The romance of the capture and conservation of Hippoghssus, King of the Flatfish
SAM L. SIMPSON
FEBRUARY, 1927. The Gulf of Alaska. Snow swirling thickly on a southeast gale. The schooner Scandia, laboring in night and heavy seas.
It is dark in the pilot house, save for a spot of light, on the dancing compass. The face of a man at the wheel is tinged with the glow. His hands whirl the spokes and steady the swinging card.
Windows are halfway down. A wedge hammered with the fist between frame and sill holds them there.
Eyes, dilated into the black void that engulfs the ship, smart with the lash of gale and snow and the strain of anxious watch.
“Ought t’ hear the bell any time now.”
And nothing to be heard but the shriek of the swooping wind. Nothing to see but racing crests of waves, recurring smothers of white at the schooner’s lunging side. White heads of waves rearing around and ahead—like waiting breakers. The throbbing Diesel pounding them on . . .
The bell buoy at the entrance to Kodiak Harbor had blown adrift in the storm. The Scandia, a ninety-five-foot vessel chartered by the Halibut Commission, was lost in the blinding snow.
She struck on a reef and at once began to grind herself to pieces on the teeth of the rocks.
In a tiny cubicle crowded with coils, dials and lit tubes, Paul Roegner, a boy fresh from high school, tapped out the S.O.S. with steady hand.
The Kodiak station heard his call and two boats put out to their rescue.
The Scandia was breaking up rapidly and the crew could not wait for help. Two dories were launched and they promptly smashed to pieces against the side. The third and last was half swamped in a sea. The captain and one of the crew leap«! into it and baled it out. Seven of the crew jumped in and started for the shore that was somewhere in the murk ahead.
Meanwhile Bill Stone, captain of the seine boat Duncan No. 1, drove his vessel through a boiling nest of reefs and picked up the dory making for shore. He made a last hair-raising attempt to save the men left on the Scandia and succeeded. True to tradition, Captain O. O. Hvatum, one of the owners of the Scandia, was the last to leave.
And thus there drifted into Kodiak town a bedraggled company of scientists and fishermen, nans clothes, sans money, sans certain deep-sea equipment that the fish are probably still wondering at, and lastly, sans one of the best halibut schooners on the Pacific Coast.
All this was really staged for the benefit of one hippoglossus, the king of flatfish, the halibut himself. Your knowledge of King Hippoglossus may be limited to “Halibut au gratin. Fish and chips, 30 cents. Some of that nice fish in the window, please.” Halibut in cafi>s, markets, homes. Halibut in Winnipeg, Chicago, Toronto,
But behind every browned steak of it, flanked by crescent moons of potatoes, decked with sprigs of parsley and anointed with lemon, is a story of the brain and the brawn of two nations; a story of perilous adventuring on tumultuous northern seas; of fortunes won and fortunes lost; and a story of the ingenuity of science in husbanding the treasure-trove of the deep against man’s cupidity.
“Fish — Perishable—Urgent”
YOU are on your way to Prince Rupert, via the Canadian National Railways. West of the Rockies, snorting down the long western slope, your locomotive stripping the hundreds of miles and throwing them in streamers of rails and ties over its iron shoulder. Prince George, Burns Lake, Smithers. And then you are shunted off, and complain to a neighbor; “What’s the idea? What are we waiting for?”
At the point of the converging V of westward track, smoke appears and a rumble starts and grows. A savage locomotive crescendoes into sight with ten cars flying at
its back like a witch’s shawl. Iron paws pad the line and your ears tremble. In a thunderous blur the train rushes past, rounds the curve. Rails shiver after it, the hills whoop it up and sink again in silence.
“And what’s that?”
“Fish Special. Loaded with halibut and bound to eastern markets.”
If you doubt his word, continue on to the Prince Rupert wharves and be convinced. Here, with the good smell of fresh fish in your nose, with the slippery dock underfoot, with the ceaseless rattle of winches and the uncertain anathemas of sea-gulls in your ears, you can see the halibut making his debut on land.
For two weeks or more he has been packed in ice in the belly of his foe. Now he comes out of the hold in a heavy net sling. Chickens mostly, halibut under eleven and three-quarter pounds, if the boat is from the Goose Island or Massett banks. Big fellows running up to two hundred pounds, if they come from the Alaska banks,
the Portlock and Albatross, and the far grounds to the westward.
They are dumped on a platform on the dock and a brawny fellow in yellow oilskins wreaks havoc among them. He hooks the head of each fish, holds it up, gives a quick slash with a knife as sharp as a razor should be, and decapitates it.
