Caught in the net
State of the unions
Working the salmon run off Cape Flattery
In 1936 I rode the freight trains west, intending to get a job on the fishing boats in Vancouver. I jumped off at the yards to avoid railway cops, wandered around the Hastings and
Main downtown area, went to a Dorothy Lamour movie, and a parrot cussed me at the entrance to Stanley Park. The city didn’t seem real, and I had a tremendous feeling of homesickness. At a level crossing near the waterfront, just before dark, I scrambled into an empty boxcar of a slow-moving eastbound freight. Without even having tried to get a job on a fishing boat. I was 17.
Thirty-seven years later, I am riding a seiner fish packer west from Vancouver harbor at midnight. Enjoying myself thoroughly, standing with feet wide apart on the gently heaving steel deck, deciding that even if I’d written the script I couldn’t have made things more dramatic. Vancouver lights all pointing toward the ship and myself, neon arrows on the black water. The packer, Pacific Ocean, a momentary centre of the universe. Red and white lights all around, Stanley Park a dark animal crouched low in water. Under the Lion’s Gate Bridge with soundless cars passing 200 feet over our heads and a white moon some 200,000 miles farther up. Ernie, the cook, is at the rail playing his harmonica, the Toreador song from Carmen, I think.
In the wheelhouse Skipper Herb Shannon, veteran of 50 years at sea, steers the packer towards Juan de Fuca Strait. His father sailed wind ships across the Pacific in the last century. Herb Shannon, a gnome-like man who reminds me of a retired railway engineer(nobody ever looks like what they are), talks about fishing while the boat rolls queasily and I wonder about that last dish of blueberries at dinner. “Well,” I say, “how does your wife like you being late for almost all your meals?” “She knew what I was doin’ before we got married,” he says. And behind us the blaze of lights is growing dim.
The week before wandering the BC Packers cannery at Steveston, about 15 miles south of Vancouver, where salmon are delivered at dockside by packers and smaller collectors and disappear into cans the same day. Salmon everywhere, spring, sockeye, coho, chum and pink, the five species that make up 80% of the $100 million in commercial fish caught on the Canadian Pacific coast every year. Girls everywhere, too, girls in green and white smocks, demure among the conveyor belts, businesslike among the flashing steel knives. Indian girls, Japanese, Chinese, and white girls, all doing the same things. I turn to one lissome shepherdess of fish, thinking to
break this mechanized spell, and say brightly, “You live around here?” “Huh?” she grunts charmingly, looks at me as if I were a slightly retarded dog salmon. I move along hurriedly.
Aboard a Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco) power launch three days ago, visiting gill-netters at the Fraser’s mouth, where they lower their 200-fathoms-long nylon nets like undersea fences into the grey-green water. Returning salmon are intercepted here, near the end of their mysterious four-year cycle of life, on the way home to their birthplace upriver to spawn and die.
The gill-netters are manned by drowsy half-awake men, one by a woman, surprisingly to me in this man’s world. George Woods hauls his net aboard with the hydraulic gurdy, to remove — 11 crabs, one empty milk carton, two salmon. “The way to make a living, boy,” says Ron Turner on the collector, Princess Aleta, his crew gaffing salmon aboard with fish peughs — other gill-netters’ salmon.
On the packer Pacific Ocean, two hours out from Vancouver, transmitted motion of the sea is not the same rocking chair dream as the Fraser’s mouth. Dub, engineer and halfowner of the boat says, “You look kinda green.” I hold onto cables at port or starboard, trying to keep my eyes on some fixed object according to previous advice. There is no getting away from it, I am not a well man. Water slops over the rail with each sickening heave. At this point I lose a plate of blueberries right off the top of my stomach. I have never been so sick in my damn life. Ernie plays the harmonica unfeelingly. I am dying.
