Frontlines

The stakes are high in the great herring hunt

Thomas Hopkins April 9 1979
Frontlines

The stakes are high in the great herring hunt

Thomas Hopkins April 9 1979

The stakes are high in the great herring hunt

Frontlines

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Thomas Hopkins

The Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland rise out of the fog banks like mesas from the desert heat. Pale blue and cream ferries nose among them, trailing streamers of gulls. In March, these placid waters can roil and surge before a compasswheeling wind, but on this particular day they are calm as the 95-foot Canadian Coast Guard cutter Rider steams toward Nanoose Bay, a hiccup in the Vancouver Island coastline north of Nanaimo.

Developing out of the mist like images in a dark room, is a seaboard spectacle that must rival the first sighting of the Spanish Armada by Sir Francis Drake: row upon row of purse seiners, their windshields flashing in the sun, waiting to begin another scramble in the goldplated, West Coast herring-roe sweepstakes. And the stakes this year are absurdly high. Thanks to the Japanese appetite for herring roe, prices have gone from $1.50 a pound wholesale in 1972 to this season’s predicted high of $17 a pound. As far as the w fleet on Nanoose Bay is concerned, the sky is the limit, and those yellow eggs are good as gold.

The fat, 80-foot fishing boats bristling with masts like TV antennae are o equipped with aluminum g spools, wound with their $40,000 nets, on a low stern. The Rider’s four bridge radios squawk as the 150 seiners gossip, sing and bitch, waiting for federal Fisheries officers to give a radio release to begin the herring madness. The seiners are like Oklahoma sooners, nervously edging their wagons forward for the dash to security and riches. Alas, on this day everything and everyone was ready but the herring;

Fisheries men tested the hand-sized herring and decided they were not ripe enough to harvest. The “demolition derby,” as one fisherman described the tangle of 150 seiners, spreading their nets over the bay, would have to wait.

Fine. They would wait. Like rug merchants in an Istanbul bazaar, they were patient.

The B.C. herring roe hunt, although it only lasts five to six weeks in March and early April, is a West Coast boom industry. In Japan, the fishery’s only market, the eggs are known as kazuno-

ko; after being hardened in brine and bleached, they are mixed with soy sauce and hot mustard, and served ceremonially at weddings and at New Year.

The Japanese appetite for this delicacy has devastated the home supply and led the buyers to Canada’s West Coast; in eight years their presence has resurrected a distressed herring industry. Now, 74 fish-processing facilities compete for the fish; and last year, the herring harvest made up 30 per cent of the dollar volume of the West Coast fishing industry, employing 6,000 fishermen, 3,500 ancillary workers and pumping $245 million into the B.C. economy. Not bad, for fish eggs.

As far as the end product is concerned, for the black-nailed fishermen manning the 1,550 frail fishery vessels, the whole operation is as abstract as uranium mining. But the suitcases full of money, offered by the fleets of “cash-buyers”—scruffy boats with crude Day-Glopainted signs saying “cash”—have the oldtimers wide-eyed with disbelief. Fishermen who used to retreat to pogie during the rainy late winter, who fished food herring for pennies a pound in the ’60s, may now receive as much as $4,000 a ton as declining stocks, plus competition from small buyers, fuelled by the apparently bottomless Japanese credit, signal a red-hot price war. “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen,” says processing company pilot Joe Eilertsen, “and I spent 2V2 years in Vietnam.” Sonny Nelson, vice-president of B.C. Packers, the biggest fish processor on the coast, says: “It scares the hell out of us.”

The herring harvesting is done in two independent ways. The first is the Cadillac version: seiners, some of them

million-dollar vessels done up in the Formica opulence of a Winnebago, dip huge purse nets, like giant aquarium scoops, into schools of spawning herring close to shore. Veteran Fisheries officers know the capacity of the fleet and abruptly start and stop the fishing to preserve the spawning stock. These derbies are known as “openings,” and they follow the schools up the coast. Some days the action lasts only 20 minutes but even that can be unbelievably lucrative. One large seiner in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island hauled in 260 tons in one set of the net; a buying boat immediately produced a cheque for $800,000.

The prudent skipper chartered a nearby float plane, flew to Vancouver, verified the cheque and radioed to his crew before he handed his catch over to the buyer.

But scores like that are rare. “Lots of guys go hungry,” says hefty Jack Fast, skipper of The Universe, a packer boat that follows the fleet. “It’s like a sweepstakes. It can make you goofy if you don’t keep your cool.”

