Here’s your chance for a trip aboard a West Coast pilchard seine boat—They get 100 tons at a haul and that’s fishing
WE WERE late getting out of Barclay Sound. The westerly was chopping the swells a bit, and it was nearly dark when we made and “skunked” our one set of the day. So Rasmuss, the skipper, turned the Maple Leaf in toward shore and we sought shelter for the night behind some of the little islands. Our tender turned too, and, although a sixty-footer like our own vessel, she looked in her wallowings like a pup waddling tiredly after us. Soon we could see only her lights—green, white and red—in our wake, but when we had dropped anchor in a little cove she soon drew alongside and her skipper came aboard, to be told that our plans were to leave again at daybreak.
Next morning the sky was overcast and we headed out into quite a breeze. In the cook’s opinion, it was no use looking for fish. In the first place it would be impossible to see them in the chop, and in the second place the water was too clear, no feed for them. We kept going, west, north, east, north, west, weaving and turning, with the tender cutting our corners half a mile behind. Ole and McKenzie and Martin joined Rasmuss on top of the pilot house. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten o’clock. They sat huddled behind the canvas break with their hands in the pockets of their woollen jackets, peering with strained and bloodshot eyes over the sea, as \ they sit and strain and search for hours, for days, and often for weeks at a time, for fish. There were other boats hunting the horizon in pairs, but no fish. No one spoke. About eleven, the wind died down, the surface of the swells became flat and grey.
Noon. Rasmuss has fixed his attention on one particular sjK)t and we are headed toward it—a darker patch, ruffled as if by a breeze. “That’s fish,” speculates the cook, who has come up to announce dinner and promptly forgets to do so.
“That’s fish,” everyone agrees. “Get ready.” Rasmuss tells them. Like a flash they are gone from the pilot-house roof. Martin scrambles to a seat in the stern of the trailing dory. Two men jump to the net; everyone takes his appointed station, standing at tense attention.
We circle the patch once, twice. It is a boiling and guttering school—fish—but nothing happens. W’e are leaving it behind. “Aren’t you going to catch them?” I ask.
“Heck, no,” answers Rasmuss. “There are only five or ten tons there at the most.”
Only five or ten tons. Only !
I make no comment, but I notice that the men are not recalled and that the silent little man at the wheel is concentrating on another patch a little farther off. This time it is bigger, perhaps seventy-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide. We circle it once, again at quarter speed. You can look right down into it and see them—fish, hundreds of them crowding each other to the surface in frantic flippings. Rasmuss studies them as he swings the wheel over. The men on the deck look at the school and look at him. What is he going to do this time? He holds up his hand. “All right,” he says quietly, and, dropping his hand to ring for full speed, he shouts: “Let go.”
A Sixty-ton Catch
T^ROM THE quiet dullness of the search, instantaneous, **■ frantic action. Excitement reigns. Martin has dropped a sea anchor, the dory drags and the huge net unravels from its table at the stern, whipping over the roller in a mad flapping streak of rings, web, cork and “Scotchmen.”
“Quarter way.” shouts the cook from his station on the hatch cover. “Half way.” Rasmuss keeps her nose in front of the school and swings round to the starboard sharp. “Three quarters.” “Nearly all,” and the engineer cuts her down to slow just as the line runs out, with the dory fifty feet away.
Action, but no shouting, no commands. Everyone knows his job. The dory is made fast to the bow. The ends of the net are hauled aboard. Both ends are now tied amidship, and over the side steel cable is being drawn up by two winches. Out there. 220 fathoms of net in a brave and perfect circle of cork and balloons (Scotchmen). In the excite-
ment and activity no one has noticed the tender pull along the port side and fix her tow rope. It is her job to keep tension on her line and prevent us from riding over the seine.
On the far side of the circle the water is being churned to a froth. Then quiet and more frothing on the right, closer in. Out of the froth an occasional silver streak which breaks and plops. The hawser is still reeling in. McKenzie and the cook watch it break water. “Hold it,” they shout, and up through the surface, close alongside, come the brass rings bunched together on the cable, the whole bottom of the net straining from them.
Once the rings have been secured to the deck, the crew subsides into the long monotony of getting the net aboard and their catch pursed into a smaller enclosure. The boom and the winch are brought into play. A bunt is made around the net, which is raised out of the water, plomjxxJ and folded on the table—ten, fifteen feet at a time. A long job which may take two hours or more, depending upon the character and temperament of the catch.