At 3.30 a.m. we strike a floating field of logs in Active Pass, 30 miles or so off Nanaimo. Motors stop, we drift among the logs on momentum alone, bumping gently toward clear water. Herb Shannon, in the wheelhouse, guiding us to safety. Myself, sunk in near-death unconsciousness, I do not even lift my head from the bunk after we strike. I hear about it next day in the galley. “Fine sailor you are,” Dub says. Herb Shannon, drinking coffee: “You’ll get used to it.” I’d better.
The area around here, north of Cape Flattery and along the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, is the “graveyard of the Pacific,” thus named for good and sufficient reasons. The Japanese Current drives north along the U.S. coast, eastbound ships get careless and don’t watch their radar sometimes. Only 18 months ago a Japanese ship with a cargo of Dodge Colt au-
tomobiles wrecked on the southwest
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Vancouver Island coast a few miles north. It’s still there, stranded among rocks like great stone teeth. “Of course those Colts disappeared damn quick,” Herb Shannon says. “Miraculous the way things disappear off a wrecked ship. Barges pulled alongside and the cars got winched off . . .”
At Port Renfrew, a fine deep-sea harbor on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, seiners and gill-netters march toward us through the early morning mist: Sun Burst, Sherry Joan, Sea Fair, Silver Luck, Joyce R. and Georgia Saga. Most of them come directly from the “surf-line” boundaries, this being a 1957 non-written “agreement” between the U.S. and Canada that no salmon fishing with nets will be allowed beyond the surf-line. The “agreement” covers the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and BC. Its purpose is to conserve the salmon stock for each country, although the Canadian fishermen say the U.S. almost invariably takes the eagle’s share of salmon bound for spawning grounds on BC rivers. One reason, for the disproportionately larger U.S. catch is that, after the agreement, Alaska decided its fishing area would extend three miles seaward from the surf-line that had been established for the other coastal states and BC. One might call this an international double cross, but Canadian fisheries officials are rarely that impolite.
Now this makes a lot of BC fishermen pretty resentful. One hears talk of blockading the Fraser’s mouth with nets and simply cleaning it out of fish. But that is self-defeating, obviously, for 15% to 20% of salmon must reach their home waters in the Fraser and its tributaries to spawn. If they were blockaded, the rich ocean harvest of the great river would vanish entirely. The only rational answer is further arbitration and agreement through the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission.
High Rose, Brilon and Miss Jennie, swinging bow and stern expertly alongside the Pacific Ocean, skippers joshing good-naturedly with the packer’s crew. “Who’s the city man?” Joe Lepore wants to know, meaning me of course. Lepore says he hates fishing, wants to quit. “Too many boats working here; you can’t catch enough fish. But with a family, how can I quit?”
Rosemary Wilson, widow with no children, her dead husband a fisherman, she alone on the gill-netter. “Why?” I ask her. She chuckles deep inside her windbreaker: “There’s more fish at sea than men ashore.” Which is fair enough, but near the tag end of the season there aren’t enough fish either.
In midafternoon, the Cessna 180
lands at Port Renfew for the 90-mile trip to Tofino along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Pilot: Bobby Wingham, manager of Canfisco at Tofino. And there’s nothing to make the flesh feel so vulnerable as these flying baby carriages, powered by twisted rubber bands. The pilot glances at me sideways, perhaps meaning to be reassuring. I hold onto the handle dingus installed for nervous passengers. Am I nervous, am I reassured? Yes and no.
Tofino is a fishing village with one main street, two groceries and a hotel. Its location might be described as west of nowhere — but nowhere has miles and miles of white sand beaches, sounding whales off the blue lace-fringed sea edge, if you’re lucky enough to see them, and maybe 200 to 300 Rollers growing like a watery forest in the harbor. Trailers because the surf-line agreement prohibits net fishing for salmon. And a scarcely touched primeval paradise all around the village.