The other style of marine harvester— the ones who consider themselves the real fishermen—are “gill-netters,” 1,200 of them. Less than half the size and one-fifth the cost of seiners, they

drag a flat-bottomed punt and string gill nets, like bed sheets on a clothesline, that snare the fish. Then comes the cold, sticky, backbreaking process of dragging in the nets and shaking the bloody fish into the bottom of the punt, sometimes for stretches as long as 72

hours. In the treacherous March waters of the West Coast, however, neither style is without its hazards. One seiner this year capsized when a heavily loaded set “spooked” and dove for the bottom, flipping the vessel like a redwood log. Gill-netters are particularly vulnerable to foul weather, especially

while towing the 20-foot skiff. (Some flush skippers avoid the problem by chartering helicopters to ferry the aluminum punts from opening to opening.) But disasters have decreased dramatically since 1975, when 12 fishermen and 14 vessels went down. In 1978, four ves-

sels and six crewmen were lost. This year, by the last week of March there had been only one fatality (a crewman fell out of a skiff) and four boats lost. An inadequately equipped coast guard—a source of constant grumbling among fishermen—has been beefed up this year by vessels from Fisheries and the department of national defence, to a total rescue flotilla of 20, but bad feelings linger. “When fishermen wave to you on patrol,” says one coast guard official ruefully, “you have to be sure to count the fingers.”

The Fishermen’s Inn is a bar in Shearwater on the isolated central B.C. coast halfway between Vancouver and Prince Rupert. It is one of hundreds of settlements scratched into the rain forest that has felt the largesse of the cash-buyer operations. It boasts a shipyard, a store and the prosperous Central Native Co-op, where lines of brightly slickered workers snap open the herring and squeeze out the roe plug. When the fleet comes to Shear-

water, it’s like a circus for the 115 townspeople; up to 600 “roe boats” shoehorn into a harbor swept by curtains of rain, like hippos in a mudhole. Rotund shipwright Ernie Ratlidge recalls seeing a fisherman throw a rolled-up $1,000 bill into the fire, taking bets on whether it would burn. It burned.

Pearl Giggi, head bartender says “besides changin’ a lot more $50s and $100s and the usual bellering and hollering, it’s not too crazy this year.’’Over beer,

conversation instantly turns to herring prices and “wouldja believe it” tales of Japanese businessmen clutching Woodward’s shopping bags full of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Canadian front men.

The tone is faintly disapproving, but thoughtfully softened by the fact that most of the dough will end up in the speakers’ pockets.

But the Japanese connection has begun to haunt the Canadian processing industry, in developments blueprinted

by a federal Fisheries report last summer. The Japanese fish industry, squeezed by declining domestic stocks and world 200-mile fishing limits, has leaped into the Canadian fish market since 1974, investing some $20 million into more than 30 per cent of Canadian plants. In the roe industry, prices have been affected by the wildly competitive Japanese domestic economy. Japanese middlemen, overstepped by large fishing outfits who began dealing with Canadian suppliers directly, have entered the Canadian market with “basketfuls of Canadian dollars” which they hurl at their Canadian agents in the cash-buyer boats, who then fling them at the fishermen.

Canadian processing companies, with their limited capital, can only bid $2,500 a ton for herring, in competition with the cash-buyers’ normal offer of $3,500 and up. “Unlike the smaller companies,” says B.C. Packers’ Nelson, “it’s our money we’re gambling with, not Japan’s.” The result is that Canadian companies have to depend on old loyalties, and a promise of post-season adjustments to get fish. Not surprisingly, they are hurting, and several smaller companies will likely go under.

If the companies are concerned about too much money chasing too few herring, government officials are wringing their hands over too much gear chasing too few fish. Herring stocks this year are down alarmingly, with estimates dropping as low as 35,000 tons once the season got under way—or about half the previously predicted take.

Acknowledging that it is almost impossible to reduce the number of licences,regional Fisheries herring co-ordinator Bob Humphrey says moves must be taken to slow the existing fleet, and to lower next year’s catch quota to 40,000 or 50,000 tons. “There are areas we could have fished this year with a smaller fleet,” he says.

Ironically, Japanese consumption of kazunoko is slipping—down to 9,000 metric tons last year from 12,000 in 1977. With projected 1979 prices at $50 a pound, more than double the current prices, Japanese wholesalers are groaning that they may not be able to buy at that price. In the words of one Canadian processing executive, “There will be a lot of dice rolling before final prices are set.” But there is a rattle of truth to the wholesalers’ complaint, and a chance that the gold rush may be on the wane. Toshio Tsujo, a technician for the huge Marubeni company stationed at the Central Native Co-op in Shearwater is checking the salinity of a bucket of roe. “It’s important for me to buy kazunoko," he shrugs, “but this year, it’s too much. I won’t buy.”