GENERAL ARTICLES

Fish for Britain

LAWRENCE CRAIG January 15 1942
GENERAL ARTICLES

Fish for Britain

LAWRENCE CRAIG January 15 1942

Fish for Britain

LAWRENCE CRAIG

TEN THOUSAND British Columbia fishermen are toiling this winter through gales and snow and sleet, sometimes for twenty-four hour stretches, to collect from the increasingly unpacific waters of the Pacific Ocean the equivalent of 1,700,000 cases of canned herring, each case containing forty-eight one-pound cans. These same fishermen have already netted between May and November last -1,200,000 cases, or approximately 160,000,000 cans of salmon. Herring and salmon both are destined for Great Britain; more than $16,000,000 worth of fish altogether.

The war is playing odd tricks with Canadian industry. There is nothing new about Canadian salmon on the shelves of British grocery shops, although this year’s export of salmon to Britain is more than three times the normal peace figure; but there is a distinctly paradoxical quality in the idea of Canadian herring being served for London’s breakfast, comparable with carrying coals to Newcastle or importing wheat to the Prairie provinces. Since the first native Briton put out in his woven willow coracle in search of herring schools off his home shores, the British have been fond of this succulent fish, either fresh caught or as the lustier flavored kipper. From time immemorial fishing smacks, working from East Coast harbors of England and Scotland, have hauled sufficient herring from North Sea waters to supply the domestic demand, often to glut the market. Now there are very few fishermen casting their nets in North Sea waters, still fewer vessels available for Britain’s domestic fishing industry. All the younger men who formerly earned their living catching herring are in one or the other of the services, most of them, naturally, in the Navy. Their ships are sweeping mines.

Not all the Canadian herring and salmon Britain will consume this year are considered merely as replacements for the uncaught fish swimming in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the English Channel. The British Ministry of Food has planned its rationed economy according to the advice of scientists who studied nutrition problems. Salmon and herring are valuable for their high protein content, they are easy to preserve, not too bulky to ship. It is part of the permanent policy of the Food Ministry to increase British consumption of these fish. Since the local supply is practically nonexist-

ent, Britain has called upon Canada to make up the shortage.

There’s another side to the picture. While Canadian exports of canned herring to Britain are leaping from near zero to almost two million cases and salmon exports are increasing threefold, exports of Canadian lobster to Europe have vanished entirely. Ninety per cent of Canada’s cannedlobster production found European outlets before the war. This business, worth more than $2,000,006 annually to lobster fishermen and canneries of the Eastern Maritime provinces, disappeared overnight when the Nazis swarmed through Europe. Then the British Food Ministry ruled against importing canned lobster, on the ground that, tasty as it might he, other less costly fish had a higher nutritive value. It looked for a while in 1940 as though the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island lobster industry was doomed, at the same time that the herring and salmon fisheries on the Pacific Coast were offered a market so greatly increased that they might not he able to meet its demands.

This was the complex situation the Federal Department of Fisheries was required to tackle through 1940 and last year. Dr. D. B. Finn, the

Our herring sizzle on British breakfast tables, our lobsters tickle American palates, and —for once—our fishermen are netting profits

Maritime lobstermen lost overseas trade, now sell to U. S.

scholarly biochemist who, considerably to his surprise, found himself in the post of Deputy Minister of Fisheries early in 194U, says now that the salmon pack required by Britain is assured and the outlook for the herring pack is entirely favorable. The threatened disaster to the lobster industry has been averted through the opening up of new markets, chiefly in the United States.

The salmon and herring issue has been met by increasing the number of salmon canneries, more than doubling the number of British Columbia canneries equipped to can herring, and stepping up canned-herring production by the amazing figure of 300 per cent. Until last year herring was the poor relation of Canada's fishing industry. By the time the 1942 season ends it will he on top of the heap, rivalling the lordly sockeye. In 1939 Canadian production of canned herring was 222,658 cans. This winter’s yield will soar to 81,600,000 cans, every last one of them earmarked for Britain.

Profiteering Ban

THIS SPRING will see the conclusion of the first full year’s operation of the scheme, devised jointly by the British Ministry of Food and the Canadian Department of Fisheries, to supply

beleaguered Britain with Canadian fish on a total requirement basis. The British Government asked Canada to increase Canadian exports of canned salmon from around 385,500 cases, the prewar average, to 1,200,000 ca es, representing approximately two thirds of the total pack. Cooperating with the Treasury Department, the Department of Fisheries undertook to negotiate prices, with the primary object of banning any attempt at profiteering, to determine terms and conditions of sale, and arrange for smooth and rapid transportation of the canned fish.

