Place: Queen Charlotte Islands. Cast: Twelve fishermen, One Idea and $27. Sequel: A flourishing co-operative with a turnover last year of $250,000
ARTHUR P. McKENZIEApril151939
"Co-ops" Sell Fish
Place: Queen Charlotte Islands. Cast: Twelve fishermen, One Idea and $27. Sequel: A flourishing co-operative with a turnover last year of $250,000
ARTHUR P. McKENZIE
FOUR YEARS ago destitution threatened the salmon trollers of British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. But four years ago an idea was born in the minds of twelve fishermen. The twelve then had $27 working capital. Today they and their converts operate a business that in 1938 had a quarter-million-dollar turnover.
Four years ago it seemed that almost no one wanted troll-caught Queen Charlotte salmon. And the price paid for such fish as was bought was so low as to make life almost impossible for the fishermen.
So, when on a warm night in August, 1935, a group of despairing trollers clustered near a little knot of their fellows at a beach fire on Graham Island, northernmost of the Queen Charlotte group, the blaze of salt-bleached driftwood lighted up anxious faces. Twelve determined men were trying to explain an idea.
These twelve had heard of the work of St. Francis Xavier University in helping the fishermen of Nova Scotia; they had heard of two successful fishermen’s cooperatives in British Columbia. A number of the group were Scandinavians and knew that co-operatives had flourished in their homeland.
But could they convince their fellows that co-operation was the key to the solution of their difficulties?
Because of the care given each fish, troll-caught salmon are more expensive to produce than those which go to the canning plant. For most fishermen of the remote Queen Charlotte Islands, lying off the B.C. mainland midway between Vancouver and the Alaskan Panhandle, the price of three or four cents a pound then prevailing, meant destitution. The best of them might make $200 or $300 during a four-month season, enough to support themselves during the winter. But to maintain a family on such a meagre income was fantastic. Government relief was general in all communities.
With grinding and oppressive poverty dogging them, they were not happy. They knew that business conditions were bad; they knew world prices were low; but they saw that their difficulties were due to other factors as well.
They believed they were victims of a one-sided bargain* ing system. They had no organization to look after their interests; had no choice but to accept any price offered for their fish. Not only were prices low, but the service provided for collecting fish on the banks was unsatisfactory. For it is essential that fishermen deliver each day’s catch to a packer or fish camp with facilities for storage or quick transport to market. It meant that a fish camp or packer must be available twenty-four hours a day during the fishing season.
But it seemed that when the big companies wanted fish they had packers on the grounds; and if they didn’t want fish, the packers were not there. No packers meant no market for fish.
By word of mouth and by radio-telegraph they had protested to the buyers and to the companies. Always the answer was the same—the bottom had fallen out of the market; warehouses were full of canned salmon from previous years; the companies could not pay more than three or four cents a jxnind at the most ; perhaps they could not buy at all. The fishermen’s appeals might as well have been addressed to the Pacific Ocean.
And now, here it was August, the season well under way. The silver hordes of King Salmon were running in the sounds and the open sea. And yet the trolling boats were swinging idly at painters’ ends, rotting from disuse. Something had to be done. And there was no one to do it but themselves.
So the believers argued. First they took the few remaining quarters and dollar bills from the coffee cans in their cabins and made up a collection of $27. Thus was born the North Island Trollers’ Co-operative Association.
Of the 123 men who in the beginning agreed to hold together, fair weather or foul, ninety per cent were Scandinavians— rugged, clear-eyed men of the sea—not businessmen. The hazards of business and the intricacies of marketing were mysteries to most of them. Each one of the 123 signed a contract promising to let the new organization handle his entire catch.
$1,000 for $1
VLTTTH the $27 collected at the beach meeting, they * * radio-telegraphed a fish dealer and offered to let him handle the association’s season catch if he undertook to send packers to collect, transport to market, and sell the fish. They offered him a rate per pound for this service. lie accepted the offer.
By the end of the season’s operations that year (1935) the cooperative had sold $116.000 worth of fish for its 123 members. In 1936, sales amounted to $154,000; in 1937 to $177.000; in 1938 to $183,000.