But Tofino for me is mostly Gil Sadler, a trailer, age 33, ex-carpenter, married with kids and owns his own house, kind of a gee-whiz-gosh-all-fishhooks sort of guy ... I mean the fortunate kind who strikes you partly as still a kid, even though physically a man. Five years ago Sadler decided to be a fisherman; this despite the more than 6,000 licensed fishing boats operating in BC. He did some soul-searching about it with his wife, bought an elderly 36-foot Roller and renovated her, called her the Promisewell because fishing seemed to promise a better life for his family.
But here was the rub: Sadler had never fished before in his life, except hook and worms off the dock. Then what about Joe McLeod? McLeod the brash confident man, record setter and pacemaker; no doubt the fish were actually afraid not to bite his hooks, or else McLeod might speak to God about it. Gil Sadler was friendly with McLeod and sure of help from him. And got it, too, but not exactly as expected. Sadler described himself sailing the Promisewell, following the edge of a shoal feeding ground where salmon ought to be, should be, must be, feeding. And using a particular kind of bait. When he got back, McLeod would grunt enigmatically and say of the bait: “Should be a different color!” To which Sadler would respond eagerly, face lighting up at word from the master, “What kind of bait do you think is best, Joe?”
But McLeod would never give him a direct answer, letting the younger man figure it out for himself, dropping tantalizing hints on where and how and when things should be done.
What’s it like to be a fisherman? Sadler was finding that out quickly. Once in a fog a 300-foot Russian trawler loomed over the Promisewell. The trawler’s
whistle blew deafeningly, continuously. But which way was the damn thing going? Is that the bow I’m looking at or the stern? What shall I do, which way turn? And a later thought: what use my eight measly trolling lines against this giant floating claw that snatches whole schools and tribes of fish from the sea?
Of course the comparatively high price for fish caught with a hook and line — ranging from $1.40 to $2.15 a pound for coho and spring salmon — made it worthwhile. And the desperate drive toward excellence as well, that excellence packaged and symbolized by Joe McLeod. Listen to the radio, voices talking without bodies on the solitary sun-blinded sea. Fish farther north on the banks there? Get on your horse, Gil, go where others are finding fish.
The loran radio signal whispers, and match that with the corresponding number on the chart where shoals and fish are waiting. How long wi’l the fish wait? All eight lines out, trolling along the bank: rush back into the wheelhouse to check the loran, check the echo sounder for fish, the depth finder and all the little flashing lights and sounds connected with invisible electrodes fixed in a human brain.
And salmon, their long gleaming silver bodies flopping out of the sea, coho transformed into dollar bills and groceries, spring salmon changed to a new room built onto the house, mortgage paid off, the desperate anxiety of being alive turned to momentary content. And perhaps laughter. Amusement at one’s self, the good gut laughter soon lost when the salmon disappear, fading to nothing but the blood’s whisper and murmur of your own breathing . . .
Then, riding home to Tofino in the elderly Promisewell with 1,700 salmon. Stern awash, decks awash, bow juddering, trembling with the engine’s feeble efforts, the whole worn-out Rube Goldberg contraption not quite sinking. (Veteran fishermen saying, “Throw some o’ them fish overboard, boy, or you’ll never make it to hum, boy!” Under your breath, “Well, boys, I’m making it home!”) And weaving a little with good tiredness up the town’s main drag,
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clothes covered with blood and fish slime, covered with dirty glorious triumph. And the woman seeing you at the door, knowing it, knowing it all from the look on your face, how it feels and she’s feeling it.
The stone backside of Canada is not the mainland Coast Range, but the savage bare peaks of Vancouver Island, surrounded by forests nearly as inaccessible as another planet. Riding another Cessna 180 we swing over them, bound for a fish cannery at Namu on the mainland, about 180 miles southeast of Prince Rupert. Lifting now over tthe BC Inland Passage to Alaska, uninhabited green islands, “more a kingdom than a province,” high half-frozen lakes feeding their overflow to other lakes farther down the mountain, then still other lakes in shimmering necklaces strung together on top of the world. Fishing boats below are water beetles, their mile-long wakes reduced to seeming inches. And Namu, a three-million-dollar cannery with its machinery silent and only the refrigeration plant in operation.