Fourteen different canning companies were operating in British Columbia last year. A long series of conferences and discussions were necessary to iron out the many wrinkles before final arrangements were completed. Some toes were stepped on, too. Brokers, acting as middlemen between the eanners and the wholesales in normal trade conditions, were largely eliminated in the deal with the British Food Ministry. Controls had to lx? set up, and some packers resented that interference. But. the thing was done, eventually, and 1 ()6,000,000 cans of Canadian salmon, packed since last May, are now pouring into British ports.

The herring deal was an even more difficult business, because herring had hitherto been considered a comparatively insignificant item in British Columbia fisheries. Although thousands of tons of herring appear off the Pacific coast late in September every autumn, and continue there until they spawn in the early part of the following year, before this winter only a small portion of the available herring catch had been netted, a still smaller portion canned. Some were canned for domestic consumption, some smoked for kippers, and some frozen for bait; but the larger part of the catch had been either salted for the Oriental trade or manufactured into herring meal, used for cattle feed, or herring oil.

In 1940 the total production of canned herring was 644,000 cases. Most of them went to England. But last year the Food Ministry wanted a great deal more. Preliminary surveys showed the limit of productive capacity to be around 1,700,000 cases, and the Department of Fisheries began to urge co-operation by the herring canneries, to extend their capacity, and to arrange transportation, as had been done with salmon. The herring season is now at its peak and Deputy Minister Finn believes, on the basis of the early returns, that the full objective of 1,700,000 cases will be achieved. “The fish aren’t all caught yet, but we’re hoping,” Dr. Finn says.

Altogether the deal involves the shipment of 203,000,000 cans of salmon and herring from British Columbia to Great Britain, at a cost of more than $16,000,000. Payments to the eanners are made by means of warrants issued by the Treasury Department and distributed by the Department of Fisheries.

Graded Lobster Sells

MOVING eastward, the problem involved in the Atlantic Maritime provinces’ lobster industry was

of a different sort. The job here was to sustain nearly 15,000 lobster fishermen and assist a hundred and fifty lobster canneries, employing around 4,000 men and women, in the face of the complete loss of their European market.

Representatives of the fishermen, the canneries and the Department of Fisheries met during the winter of 1939 for a series of discussions. As a result, in May, 1940, at the beginning of the lobster-fishing season, an order in council was passed authorizing the purchase by the department, through a Lobster Controller, of a maximum of 55,000 cases of canned lobster. The price was fixed at eighteen dollars a case for grade A lobster, seventeen dollars for grade B, and up to but not more than sixteen dollars for lower classifications. The eanners had to prove to the satisfaction of the controller that the fish offered was a product of the 1940 season and that a minimum of five and one quarter cents per pound had been paid to the fishermen for the live lobsters. Dr. Finn, the Deputy Minister, took on the job of Lobster Controller in addition to his other duties.

Special and peculiar difficulties arose here. The eanners insisted that it was impossible successfully

to grade canned lobster, had to be shown that it was not only possible but imperative that this hitherto unheard-of procedure should be followed. Actually of the first 10,000 cases offered, only eighty-five cases merited the grade A classification.

An entirely new market had to be found for the product the department had undertaken to purchase. Another series of conferences, this time with United States Government officials at Washington, were successful in opening the U.S. market to Canadian canned lobster, never previously sold in quantities below the border. The home market was extended through the medium of an expertly-planned national advertising campaign. Chain-store buyers in Canada and in the United States were asked to cooperate, and did so.

There are two lobster packs, a year, one in the spring, the other in the fail, with the spring pack gener-

ally considered to produce the superior article. At the end of the 1940 season the entire pack, distributed through governmental and private channels, had been sold. Canneries under stricter regulation had become more efficient, rigid grading had served to identify the product and to improve the average of its quality. Last year the Department of Fisheries was able to withdraw as a purchaser, to confine its activities to inspection, to the issuance of export permits, to supervising the conduct of the industry in the interests of the individual fisherman and the small independent cannery, and to maintaining the orderly marketing system set up for the benefit of American consumers.

So.today, in spite of what appeared to be a calamitous setback in the first year of the war, Canada’s $4,000,000 lobster industry is as prosperous as it ever was, established on a much sounder basis both as to quality and distribution than ever before. Grade A Canadian canned lobster is highly thought of in the United States, brought as high as twenty dollars a case last fall. The entire season’s pack has been sold through the regular commercial channels, the fishermen are receiving a fair and

assured price for their catch, the whole situation is back on an even keel. Last fall the canned-lobster industry had more orders in sight than it could fill.

Fish Herring In Winter

FROM THE point of view of the British Columbia fisherman, the most important factor in the new development is that it provides him with year-round employment. Salmon are caught during the fine weather months, from May 20 on. Sockeye in the spring and early summer—the run is over by July cohoe in midsummer and chum in the early autumn. The herring season starts in November, carries through until March. Increased demand for herring for Britain means that the salmon fishermen will go after the herring schools as soon as they wind up the salmon season. Methods and

equipment for herring fishing are different from those used to catch salmon, but not radically so. The crew that fished salmon all last summer are entirely able to fish herring all this winter, now that a market is assured for their catch.