When you have watched dexterity until you are tired, take a taxi to Seal Cove and behold a slice of the Arctic in permanent southern quarters. “The largest cold storage plant of its kind in the British Empire.”
It is a big concrete building, eyeless as a grain elevator. Dynamos and motors of enormous power pulse in the heart of it. Ammonia is pumped day and night through its veins.
Find yourself an overcoat first and then follow your guide, closing heavy doors carefully behind you. Thick walls deaden the sound of footsteps. Long, chill corridors open into chambers where man-made frost has gleamed for years on the coated, winding pipes. Your expelled breath clouds in the still air. Your toes are pinched by the cold.
In the rooms, halibut—halibut stacked in piles like cordwood; frozen fish, cords and cords of them. Lean a big fish against a wall and it stands there upright, stiff as a board. And in other rooms blocks of bait, hapless herring frozen solidly in great cakes of ice. A marine morgue. A monstrous concrete igloo. An institution devoted to the preservation of the halibut ... in ice.
Nine months every year ply the halibut boats, American and Canadian, garnering the sea, and filling with their takings this monster’s frigid maw, and minor maws to the north and south. Fifty million pounds of halibut landed every year. Fifty million pounds thundering through mountains and over prairies, to be displayed in market windows in half the cities on the North American continent. Canada’s share of the annual harvest alone is valued at more than $4,000,000.
Gruelling, unpleasant labor, uncertainty of reward, and the many manners of insidious grief that visit men who face the ocean in small boats attend the work of the fisherman who reaps this harvest. He earns every cent he gets, and he will often tell you in forceful terms that he earns a good deal he doesn’t get.
The boats are from forty to a hundred feet in length, stoutly timbered to meet Alaskan seas and winter gales, and powered with heavy oil engines. The grounds extend along the continental shelf of northwest America, from Cape Flattery along the British Columbia and Alaskan coast, swinging down the southwestern arc of the Aleutians to the brink of the Bering Sea.
Dories are carried today, but only as lifeboats and tenders. All fishing is done from the boat itself — “long liners” they are called. The gear is laid in a long ground line on the bottom, a five-foot ganging line fastened to it every two fathoms, and a single hook at the end of each ganging.
The gear is dropped over a chute at the stern, literally miles and miles of it. At each end of the string is an anchor, a buoy line, and a buoy keg on the surface to mark where the gear is set out.
Halibut fishermen have keen eyes.
But it is not easy to spot one infinitesimal floating keg in a whole waste of ocean. And there are times when wind is coming up and gear must be found and got aboard and a quick run made to shelter. So another buoy, a bamboo pole sunk at one end with window sash weights, buoyed in the middle with seine corks, and standing half its length out of the ocean as stiffly straight as the neck of a frightened crane, is used, with a red canvas flag at the top of it by day and an electric light by night.
There are few holidays on a halibut boat. Gear must be overhauled on the trip north, skate after skate in its canvas holder. And when the grounds are neared there is “baiting up,” transfixing a herring on each hook with lightning swiftness, for time is important when there are thousands of hooks to be baited.
The gear is hauled in at the side with a special winch, the gurdy. Hard work in summer on a placidly heaving sea, the hot Pacific sun on the deck, the gurdy grinding in miles of ground line, till your undershirt is soaked with sweat, and your back aches and aches with coiling it. Cold work on a winter day, with sleet out of the north, the sluggish schooner under a reefed foresail, oilskins half frozen, and hands that feel entirely so, cleaning halibut on deck, and icing them down in the hold, and sluicing the decks with sea water drawn with a bucket from overside.
And every year the grey gull of death follows the northern fleet. Last year the Kanatak, the Tyee, the Seabird. “Reported overdue” and finally “lost with all hands” is poor cheer for a wife and children at Christmas.
A boat may be battered in a gale until its strained
timbers give way, and founder in seas that not even a dory can ride. The engine may break down with a cliffbound coast waiting on the lee beam, and again it may be the most feared of all disasters, a vessel may be “iced down.”
When a northeaster strikes the Gulf of Alaska in winter it is bitter, freezing cold. A thousand miles of glaciers and frozen tundra are behind. Spindrift is frozen in mid-air into pellets hard as lead, as soon as it is whipped from the wave.
No ship is spared. Alaska liners, steam trawlers, and the smallest of the halibut fleet must face this white peril in winter time. Spray freezes where it strikes. Deck, rigging, the entire ship from stem to stern is covered with heavy,solid ice. Ropes are swollen and stiff, like huge
iron pipes. Many a fisherman has chopped at ice for a night and a day so that his choked, sluggish vessel may live.