The season is well advanced and the fish are fatter and lazier, but Rasmuss takes no chances on them deciding to dive in a mass and go through the bottom of the seine. He and a man from the tender have gone off in little skiffs and are plunging iron pipe on the end of a rope into the water where the fish have made their presence known, thus keeping them excited and up near the surface. The corks drift together into what looks like a tangle, but they unravel as the winch slowly takes in the net. The pile of web on the table gets bigger and bigger. The enclosure gets smaller and smaller, until at last the dory is moved alongside, a portion of the net is fastened to its side, and between it and the Maple Leaf hangs a big string shopping bag.
When more of the bottom had been brought aboard, I looked down into a solid mass of fish, a cross between a herring and a mackerel, which I estimated at five tons and Rasmuss at fifty tons. I knew, however, that the big brailer which takes three men to operate—one on the pole, one on
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That’s Fish !
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the winch and one on the trip—holds about a ton, so it would be easy to check up.
The tender tied alongside, hatch open. Down into the bag dipped the brailer. The vessel throbbed to the pulse of the winch. Up, up, and over the side, streaming a leaden water through a silver seine, one ton of fish comes high over the tender’s hold, then there is a click and a splash. The empty brailer clinks like chain mail as it swings back over the purse. A thousand glistening silvery forms shimmer into orderly pattern from a squirming mass, with a noise like that of fat in a frying pan. Ton after ton drops on top of them, spills over the deck and lilis (he scuppers. The hold is full to overflowing, and boards are set to make a pen on deck. The tender has but three inches of freeboard.
Sixty tons! And hardly had we got the nets tidied when we spotted another school. Between the tender and ourselves we took back to the plant over 100 tons, and this is not a bad day’s fishing even for pilchards. It means a hundred times $2.35 to be divided among the seven fishermen, plus a bonus to the skipper. It means about eight hours work for the reduction plant and perhaps around $1,000 of new money for Canada.
Of course, each unit does not bring in 100 tons a day. In 1933 the fleet scouted for weeks without sighting the telltale surface flippings of a school. When airplanes eventually discovered the fish, they were so far out to sea and catches were so small as to result in a virtual failure of this particular branch of the fishing industry. The fishermen failed to make cigarette money. In any normal season the fishermen from Barkley Sound will often have to follow the plump pilchard hundreds of miles up the coast, which means long hauls home after he has caught up with them, and 100 tons spread over many days. *
A New Industry
THIS BLUE and silver source of wealth is not a true or native Canadian. His young brothers and sisters are canned as sardines in California, and it is believed in biological circles that the pilchard spawns and is brought to adolescence somewhere nearer the equator and comes north after his feed only as the temperature of the water induces him. Sometimes the water is not right for him, sometimes the feed is not there, and these are a few of the reasons why the pilchard industry in Canada calls
for men with the proper gambling spirit. A pilchard seine skipper should have a season of 2,000 or 3,000 tons. He might end up with twenty or thirty and a big bill owing at the store. He has been known to seine 600 tons in a single set. He has been glad to set for five or ten.
The fish, however, are in the sea. The thousands of tons scooped out each year cannot deplete these prolific spawners. The millions caught mean so many millions less to clutter up the spawning beds and to eat the fry. There are actually more pilchards in the sea now than when someone first got tlie bright idea of canning a few, but their vacation in Canadian waters is not by any means as regular as the fishermen would like to have it.
.So far as Canada is concerned, the first practical use of the pilchard was made in 1917, when a cannery was established at Nootka on the west coast of Vancouver Island, which is the only Canadian coast it frequents. Since then some fifty or sixty thousand cases have been canned annually. But the canned pilchard, while a very fine and delicately flavored food product, rich in vitamin D and comparable in every way to the best of sea foods, has not yet achieved the recognition which it warrants on the food markets. It was the fine quality of the versatile oil and meal derivatives which really activated the industry and brought about the construction of the first two reduction plants in 1925.
These two plants on Nootka Sound did well. There was a demand all over the world for their product. It was required for oliveoil and other soaps, for shortenings, for practically everything in which animal oils and fats are used, and for paints and medicines. The meal proved a very valuable addition to poultry and stock feeds. Medical people looked at the vitamin content of the oil, and found it not only high but palatable. It was great stuff. Worth a gamble? Well, it was hardly considered a gamble at that. When the pilchard reaches British Columbia waters it is richer, fatter, oilier and much better than when it left home, and Canadian operators could therefore squeeze out two drops of oil and two vitamins where the Californian got only one.