At the close of the first year, the $27 collection taken at the beach meeting had grown to assets of $2,600. Assets in 1936 climbed to $10,000; in 1937 to $36,000; and they remained at that figure for 1938.
With such rapid growth, new equipment could not be paid for in cash, but the greater part of it is paid for today. Of $36,000 assets, the fishermen own $27,000 outright.
For each dollar put in the $27 collection that night in 1935, the fishermen have $1,000 in assets today. lYofits have been plowed back into the enterprise.
When the Association closed its books in 1938. it showed a turnover of more than a quarter of a million dollars for that one year. Operations had expanded to embrace three floating camps for receiving fish from trollers on the banks, two general stores, two marine service stations, four packers for collecting salmon from the camjîs and rushing it to market. Two packers have been purchased outright, two others chartered. The business has been crowded into four busy months; and in that period 1,800,000 pounds of fish have been caught and sold.
Since the co-operative organized, fish prices have risen steadily. And while some of the rise is due to better world prices, the salmon trollers think that their company is in part responsible for better prices offered on the Pacific Coast. The price now paid averages around ten cents a pound, compared with three or four cents offered for prime salmon in 1935.
Although no comprehensive income statistics are available, it is believed by officials of the association that incomes of the fishermen in the co-operative have increased by one third to one half. A few still need Government relief in winter, but incomes are, in the main, more nearly adequate. The larger two-man boats, which previously could not be operated profitably, now gross from $2,500 to $3,600 a season. It is estimated that the average income is more than $500.
NONE have been more surprised by the success of the North Island Trollers’ Co-operative Association than the fishermen themselves. Ninety per cent of the membership, now 260, are Scandinavian by birth, and almost all of these are Norwegians. This predominance of Scandinavians is typical of the salmon trolling industry on the West Coast.
When the salmon run is on, the association members have 160 boats on the grounds. Most fishermen own their own equipment. A crew of one or two men is carried on each boat. Some of the boats are sturdy packets which can weather the worst gales that batter the rock-bound coasts of the Queen Charlottes. Others must hug the semiprotected headlands, within easy reach of refuge in the coves.
Each boat has either two or four poles about thirty feet long, extending almost horizontally and carrying one or two trolling lines—one from each bow pole, two from each main pole, boomed out to port and starboard—in all. six lines. The lines carry as many as fourteen trolling spoons, made of bronze, copper, or nickelplated light metal. Like fly-fishing sportsmen, the west-coasters have their favorite spoons. Some swear by a Stewart, others by a Gibbs, and still others vow that nothing can match their own homemade gadgets. Salmon caught by trolling is the highest quality salmon produced. Each fish is killed soon after it takes the spoon, and from that point onward it is given careful individual handling. There is no scarring of the flesh, nor loss of scales that salmon suffer in the meshes of the seine net. Such fish, moreover, are the largest and most aggressive of the pack—the kings of King Salmon.
The market for this peerless fish is the United Kingdom and Continental Europe. Very little is consumed in Canada or the United States.
The Troller’s Day
EVERY morning when fishing is possible the flotilla moves out between two and four o’clock. Once on the banks, engines are throttled down to about two miles an hour, lines run out, and the glittering
spoons tempt the sockeye, cohoe. spring, or pinks—some of the many varieties of salmon.
Working waist-high in the stern cockpit, the fisherman can steer and watch his poles for signs of a catch. Sometimes he does more watching than catching. At times the fish strike so fast that he is hard pressed to keep the hooks free of fish.
At the end of the day—any time between nine o'clock in the morning and eleven at night—the fisherman delivers his catch to the nearest float. The fish are tossed from hold to grading table, where each is inspected, graded and weighed. The total weight of each grade is marked on duplicate tickets, one for the office, one for the fisherman. On the float the salmon is gutted, its visceral cavity salted and stuffed with finely crushed ice, and packed carefully in a pine box holding about 200 pounds.
From the float the boxes go to a floating camp, where they are loaded directly into a waiting fish packer, or covered with ice until the packer arrives in a few hours. Once loaded, the speedy packer heads for market, in Prince Rupert, Vancouver, or Seattle, Wash., where the cargo is bought by one of the established fish dealers and prepared for export.