They are a motley crew, these British Columbia fishermen. Their’s is a tough job, a rough life, and sometimes a turbulent one. When the fish are running it’s a case of every man for himself. Fisherman’s luck. The Department of Fisheries maintains an inspection staff of officers, who wear no uniforms, but carry badges and exercise police authority. They enforce a reasonable level of decorum, but occasional feuds develop, nets may be cut, fist fights, even mass riots have been known. Fishing in steamship lanes is a highly hazardous occupation when there is fog, and storms are frequent in winter.

There are three distinct racial groups of fishermen in British Columbia: white, Indian, and Japanese. Among the whites, native Canadians, many of them adventurous spirits who have moved West from the Maritime provinces, predominate. There are some British born, and a surprisingly large number of central Europeans, especially Czechs. British Columbia Indians form another group, descendants of the noble red men who fished these waters long before the white man came to compete with them, wise and cunning m the often mysterious travel ways of salmon and herring. Until this season the Japanese herring fishermen salted the bulk of their catch for export to the Orient. Now they are selling their fish to the canneries for export to Britain. At the outbreak of war with Japan all Japanese fishing vessels were ordered to return to harbor. What continuing restrictions will be levied is not yet known.

To some extent the fishermen are financed by the canneries. There were thirty-eight salmon canneries operating in British Columbia in 1940, employing according to Fisheries Department records, 6,142 men and women. In the same year only ten British Columbia plants were canning herring. This season with many of the salmon canneries switching over to herring during the winter months, twenty-two plants have notified the department of their intention to can herring. Between eleven and twelve thousand salmon fishing licenses were issued during 1940; the number of fishermen engaged in the industry would be less than that. A separate license is required for each branch of salmon fishing—gill-netting and seining —and many men work in both branches.

Gill nets, made of linen, designed to catch swimming salmon by the gills, cost about $200 each. Salmon seines, used to surround schools of fish and haul them into the boat by means of brail ropes attached to winzes, are more elaborate.

Size of the boats used and numbers of the crew vary widely. Some gillnet ters work from a twenty-loot motorboat with two men. At the other extreme, the double-boat seiners, stretching 275-fathom semes between two boats, one at each end

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Fish for

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of the net, may require as many as ! sixteen men to handle each boat,

I sometimes take a hundred tons of fish in a single haul. The larger boats are likely to be powered with Diesel engines, run from sixty to eighty feet long, are broad of beam and capable ; of battling the heaviest seas.

You can’t talk an eight-hour day ¡ or forty-hour week to these sturdy I citizens. When the fish are running ! they work to the point of exhaustion,

' often all day long and through the I night as well. Small boats are sent 1 out to scout the water for schools of 1 fish. In prewar days airplanes were

often used on this job, but not now. No spare planes available. Once a school is located the seiners get to work, dropping their nets, surrounding the fish, hauling them aboard, shovelling them into compartments. Meanwhile collection boats from the canneries are cruising through the fleet, picking up the catch from each seiner, rushing it back to the cannery on shore. The sooner the netted fish are in the can the better, but when fish are plentiful no seiner wants to waste time carrying the catch to the cannery. Sometimes huge scows arcused for collection boats. They may

be seen lumbering shoreward behind powerful small tugs, the glistening herring piled high on their fiat decks.

Fishing for salmon or herring is strenuous work, done by strong men equipped with rugged constitutions; but under present circumstances it can be profitable. A gill-net fisherman hauling in four hundred salmon a day, each fish weighing five or six pounds and over, will receive an average of seventy cents a fish at the current rates of eleven or twelve cents a pound. Over the entire season his earnings may run as high as $3,000. He has to provide his own equipment or his share of its cost, and any capital advanced him by the cannery companies is a first charge against the value of his catch.

Canning companies have their own special problems forced upon them by war conditions, particularly in the case of herring. Experience has taught the canners that herring, a less-solidiy-fleshed fish than salmon, pack most successfully in long ovalshaped tins. War industry priorities have made it difficult to obtain all the oval tins required to carry the

huge catch anticipated and needed to supply British requirements. Some of the herring will have to be packed in round tins. This, the Department of Fisheries admits, is a less satisfactory method than oval canning but, because of the diversion of tin plate to factories making munitions, it is necessary.

Again, the most successful method of preserving herring in cans is with tomato sauce; but because tomato juice is acid, the cans have to be lined with a thin coat of enamel. The industry has encountered some difficulty obtaining the enamel needed for this purpose. Assurance of a sufficient supply was only recently received.

There you have the general picture of Canadian fisheries in the third year of the war. The output of canned salmon has increased, the lobster fishermen are prospering and Canadian canned herring is finding its way—millions of cans of it—to British pantry shelves.

The herring deal is surely one of the most astonishing minor developments to come out of the war.