Physical miseries are not all. Seven or eight men are cooped together for weeks in a narrow, stuffy forecastle not half as big as an ordinary kitchen. Here they eat, sleep and find each other out.
In stormy weather it may be impossible to work on deck for a week at a stretch. Hove to, pounding day and night into interminable rollers, grey dawn melting into grey dusk, the crash of another sea on the deck overhead,
the endless lurching and rolling, curdle the best of natures. Storm-bound in some rocky western harbor is as bad: swinging all night long to the creak of the anchor chain; waves that mutter against the side; magazines that have been read until the sight of them sickensa man.
There are compensations, of course. Picture yourself one of a jubilant crew Rupert bound, rounding the last buoy in Metlakatla Passage. The lights of the northern city sprawl on the farther shore. The pleased face of the skipper is framed in the open pilothouse window. A wad of Copenhagen bulges his brown, newly-shaven cheek.
In the foc’s’le suitcases gape before the mad rush for shore-going clothes. White collars are in desperate clinches around bull necks. Three weeks hard fishing behind; a man lost overboard and caught by the slack of the pants on the return wave. Thousands of pounds in the hold. Every man ready to “go ashore on the heaving line” as the sea-saying goes.
It is late. Only the old watchman who saw them go out is there with his lantern. With many a rheumatic twinge he drops the spliced eye of a line over the wharf cleat.
“How’s the price? Holding up, eh?”
“Down, Axel, down. No. 1 sold for ten cents a pound yesterday.”
A doleful silence.
“And that, boys,” says the skipper, “means that each of you is in the hole about forty dollars.”
Of such is the life of the commercial halibut fisherman.
Science Takes a Hand
"DUT his is not the only •*-* search after King Hippoglossus. Ranging the open ocean with him are crews of another sort, crews of pinkcheeked college men who fish not for lucre but for science. Such a one was the crew of the Scandia whose untimely end has already been recorded. And on the exploits of the Scandia and others of her ilk hangs another story. To wit:
Man is supposedly a bright little being, but it has taken him an almighty long time to discover that cake is perishable if eaten. In the halibut we have a case in point, and it is to the everlasting credit of Canada and the United States that their asso-
ciate skulls are
Continued on page 90
Continued, from page 13
weakening before the onslaught of this unpalatable truth.
Friend halibut is no exception to the universal law that a limited amount cannot forever withstand unlimited subtractions. The halibut has been on the down grade for twenty years. For years we greased the skids, covered our eyes, and fondly hoped the decline would stop.
There has been false encouragement in the fact that over this period the annual catch has been sustained and even slightly increased. But at what cost! The main fishing grounds shifted northward 1,200 miles, leaving behind banks barren of spawning fish.
In 1906 the fishery extended 600 miles. In 1928 the halibut boats covered 1,800 miles of grounds. And we are getting practically the same amount of fish as we did twenty-three years ago. And we are using many times the gear employed then. It took six hooks on the bottom last year to catch as many fish as one hook caught in 1906. Mama and papa Halibut are just about cleaned up on the southern grounds, and we are advancing upon their tender offspring of lesser years and poundage. The annual catch of starfish, bullheads, sea-cucumbers, and other nuisances that clutter hooks and feast on bait reach higher levels. The halibut is going, going . .
Once a Haida Indian of Massett could slip out to sea of a morning in his cedar canoe, lower overside a clumsy hook of crab-apple wood with a pointed iron barb, and in a few hours have his craft down to the gunwales with white-bellied halibut.
Now the Indian is old, one of the oldest in the village. His hands are warped with rheumatism, but he still ventures out, fishing all day long, sitting on a thwart, a patient, shivering mummy of a man, and the tug of a halibut is seldom felt on his quiet line.
Depletion finally became so obvious that the governments of the two countries directly concerned came up against the main reason for doing things—something had to be done. An important conclave was duly held. Out of it grew the Northern Pacific Halibut Treaty between the United States and Canada, ratified October 2, 1924. Out of the Treaty grew the International Fisheries Commission. And out of the Commission grows hope for future generations of fishermen and fisheaters.
By the terms of the treaty the two governments agreed to control this important resource jointly through the commission, to share equally the costs of the necessary investigation, and bound themselves to mutual observance of such regulations as might be found essential.
The result was an experiment of firstrate importance in politics as well as in science. “It is the first effective treaty for control of a deep-sea fishery.” Various gentlemen abroad, particularly in the neighborhood of the North Sea, are watching its progress with interest. National antagonisms and rivalries for once have been scrapped, and Canada and the United States are jointly working out a problem common to both.
