Alaska Sea Grant

Halibut Cove Story

The Halibut Cove Story

Halibut Cove, Alaska, is located on the south side of Kachemak Bay on the east side of Cook Inlet. It was occupied by Alaska Native people in prehistoric times for thousands of years, based on the remains found in their midden (or garbage) piles excavated by archaeologists.

In the early 1900s, a large-scale herring fishery developed to catch and process herring that came to spawn in Halibut Cove in the spring and came back in the fall to overwinter in the bay. Steller sea lions, seals, porpoises, belugas, and many species of birds ate large quantities of the fish and sticky eggs that female herring deposited on the eelgrass beds in the intertidal areas. Pods of beluga whales and harbor seals fed on the herring in Halibut Cove Lagoon.

The herring were called “bloaters” due to their large size. They were 12-14 inches in length. Hundreds of people began arriving to harvest the herring in Kachemak Bay during the fall, winter, and spring fishing seasons. At the peak of the fishery, up to 3,000 people worked in the fishery and 38 “saltries” operated in Halibut Cove to pack the herring in brine (saltwater) and barrels for shipment to the East Coast. The town had ocean docks for steamships and a pool hall.

The fishery began in 1911 and ended in 1928, when the saltries stopped operating due to lack of fish. The herring never again returned to Halibut Cove or to other bays and coves in Kachemak Bay in large numbers in the fall.

The end of the herring has never been explained, but possible causes include overfishing and pollution of the spawning areas. In the mid 1920s, large purse seines were allowed to catch the herring in addition to the gillnets that had been used. Complaints were made to the territorial fish commissioner that small herring caught in the purse seines were being “dumped,” which meant that large numbers of both small and large fish were killed before they could reproduce the following spring. The saltries all dumped their fish waste on the beach or in the shallow waters offshore on top of the eelgrass beds where the herring spawned. Large quantities of fish waste could have smothered the eelgrass beds and blocked the light.

Halibut Cove became a ghost town with a few remaining men. It later developed into a small town with art galleries and a restaurant visited by tourists and cabin owners during the summer, with 30-50 year-round residents.

(Adapted from The Story of Halibut Cove by Diana Tillion and the Kachemak Bay Ecological Characterization by the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve)

 

seagrant UAF logo Alaska Department of Education and Early Development noaa