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Sailing Fish Skiffs on the Skeena River
by John MacFarlane 2018
Gas engine powered fish skiff on the Skeena River about 1910. (This may be a powered version of the traditional sailing skiffs) (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )
Canneries on the Skeena River required a steady supply of fish to feed the canning lines that were aggressively operating. They arranged for the construction of small one–man or two–man wooden hulled boats that could be propelled by sail or oars. Often these boats were constructed right on site by shipwrights in a company–owned shipyard.
The skiffs had to be towed to the general fishing area by a small tow boat. They would be dropped off, one at a time, and the crew left to set gill nets. The boats had a distinctive number painted on their sides and they were painted in distinctive colours so that the cannery could observe whether or not they were selling their catch to a competitor.
Sailing fish skiffs being towed to and from a cannery on the Skeena River by Fred MacFarlane and Arthur MacFarlane about 1910. The boats were crewed by First Nations people, and fishermen from Japan, and Europe. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)
The crews worked where they could set their net across the current. One rowed while the other set the net over the side. A net up to 1,000 feet in length was buoyed up by cork floats. The oarsman would row stern first while the net was retrieved. Some crews used a small tent for protection from the rain.
Sailing fish skiffs being towed to and from a cannery on the Skeena River by Fred MacFarlane and Arthur MacFarlane about 1910. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )
Each salmon needed to be killed by a sharp blow on the head with a club. The fish were removed from the net until it was completely clear. This might involve handling hundreds of pounds of fish a shift. Then the process began again until the twelve hour shift was finished. Boats landed their catch into scows at anchor in the vicinity or at the fish camp itself. Fish were not cleaned until they reached the cannery but often waited 24 to 48 hours before this could be done. This greatly affected the quality of the fish which sometimes had to be dumped into the ocean because they had spoiled. The waste was significant.
Arthur MacFarlane (on right) helping to carry large fish weighing "over 100 pounds". (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)
The hand fishing methods and the abundance of fish produced very high quality catches which are seldom seen in today’s catches.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2018) Sailing Fish Skiffs on the Skeena River. Nauticapedia.ca 2018. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Skeena_Fishing.php
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