Halibut Treaty

After five years of negotiation, the United States and Canada reached an agreement to save the fisheries of the North Pacific.

Summary of Event

On March 21, 1919, a Canadian-American Fisheries Conference called for a closed season on halibut fishing in the North Pacific every year for the next ten years. The commission, made up of scientists and fisheries experts, reported that halibut would totally disappear from the seas unless fishing could be prohibited for at least this period. In October of the same year, the Canadian government sent a draft treaty to the U.S. secretary of state calling for an end to halibut fishing from November 15, 1920, to February 15, 1921, and similar dates each year until 1930. According to the terms of the treaty, boats violating this season would be seized by either country’s navy and their owners suitably punished. The treaty also contained provisions concerning regulations on lobster fishing, tariffs on fish traded between the two nations, rules for port privileges for fishing boats, and a call for a scientific investigation into the life history of the Pacific halibut. [kw]Halibut Treaty (Oct. 21, 1924)
[kw]Treaty, Halibut (Oct. 21, 1924)
Halibut Treaty (1924)
[g]Canada;Oct. 21, 1924: Halibut Treaty[06140]
[g]United States;Oct. 21, 1924: Halibut Treaty[06140]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 21, 1924: Halibut Treaty[06140]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 21, 1924: Halibut Treaty[06140]
Byng, Julian
Hughes, Charles Evans
King, William Lyon Mackenzie

The United States took no immediate action on the proposal. In February, 1921, however, another commission of fisheries experts issued another report predicting disaster unless halibut received protection. This conference report likened the troubles of the halibut industry to the terrible conditions faced by salmon fishermen on the Pacific coast. The value of salmon shipped from U.S. and Canadian canneries had dropped by more than 90 percent since 1913 (from $30 million to $3 million) and was heading quickly toward zero. The halibut industry faced similarly depressed conditions unless something could be done quickly to save the fish.

In the United States, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover recognized the need for action on the treaty. President Warren G. Harding sent the document to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification, a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote of approval. Senators began debating the various sections of the proposal but refused to give consent after objections from the governor and fisheries authorities in Washington State as well as members of Congress. These objections were based on the claim that the halibut question properly belonged in the hands of state officials, not the federal authorities; thus the province of British Columbia should be discussing limits with the state of Washington. Canadian authorities argued in turn that the provinces had no jurisdiction over such international questions as fisheries, so direct negotiations with the state of Washington were not permitted.

Another problem had to do with punishing violators of the closed season. Canada suggested that ships caught with halibut during the closed season could be tried in both countries if authorities desired. Several senators argued that this would constitute double jeopardy, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Anyone suspected of breaking the law should be tried only once and in only one court for the same crime. Because of these objections, the treaty was withdrawn from Senate consideration in late August. It seemed to have no chance of ratification.

Canadian fisheries experts expressed outrage at the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty and asked Secretary Hughes whether any modifications would change the results. He replied that he knew of no modifications that would change the minds of those senators who were opposed, but he did suggest a meeting between Washington State officials and Canadian experts in the Pacific Northwest, and both sides agreed to that proposal. In February, 1922, representatives from the Canadian Marine and Fisheries Department met with the Fisheries Board of the state of Washington. They reached no agreement on protecting halibut, but they did decide to stop sockeye salmon fishing totally for five years, so desperately low was the population of that species. Washington State officials refused to give any assurances that they would help control halibut fishing.

In August, 1922, the Canadian government, tired of waiting for action by the United States, sent a new draft of a treaty proposal to Washington, D.C., asking for immediate action. On December 14, the United States agreed in principle to the new treaty, although it still needed Senate approval. The new treaty provided for a closed season on halibut. Violators would be turned over either to the U.S. Department of Commerce or to the Canadian Ministry of Marine and Fisheries of the Dominion of Canada, but not to both agencies. Representatives of the United States suggested that halibut taken accidentally during the closed season be used only to feed the crew of the detained vessel but not be sold. This provision was added to the final draft of the treaty.

