The Seafood Industry in the Pacific Northwest

January 27, 2023

Seafood is one of the most important industries in the world. It’s responsible for millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue and helps feed people worldwide every day. This article overviews its history in the Pacific Northwest and examines what lies ahead.

Early fishing in the PNW | Photo: William Greene

History of the Industry

Pacific Northwest fishermen catch salmon by the ton. Pacific Northwest salmon have always been important trade commodities for tribes of the Columbia Valley. European settlers introduced new fishing techniques and equipment to the area. The industry proliferated in the 1800s, with fishermen catching salmon by the ton, averaging about 73 tons per season from the late 1800s to 1926.

Captain Robert Gray led the first American ship worldwide. From Boston, he sailed into what is now known as Gray’s Harbor in Washington State and explored the Columbia River (named after his boat.) Through his explorations, he gave the United States a claim to the Oregon Territory.

NW Coast Map by Robert Gray

The Hudson’s Bay Company began exploring ways to commercialize salmon within 30 years of Robert Gray’s discovery of the Columbia River. Early explorers, including Robert Gray and Lewis and Clark, relied on salmon trading with Columbia River Basin tribes to supplement their diet. The Hudson’s Bay Company purchased salmon from the native fishermen, sold them to other trading posts, or salted and shipped them to their other locations in North America.

In 1866, the first of many canneries began operating on the Columbia River, and there were two boats on the river. The number of commercial boats jumped to 100 by 1872, 250 by 1874, 500 by 1878, and 1,200 by 1881.

Elements of the Industry

Over the years, the seafood industry has undergone several changes. Initially, commercial fishing was done by hand and was a seasonal activity in coastal areas with plenty of fish. Later on, as technology advanced, fishing became mechanized and industrialized, with larger boats and nets taking over.


Today, fishermen use a variety of methods to catch fish, including purse seining (using large nets), bottom trawling (speeding over the sea floor and scooping up everything in its path), or midwater trawling (using huge lines with mesh bags below that trap small creatures when they swim by).

Main fishing capture techniques

After catching the fish, it is processed using various techniques such as:

  • Freezing
  • Drying
  • Salting
  • Smoking
  • Canning
  • Cold Storage
  • Processing Plants
Wholesale Distribution

Once the fishermen have landed and processed their catch, they sell it to wholesale dealers. Wholesale markets are defined as secondary markets or terminal markets. Secondary markets occur in districts or regional cities that acquire the bulk of their produce from local fisheries or aquaculture producers. Often the transactions are small-scale and take place between producers and traders.

Terminal wholesale markets are often located in major cities, where fish and related products are shipped out through trade between wholesalers and retailers. Terminal markets are a variant of traditional markets and may be located near major ports or at the border between countries. They deal with the import of foreign fish as well as locally produced goods. Wholesale fish markets typically host a wide variety of seafood products, including fresh, frozen, dried, smoked, and live goods. In some markets, the product may pass through in a matter of hours. For example, fresh fish landed by fishing vessels at a nearby port in the early morning is sold at the wholesale market later that day, then moved on to processors.


Transportation is one of the most important elements of the fishing supply chain and has a variety of methods. The decision of what mode of transport to use in a given situation is complicated; the typical determining factors are product type and value, market location, and standards such as food safety requirements that must be met.  The prevailing socio-economic condition, infrastructure, and availability of services all go into the decision.


The fish retail industry includes businesses that sell fresh and frozen seafood to customers who intend to cook the products themselves. It also includes companies that sell raw fish or freshly prepared dishes to consumers at restaurants, bars, canteens, and other food service establishments. Retailers sell food that is ready to eat. They usually prepare the food but sometimes buy it from producers and then sell it directly to customers. BCS offers its clients various services, including frozen and chilled storage, prime access to international logistics, and seafood inspection.

Future of the Industry

As more people become aware of the health benefits of seafood, the demand for fresh products will continue to increase. Several factors could affect the industry in the future. As people become more aware of the health benefits of seafood, they will continue to seek fresh products. However, as climate change continues to impact our oceans, fewer fish may be available for harvesting.

NOAA is working to ensure the survival of many endangered species, including populations of Pacific Salmon. These populations include Chinook, Chum, Coho, and Sockeye. NOAA has created a plan for restoration and recovery focusing on habitat conservation and restoration, hatchery operations, research initiatives, and disease prevention and control.

Leaping Salmon

The seafood industry provides thousands of jobs and brings revenue into local communities. It is important to remember that seafood is healthy for humans and delicious in many ways. We must make a conscious effort to be environmentally responsible and maintain sustainable practices to ensure our population can continue enjoying the sea’s bounty!