Most of it is “quick frozen’’ within six days of being caught. The whole fish is frozen rapidly in a cold room at forty degrees below zero. It is then dipped in water, which forms a thin ice sheath enveloping the fish and preventing escape of natural moisture during storage and shipment by refrigerator car and boat, across continents and oceans. It is sealed against the air and against loss of natural oils until thawed and sold as “fresh Canadian salmon” in some London or Vienna restaurant.
Some of it is “mild cured.” The head, spine, tail and entrails are neatly slashed out with a knife, leaving two slabs of boneless flank meat. These slabs are mild cured in brine, and packed between layers of salt in hogsheads. In this condition the fish is preserved indefinitely.
Each boatload taken to jx>rt by the packer is sold for cash, part of which is brought back to the camps to pay the fishermen. A statement is then prepared for each, showing how many pounds of his fish have been included in the trip, the total value, and the amount due him. In addition, statements are posted on notice boards, showing the amount realized on the trip, the price paid, deductions for expense, and the total paid to members. From day to day each member knows the progress of his association.
DURING ITS four years of growth the Association has had to surmount some peculiar difficulties. Though the Scandinavians are unexcelled as fishermen, their business experience was limited. When they saw for the first time how much it cost to run a business, they refused to believe the facts.
When, at the close of 1937, depreciation appeared in the annual statement as an expense item of $3,000, several special meetings had to be called in an attempt to explain what the fishermen suspected was some kind of theft.
With simple examples of bookkeeping, the treasurer explained how depreciation was treated. Some understood, some didn't. Of those who persisted in believing the $3,000 had gone into someone’s pocket, some took the statement to a chartered accountant, others to a lawyer. Both vindicated the treasurer.
Such interest is not disparaged by the management, for responsibility rests, in the last analysis, with the membership. Each member has one vote in the general meetings, regardless of how many shares he may *hold. No individual can control the association by becoming a majority shareholder.
Incorporated under the Co-operative Associations Act of the Province of British Columbia, the North Island Trailers’ Cooperative Association has a share capital of $8,000. Shares are sold at a par value of $10, and liability is limited to that amount. Although the association’s net worth is set at $27,000 and each share has a book value of $30, shares must be bought and sold at par value only. Consequently there is no fluctuation of the market price, and speculation is thus precluded.
A board of directors is elected by a general meeting; the directors appoint a manager and a secretary to supervise operations.
In contrast to orthodox business practice, profits are not distributed to shareholders according to the number of shares held. Fishermen’s co-operative associations on the British Columbia Coast may pay a nominal, or more or less fixed rate of interest on shares, but they have not done so. Surpluses have been distributed at year’s end by paying a dividend. On fishing operations, as distinct from other activities, payment has been made to each member according to the value of fish he has delivered to floating camps or packers.
A dividend was paid for the first time last summer on the basis of two per cent
of the value of fish caught by each member during the seasons 1935-36-37. As cash was needed to build up assets further, this dividend was paid in shares. So far, no dividend has been paid on store operations, but if and when this is done, it will be to each member according to his purchases from association stores.
Membership is open to any fisherman who agrees to abide by the rules and who has fishing interests in the area. Today the membership is 260, and includes all but six of the white fishermen on the north and west coasts of the Queen Charlotte Islands.
While the North Island Trailers’ Cooperative Association is only four years old, two others have been in operation since 1930; the near-by Prince Rupert Fishermen’s Co-operative which last year marketed close to 2,000,000 pounds of fish for its 300 members in the Prince Rupert area, about 200,000 pounds more than the North Island group; and the Kyuquot Trailers’ Co-operative, whose 290 members on the west coast of Vancouver Island produced 1,600,000 pounds of salmon.
The combined membership of the three associations represents one quarter of the licenses issued to trailers on the Coast in 1938. There were 3,284 trailer’s licenses issued last year among the 13,630 licenses of all kinds. One fisherman in thirteen works through a co-operative in British Columbia.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.