According to long-time Ucluelet harbourmaster Pat O’Reilly, “Ucluelet harbour really established itself in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a place for hand trollers targeting salmon and small halibut boats to offload their catch. There maybe have been about 50 regular fishing vessels operating out of here back then.” He goes on, “It was all very small-scale, family-run boats, just venturing out locally into the Sound or slightly offshore. They’d go out during the short seasons, catch fish for the canneries operating nearby or salt them in barrels and ship them down south by steamship.”
The fishing fleet operating out of Ucluelet remained modest up through the mid-20th century, consisting mostly of small trollers, gillnetters and longliners pursuing salmon, groundfish and halibut close to the coast. According to the Ucluelet Aquarium’s Mara Feeney: “In the 1950s and 60s, the harbour might have between 10 to 30 trollers leaving at a time during peak salmon season, going out for day trips within 5-10 miles. There were also handful of small longliners of maybe 40 feet landing good catches of rockfish and lingcod from closer waters.”As cold storage and processing capacities expanded nearby and markets grew through the latter 1900s,
Ucluelet increasingly became a launch point for farther-ranging vessels. Larger seine boats, longliners and trawlers were moored in the harbour which targeted productive fishing grounds 20-50 miles offshore or seaward. Veteran Ucluelet fisherman William Mack reflects: “By the 70s, most captains were taking their 40 to 60-foot boats at least 25 miles offshore, even 50 if needed to fill the hold with prime salmon, halibut, black cod or prawns during short 2-3 day trips. They had the range and cold storage to stay out longer.”
According to Statistics Canada fish catch reports analyzed by the Department of Fisheries, the peak diversity and productivity of fishing fleets operating from Ucluelet’s docks was seen through the 1980s and early 1990s prior to major fisheries policy changes. “In 1989 for example,” notes Department of Fisheries biologist Sandra Kemp, “Records show 95 registered commercial fishing vessels frequently utilizing Ucluelet harbour over the course of the year. About 32 seiners targeting salmon, 32 longliners pursuing halibut and other groundfish, 12 trawlers dragging for prawns, plus 19 trollers and gillnetters – all delivering millions of pounds of seafood.”
Kemp explains during this period, “Purse seiners as large as 90 feet fished intensively for sockeye and pink salmon through the summer months, pursuing dense schools 25-45 miles along the coast and westward towards offshore banks. The longliners frequently embarked on 5-7 day trips in the early year targeting halibut, black cod and rockfish on distant fishing grounds 45-55 miles out like La Perouse Bank or southward past Tofino. By August, many longliners would switch to salmon, setting lines closer inshore.” Trawlers worked farther offshore prawn and groundfish grounds 50-100 miles west, while smaller craft focused on closer opportunities.
Fourth generation Ucluelet fisherman Hank McAllister reflects on the breadth of fishing activity seen at the time: “The harbour was filled to the gunnels with fishing boats from May through October in the 80s. Upwards of 50-70 boats launched on a typical morning at dawn during peak salmon season. You had this dichotomy of boats streaming back in heavy with fish while others raced out empty to set their nets, longlines or trawl gear within hours. There was such urgency to catch your limit before the short seasons ended, it was chaotic but exhilarating out there.”
According to Bill Mather’s definitive chronicle ‘Harbour of Dreams’, the diversity and productivity of commercial fishing voyaging from Ucluelet reached an apex in 1988 when 99 vessels landed $28 million of seafood, including 10.2 million pounds of salmon, over 2 million pounds of halibut, 845,000 pounds of black cod, plus substantial catches of prawns, herring, groundfish and more. “You really had this ‘mosaic’ fleet fishing hard within a 50-100 mile stretch of coastal waters that was extremely fertile until overexploitation hit its limits,” he summarizes.
However, the open access era was short lived as overfishing concerns mounted through the late 80s, forcing sweeping changes by Fisheries in the 90s and a winnowing of fleet size. Effort restrictions like the Mifflin Plan initiating Individual Vessel Quotas (IVQs) were soon implemented which reduced competition and total allowable catches. Long-time Ucluelet Fishermen’s Wharf manager Tom Bowen notes, “When those ITQ regulatory changes fully kicked in by 1995, the fleet here slimmed down to maybe 45 active vessels. The halibut fleet took the biggest initial hit as quotas got massively cut, it forced a number of our longliners to switch to salmon or crabbing.”
Mather’s research indicates fish landings value out of Ucluelet subsequently declined nearly 55% between 1994-97, severely impacting the resilience of the fleet. “Rising costs, quota constraints and later the 20% reduction in commercial salmon licenses delivered a real one-two punch that the fishery here never fully recovered from,” he comments.
O’Reilly estimates by 2005, no more than 35 commercial vessels remained frequently active out of Ucluelet harbour, marking a 63% decline within 15 years. “Sizable boats and whole fisheries disappeared, quite a change from the frenzied activity seen daily during past seasons,” he reflects. Describing the lingering fleet he says, “Most of what we see now are seiners or trollers in the 30 to 50 foot range chasing salmon during the brief summer openings. They maybe venture 10 to 30 miles offshore to target fish, few boats have the quota anymore to go much beyond a day trip.”
There is a seasonal rhythm to fishing activity out of Ucluelet each year. Come late March and April, a portion of the fleet departs seeking early-returning Chinooks, coho, and the first halibut openings, according to O’Reilly: “As many as 20 to 25 boats will embark on multi-day trips in early spring, the seiners and longliners hitting closer banks 25-40 miles offshore, while 10 larger trawlers press outwards targeting prawns and groundfish on grounds 50 plus miles out for trips of 7 days or longer.”
Activity escalates towards July and August as more salmon start migrating down the coast, with runs of sockeye, pink, chum and silvers drawing 10-30 vessels offshore on trips generally under 50 miles. “The seiners and trollers predominate through summer,” O’Reilly details. “They pursue schools hard for quick limits, particularly out towards La Perouse Bank, staying within cell phone range given the short openings.” By September, action in the harbour declines as salmon runs taper off and boats conduct final groundfish or halibut trips prior to seasonal closures.
Reflecting on the diminished state of current operations, third generation fisherman Peter Chandler observes: “We maybe have 35 to 40 boats that fish fairly regularly out of Ucluelet nowadays. The seiners and trollers predominate…Most longer-range vessels gave up years ago due to all the restrictions, lack of profitability. Climate change has made things less predictable too… It’s nothing like what I remember as a kid in terms of the action.”
Though much reduced from its heyday, commercial fishing endures as an integral livelihood and cultural tradition for the community of Ucluelet. As part of the broader ‘Salmon Coast’, Ucluelet retains its identity and connection to a once-bountiful fishery now facing conservation concerns and an uncertain future. The resilient boats that still depart from its harbour each season represent the hopes of local fishing families clinging to a vanishing way of life out on the Pacific Ocean. Their catches link Ucluelet to its storied fishing heritage that launched so many voyages from its waveswept shores.
The small coastal town of Ucluelet, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, has a rich history steeped in fishing.Now it is becoming known as a great place for sport fishing. Situated along the rocky shores of Barkley Sound, Ucluelet’s sheltered harbour has long served as a hub for those seeking bountiful Pacific salmon, halibut, cod and other species during seasonal openings.