Most of the available authorities on marine biology were embodied as an honorary scientific council. Two representatives were appointed from each country. From the United States: Prof. John N. Cobb, Dean of the College of Fisheries, University of Washington; N. B. Scofield, Head of the Department of Commercial Fisheries of California. From Canada: Dr. C. McLean Fraser, of the University of British Columbia; Dr. W. A. Clemens, Director of the Marine Biological Station at Nanaimo, B.C. Mr. W. F. Thompson, one of the few who had up to that time investigated the Pacific
halibut, was appointed director of investigations.
Science to the Rescue
HTHE first practical consequence of the treaty was the establishing of a closed season. For three months each winter, from November 16 to February 15, the halibut fleet was given an enforced holiday, which meant that for three months each year hippoglossus was left undisturbed to thrive and multiply as he might.
This much accomplished, the commission then concentrated on the collection of scientific data necessary for further intelligent control of the fishery. It acquired a shore plant—quiet laboratories in the University of Washington at Seattle, a red building on the Prince Rupert dock labelled “Experimental Station.” It hired a staff of young graduates in biology from Canadian and United States universities, and said to them: “Go find out all there is to be known about King Hippoglossus so that we may treat with him intelligently.”
And so it was. A census of the halibut kingdom was started. Thousands upon thousands of fish were pulled up out of the sea, measured, tagged, dropped back into the ocean to be caught again later on. Upon the basis of the information thus secured, mortality tables were worked out, and definite indication secured of the halibut’s “expectation of life”—an all important matter to the commercial fishermen.
Ashore and afloat, the pink-cheeked college boys pursued King Hippoglossus, seeking to draw the veil aside on his private life. They dragged the sea with nets of fine silk, dredging up for examination the microscopic marine life upon which he feeds. They studied the tides, the temperatures of the water in which he has his habitat. They followed him with the impersonal eye of the microscope from his first appearance as an egg in the ocean until his final, fried appearance on a platter.
Many and curious were the facts they discovered.
Hippoglossus, His History
rTvHE halibut belongs to a species in which the female is not only more deadly but larger than the male. In fact, the male seems reluctant to meet his overgrown spouse at all. At spawning time the males visit the grounds, deposit a free-floating sperm, and leave. The female comes and spreads her eggs. And a lady halibut considers herself a credit to the tribe if, out of 2,000,000 impregnated eggs, two mature.
A small margin, but Nature has worked her reproductive dealings thus for ages.
If you have ever seen a halibut you will have noticed that he is flat, flat as a pancake. The halibut, like the sole and flounder, is a bottom-feeding fish. The underside of him, next the bed of the ocean, is white. The back may be grey or mottled, of which more later.
In the first year of his existence the inch-long halibut swims on edge, even as the trout or salmon. Then a marvellous change takes place. He gradually flattens himself, and the under eye, not liking the monotonous scenery of the ocean bottom, migrates to the top of his head and stays there for the rest of his life.
The wonders of the halibut do not stop at this point. He is by way of being a quick-change artist. He can alter the color of his top coat with a speed that beats a rabbit a dozen ways.
Suppose a halibut is caught that has been living on a sandy bottom. His back will be a grey that completely merges him in his surroundings when at rest.
Take the same fish and put him down
Continued on page 93
Continued from page 90
over a muddy or rocky bottom. In a few hours he will have camouflaged himself again. He will have taken on a different shade and may even be spotted the better to escape detection. No complete analysis of the halibut's remarkable adaptability to the color of his surroundings has yet been made. The theory held is that his skin contains chromospores, color cells, that are acted upon by light refracted from the bed of the sea. You may tell the age of a horse by looking at his teeth. To tell the age of a halibut you must look at his ears. Not that his ears are prominent. On the contrary they are quite refined; so well concealed that only a scientist can find them. In the ear chamber are two small earbones, known as otoliths. A halibut grows fast during the warmer season of the year, hardly at all in winter. And each growing season the earbones are coated with a calcareous substance, much like the enamel of a tooth. To ascertain the age of a halibut a cross section of an otolith is examined, and there are his years to be reckoned up by the rings, just as one counts the rings on a tree. An Underwater Census
THE halibut census takers began their “tagging” in 1925, using the Canadian schooner Sea Maid. Captain Doreen, chubby, happy skipper of the Sea Maid, remembers that first season well.
“They wanted to tag fish on the Massett banks around Rose Spit—as dirty a piece of water as you can find anywhere.
“Seasick! Those fellows were sick from the time we left the dock till we touched it again. A dozen times I thought their insides would go over the rail.