Once there were twenty-five reduction plants. This year seven plants are operating seventeen seine boats. From 1925 the pilchard business went up and up. The Canadian catch averaged between 75,000 and 80,000 tons, which in 1928-29 marketed at around $2,500,000. In 1930 an average catch brought in little more than $1.500,000. In 1931, 74.000 tons brought in only $807,000, and the weaker plants went to the wall. Next year the continuing oixrators canned and reduced nearly 45,000 tons of fish, the market value of which was about $384,000. Then 1933 was practically a total crop failure; and this was followed by a closure of the United States market by a 23c per gallon impost on oil alone, the disappearance of the Oriental market, closure of the Netherlands and German markets by tariffs or trade restrictions, and depression of other world markets by the Japanese product.
While a great deal of attention has not been paid to it up to the present, the domestic market for pilchard products is continuously improving. There is an increasing
demand for the meal in the East, and some
recognition is now being given it by the Western farmers. The soap and paint industries are using more of the Canadian product this year than last, and importations of fish oil from other countries are practically stopped. The canned pilchard is finding its way more frequently on to the Canadian table and into the picnic basket. The operators are all anticipating a better hand from the 1935 deal.
Operators are Optimistic
■pCOOLE is on the map. You will find it at the north entrance to Barkley Sound. The embarcadero is 200 *feet of planking. Main Street runs from the office, between the warehouses, to the boiler room. There is a fish leg and elevator, a huge bin, a cloud of steam rising from the top of a red frame structure, and an air of efficient activity, all teetering on barnacled pilings. Above all and through all and in all, is a smell of hot fish or hot oil or both. A smell which one can taste. Large black crows hang about, but the gulls cannot stand it although thirtyfive people live in it all season and do not seem to mind.
Jack D’Orsay, operator of Ecoole, is the owner, manager, postmaster, doctor, lawyer, sales manager, analyst and general factotum. In his office he is surrounded by test tubes, small bottles and vials, which he brings forth from their shelves almost caressingly as he becomes fluent over the purity of his “tops” and “stearine,” the odorless quality of his oils and their richness in vitamin D. As he talks, one loses sight of him as a gambler in fish and sees him as the embodiment of a beneficent spirit, which goes about the Canadian countryside preventing little legs from becoming bowed, putting pep into ailing calves, making hens lay two eggs where they only laid one, causing two ears of grain to come to harvest where only tumbleweed grew. What this country needs, one thinks, is good five-cent pilchards and extra rations of pilchard product for the underprivileged Canadian man and beast.
Fish were coming in when I saw D’Orsay. He felt good. He figured that if the pilchard continued to run as they were, close to the coast, and the weather continued fine, he could, with his four seine boats and five tenders, lay them at his dock for $7.50 per ton, against a cost to the American plants of
$9. He thought he might average 370 pounds of meal and forty gallons of oil to the ton. This, at 161 ¿c per gallon for oil and $21 per ton for meal, should allow him to at least break even on the season’s operations. (The plants in California average 34c for oil and $21 for meal.) But each of his four units of seine boat and tender was worth $40,000 to $50,000. The nets alone were worth $3.(XX) each. He had a big plant to keep open, and thirty-five shore men and the fifteen men on the tenders to pay every month. Rasmuss and the other skippers and fishennen are paid by the ton delivered, but the maintenance and running expenses of the vessels must be paid, and if the fish suddenly disappear or the weather becomes such that the vessels cannot go out, the average cost at the dock might run up to more than $20 a ton. Then, where are the new boat, the roof, the new machinery and the new paint to come from?
“Well, I’ll get cleaned up and go up on the mailboat with you,” said Mr. D’Orsay. “I’ve got to get to town to sell some meal because it is piling up on me a hit, but you can tell the world that the pilchard is an American tourist which is going to leave at least $100,000 of new money at every one of the seven plants up the coast this year.”
Most of the other operators have the same optimism. Whether the pilchard harvest is bountiful or not, they will not know whether they have drawn four aces until the end of the year when the marketing is over. But they are all talking about the great shortage of pilchard seine boats, about the need for building new and bigger ones, enlarging the plant and putting in new machinery, and a thousand other ways of turning new Canadian wealth into Canadian industrial channels.
The impression one gets after living a while with the fishermen and the operators is that the unhealthy boom days of the pilchard industry’ are over; and, while the harvest or cost of securing the raw product is and always will be uncertain, the plants and operations are now on a fairly sound footing. Those who entered the business a few years ago with the idea of cleaning up and getting out with a minimum of investment have been eliminated, and it is now left to the more responsible and experienced men to develop the really unexplored and undeveloped market potentialities of a truly wonderful and valuable resource.