyed the benefits of co-operative activity for twenty years, their high returns, boosted by limited share holdbacks, made them the envy of the west coast fishing industry.
When the market declined after the Second World War, KTCA’s members were not prepared. They continued to expand their operations without ensuring sufficient financial reserves. Increased competition on the fishing grounds decreased production, and in 1949, amalgamation appeared to be the only way to avoid returning to the former system of strikes and company dependence. The bold co-operative experiment begun in 1928 came to a close.
Fishermen would tie up alongside the dock and unload their Salmon and herring catches. The company ran a crew that shucked tons of crab meat. Dennis Shellfish became Washington Fish and finally, Albion Fisheries
Oakland Fisheries was located just east of Fisherman’s Wharf. They specialized in offloading salmon and herring. Herring stock declines as part of the coastwide collapse from overfishing in the 1960s, and the commercial reduction fishery is closed in 1967. After the last Victoria herring boom in 1979, fishing began to slow and as waterfront land became more valuable, Oakland’s fate was sealed and it closed in the mid 1980’s.
The Collapse of West Coast Fisheries
Beginning in the 1990s, with dwindling salmon runs and allocation issues, the federal government embarked on a massive commercial fishing license buy-back program. The Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) set fishery openings for various species in keeping with their calibrated equations in hope of regulating an industry that was careering into decline. The coho, and pink fisheries were delayed, requiring trollers who did hook one before the fishery began to shaken it off… hence the imposed use of the far less effective barbless hooks.
Until 1995 trollers could still fish anywhere on BC’s inside or outside coastal waters, for any species. With the coming of fall they could mount a drum and go gill netting. However by 1995 DFO, with its Round Table restrictions had narrowed the troller’s window of economic opportunity to a mere porthole. Reduced catches and the restrictive government programs decimated British Columbia’s trolling fleet. Where once Fisherman’s Wharf harboured over 100 trollers, now there are less than ten.