“But they stuck it. We’d be tied to the Massett dock. ‘Choppy out there today,’ I'd tell them. And they had learned that when I said it was choppy I meant it. ‘That’s all right, Cap,’ they’d say. ‘We can stand it if you can.’ So out we’d go.
“They say goverm’nt jobs are soft. Those fellows couldn’t have been long in the service then. We’d be hauling gear off Rose Spit long after everybody with any sense would have quit. Rolling our rail under. Our government men, pale as frozen ghosts, tied ropes around their waists, and measured up fish and clipped on tags.
“Great boys! ‘We should worry,’ they used to tell me, grinning. ‘We’ve got two of the biggest corporations in the world behind us. If one goes broke we’ll get our pay from the other.’ ”
Tagging and life-history investigations were begun farther north in the ill-fated Scandia. Since the wreck of that ship they have been carried on in the Dorothy, reputed the largest and finest schooner of her kind on the Pacific Coast.
These young fellows, fresh from the laboratories and the quiet academic halls, have grimly held up their end. Backbone was required, and backbone turned up when needed.
Even the most downy-cheeked of them has won the respect of the fishermen. And this has been a valuable part of their work. Without the liking and the cooperation of the whole fleet their ends would be much harder to accomplish.
The tagging is simply done. The halibut are examined as they come aboard. When one is found to be uninjured, the hook is removed and the fish placed in a cradle on deck. At the bottom of the cradle is a brass rod with a graduated scale. This gives the length of the fish at a glance.
Other measurements are taken. The tag, made of monel metal, is fastened to the opercle or cheekbone of the halibut. Then the halibut is dropped into the sea, free to go until it is brought up on another vessel’s gear.
In the northern ports a corps is always at work, collecting tags, for which a
reward is paid, and examining tagged fish. The fishermen on the whole are ready enough to help and proffer information, sometimes too ready.
On one occasion a young man collecting tags in Prince Rupert—we shall call him Smith—received a letter from his senior in Seattle.
“Smith, check all data on fish 1978. If this fish was taken where your report states, he must have travelled from the place where he was tagged at the rate of ninety-four miles per hour. This is startling, if true.”
Smith, with blood in his eye, goes down to the wharves to find his informant. But that worthy is safely out on the banks, slapping a fat knee with delight, and telling the crew around the forecastle table, “By Yiminy! that vas gude yoke!”
But Smith is learning their wily ways. One old skipper had steadfastly refused to aid him in his work. He would give up the tag, but he would not save the tagged fish for examination.
One morning Smith was trying to persuade him to pick out the fish as it came out of the hold, and as usual the skipper grumblingly refused.
Smith is an amateur photographer. An idea dawned. He dropped the argument and took a snapshot of the skipper’s boat from his pocket, holding it critically before him.
“Fine boat you’ve got, Cap,” he remarked.
Now if there is one thing a halibut skipper is proud of, it is his boat. He may admit deficiencies in himself, in his wife and family, but never in his boat. And this one was no exception.
“Yah!” he beamed, and became as excited as a Norseman can. “Beautiful! Ay buy it from you.”
“Very rare, very hard to get,” said Smith, hugging his picture. “Couldn’t possibly part with it.”
After much haggling they came to terms. The captain has his picture. And every time he comes in, he saves his tagged fish for Smith.
“A Poor Risk”
'"TAGGING has produced some very disturbing results. Over thirty per cent of the tags are recovered. This indicates that the halibut today is what an insurance company would call a poor risk.
And halibut are now known to be fish of slow growth. They live to be twentyfive years old and constantly increase in size. Fish of 250 pounds are common, and fish of 300 pounds have been reported. But they are not worth full market price until they are out of the “chicken” stage, that is, over eleven and three-quarter pounds. On the southern banks it takes them eight to ten years to attain this size.
More and more young fish are being taken. Less fish of spawning age are left to restock the banks. The female does not mature until the eighth year, and on the southern banks few fish of this age are left. The industry has maintained a level only by expansion to new grounds and expansion is nearing an end. The yield of the older banks decreased seventy per cent in a decade, and the new ones are not holding out as well.
Strict conservation is necessary if the fisheries are to be saved. Halibut are not, generally speaking, migratory, except in the most northern waters, where there is a definite westward drift. The winter closed season now enforced is of doubtful value. Conditions vary greatly on different banks and no single regulation is effective.
Whatever measures the two governments finally take, they are liable to be stringent ones. The unified efforts made by Canada and the United States to investigate the fisheries are inspiring. Science is doing its part. They have demonstrated the extreme seriousness of the situation. It will be a bad blot on the records if the halibut, like the Pacific fur seal, is destroyed to the point of commercial extinction.