Commercial fishing has been a part of the Alberni Valley’s post-colonial history for almost as long as forestry. Numerous types of fish have been caught and processed all along the Alberni Inlet, from salmon to dogfish (a small shark), herring to pilchards (an oily fish similar to sardines), halibut to deep-sea cod.
Methods of fishing have varied, from fishing poles to handheld nets to commercial fishing vessels of all sorts. Historian Jan Peterson writes about several different aspects of fishing in her trio of books The Albernis, Twin Cities and Journeys down the Alberni Canal to Barkley Sound.
The Alberni Valley Museum’s online digital archives contain numerous photos of commercial fishing, including this undated black and white photo that was part of a series of donated photographs.
The photograph isn’t large enough to identify the fish collected in the net, but they look small enough to be herring or pilchards.
Pilchards were a bit of a mystery to fishers in the Alberni Inlet, when the run suddenly appeared in 1917. “Why pilchards began crowding the waters of the west coast and Barkley Sound is still unknown,” Peterson wrote in Twin Cities.
The pilchard fishery started as an accident. Some of the oily fish were caught up with chum salmon in a net and a Nootka Packing Company manager noticed them. He asked someone to cook them up in the cannery kitchen, and liked them so much he sent a boat out to catch some more so the company could experiment with canning them.
A decade later the slippery little fish were responsible for a boom in fish production plants in the Alberni Inlet. There were more than two dozen reduction plants employing 1,000 people and more than 200 vessels providing fish.
The booming fishing industry, coupled with the strong forestry industry prompted construction of Port Alberni’s first assembly wharf. But that’s another story.
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