A new complication arose when the revised treaty was sent back to Canada. In February, 1923, the British Colonial Office in London demanded that the treaty’s title be changed before it could be given final approval by the English government. Canada, at this time, was still officially part of the British Empire, and the British authorities insisted that the title be changed from “A Convention for the Regulation of Halibut Fisheries on the Pacific Coast of Canada and the United States” to “A Convention for the Regulation of Halibut Fisheries on the Pacific Coast of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, Emperor of India and the United States.” The first version of the titled would have signified that Canada had the right to negotiate its own treaties, something that had never happened before and that the British wished to ensure never would.

Governor-General Julian Byng of Canada suggested that, because the treaty concerned only the United States and Canada, the signature of a Canadian minister should be enough to make it official. The British government extended plenipotentiary powers to Canada’s representative, Ernest Lapointe, Lapointe, Ernest minister of marine and fisheries, to sign the treaty on behalf of His Majesty the king.

The proposed treaty established the closed season for each year as November 16 to February 15; halibut taken during this season could be used only for food for the crew of the boat that took the fish. Violators would have their boats seized and would be tried in the courts in the nation from which they came. The treaty also established the four-member International Fisheries Commission International Fisheries Commission to study the life and environment of halibut and present recommendations for future regulations needed to save the fish. The treaty and ban would be in effect for five years and then be renewed if both parties agreed.

The Senate began debate on the treaty in March and gave consent to ratification with only one change: It added a provision stating that none of the nationals and inhabitants of any other part of Great Britain should engage in halibut fishing. This prohibition included people from all parts of the British Empire. Canadian officials raised an objection to this change, because it put the Canadians in an embarrassing position. It seemed to champion the British cause at the expense of Canada, by insisting that Canada had to secure the consent of the entire British Empire before agreeing to the treaty. Canada could not accept this demand; the document would not be presented to the Parliament in Ottawa because it would face certain defeat. The government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wanted to make the point that it could sign treaties without British consent, and it would block passage of the Halibut Treaty if necessary.

In October, the Harding administration agreed to resubmit the treaty without the offensive reservation. The Senate, however, was not scheduled to meet again until December, too late to approve a closed season for 1923-1924. Canada asked if the president could impose a ban on halibut fishing but was told that such action was beyond the powers of the chief executive of the United States. Halibut fishing had suffered greatly reduced supplies of fish since the first draft treaty had been proposed, more than four years earlier. Still, both sides reluctantly had to announce there would be no closed season that winter either.

By January, 1924, Canadian authorities declared that as the waters off Washington State and southern British Columbia had almost been depleted of halibut, fishing vessels would have to move north to the coast of Alaska, where supplies were more abundant. Still, the halibut industry faced serious trouble and possible bankruptcy if the catching of fish could not be halted quickly. Both sides eventually backed down from their positions. President Calvin Coolidge ratified the treaty on June 4, 1924. The British king, George V, ratified the Halibut Treaty on July 21, and the formal exchange of ratifications took place in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1924. A closed season began in November, 1924, and persisted into the twenty-first century.


The Halibut Treaty was important in part because it was the first treaty ever promulgated to address the conservation of a badly depleted deep-sea fishery. In addition, in negotiating the treaty with the United States, Canada took a significant step toward its eventual independence from Great Britain. Historians have also noted that this occasion of cooperation between Canada and the United States marks the point at which British influence in Canada began to decline and American influence began to increase. Halibut Treaty (1924)

Further Reading

  • Clark, Lovell C., ed. 1919-1925. Vol. 3 in Documents on Canadian External Relations. Ottawa: Department of External Affairs, 1970. Official information on the Halibut Treaty from the Canadian government.
  • McInnis, Edgar. Canada: A Political and Social History. 4th ed. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1982. Includes a brief discussion of the treaty.

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Ogdensburg Agreement