Country so beautiful nobody deserves to die without having seen it. Bald eagles fly over the bunkhouses; salmon throng in the harbors, unable to ascend the low-water river until the next rainfall. Raised boardwalks wind through the trees, connecting bunkhouses, cannery, refrigeration plant and deserted Japanese village nestled at the edge of the rain forest. A British Columbia Packers Ltd. company town, it now employs only about 80 people instead of the 500 in its heyday years ago.
Les Scott is sixtyish, brown from sun and sea, shop steward of the refrigeration plant. Scott worked at a whaling station owned by BC Packers on Vancouver Island in the early Fifties, introduced a union and was blackballed out of a job. Now, he worked for the same company at Namu. Maybe they’ve got more lenient, since George Weston Ltd. bought a 70% interest. The industry as a whole dominated by three companies, the international BC Packers and Canfisco, and Prince Rupert Fishermen’s Cooperative Association. The small companies, at Fisherman’s Wharf in Vancouver or at Prince Rupert, and a few elsewhere, these supply institutions on contract, also the fresh and frozen market. BC Packers the giant, controlling nearly half the industry.
Barry McMillan, brisk young manager of J. S. McMillan Fisheries in Vancouver, says his small company (six million dollars gross sales a year — is that small?) is more efficient and has less overhead. “Besides we don’t have the ill-will those big companies sometimes generate.” McMillan owns three boats and contracts six more. He estimates the four-man crew of a dragger can each
make up to $30,000 per season.
At the Campbell Street wharf, I meet Vance Fletcher, tuna fisherman, bearded, long dark hair, age 30, a slim athletic animal in his movements, bubbling excitement held just under the surface of his talk. Fletcher operates a 50-foot long-liner with a three-man crew and has just returned, after 10 days out, with a tuna catch worth more than $7,000. But, listening to him, all is not beer and skittles or fish and chips.
Cape Chacon, he explains, is a southern point in Alaska three miles from the Canadian Nunez Rock. “Now the International Boundary should run right in the middle of those two points, and it does, it does. And yet the Alaskan Fisheries people claim a three-mile limit from Cape Chacon, which takes in the Canadian Nunez Rock. What it means is our fishing boats are chased by American patrols in Canadian territorial waters.” Fletcher’s eyes flash a little. “Of course we don’t stop, but someone could get killed out there if the Americans are as trigger-happy as they are sometimes.”
John Wolff is a halibut long-liner, 70 years old and looks about 55, black hair only slightly sprinkled with grey. He has fished all his life and doesn’t expect to spend the rest of it any differently. His halibut long-liner operates north of Banks Island in Hecate Strait, the halibut feeding grounds — “long-liner,” a 300-fathom-long cable to which are fastened short lines for bottom fishing.
Drinking coffee together, Wolff tells me about a pod of 150 killer whales on both sides and behind the long-liner. “When whales blow they smell awful, it was like being in the middle of a big garbage dump. Most of ’em had their mouths open, you could see their teeth. I was never so scared before or since.”
In the character of the fishermen I’ve met there is some quality I keep trying to define. Not something that will make a man stand out in a crowd, but more like the independence of Vance Fletcher, the sturdy character of John Wolff, and a wrapped-around loneliness that comes from driving their boats along the intricate indented coastline of BC, in summer and winter, storm and calm. But this gets dangerously close to making them sound heroic and all that guff. Still, when you think of the vast ramifications of the BC fishing industry — the total of more than 12,000 people employed on ship and shore, well over 6,000 licensed fishing boats and more than $200 million filtering into the BC economy — it would be surprising if fishermen did not possess some special characteristics. For myself, thinking of my coastal wanderings. I’ve somehow caught up with some of my own life that should have been lived before. 0