Sustaining North American Salmon: Perspectives Across Regions and Disciplines

Chapter 13: History of the Salmon Fisheries of the Pacific Northwest Coast

Terry Glavin


People and salmon have maintained an elaborate and complex relationship throughout North America’s northwest coast for several thousand years. For most of the 20th century, a prevailing assumption among North Americans has been that salmon were not intensively exploited until the industrial period. In fact, long before the canneries came, salmon were harvested in highly productive fisheries, and salmon were a crucial component of the diet of aboriginal peoples well into the continental interior.

The center of fishing effort in the aboriginal fisheries was not along the Pacific coast but well into the continent’s river systems. Aboriginal fisheries were generally stock-specific, governed according to customary laws. They were generally species-selective and run-selective in nature, which tended to conserve biological diversity and guard against losses in spatial diversity and long-term abundance. These characteristics stand in stark contrast to the industrial fisheries, in which the center of fishing effort was at the mouths of rivers and well into mixed-stock areas in the saltwater environment. Such fisheries management features have long been associated with overfishing, the extirpation of co-migrating stocks, losses in biological diversity, and losses in spatial diversity and abundance.