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Fishing the Coast: A Life on the Water

By Don Pepper

Review By Kenneth Campbell

April 8, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 217-18

“There are no books on how to catch fish for a living,” writes Don Pepper in his preface to Fishing the Coast. “None” (10). What might seem a bold statement is, upon examination, accurate. In the numerous books about commercial fishing in British Columbia, not one author sets out to fully describe the processes and skills used to harvest salmon and other species. Many illustrate the techniques and equipment used to catch fish, but Pepper goes beyond the gear to reveal the local ecological knowledge learned on the fishing grounds.

In the past, the stories in Pepper’s narrative might only be heard on the docks or around the galley table. However, as Pepper notes in his acknowledgment to the skippers he worked with, he is “not apprehensive about revealing their knowledge and secrets, as their time and their fisheries (and mine) are now long past” (217). For much of his early fishing life, Pepper was beach man on a number of seine boats. But his other careers, including economist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Executive Director of the Canadian Pacific Sardine Association, bring an added insight to his personal narrative. Central to the stories are the geographical variations that affect fish behaviour and consequently fishing behaviour. The stories are set in particular locales, reflecting Pepper’s experiences, such as fishing the Nimpkish dog salmon in the strong tides of Johnson Strait in 1953, making a curious set at Koeye River in 1956 and repeating it forty-five years later, or seining roe herring among the tricky Foote Islands of Spiller Channel in the 1980s.

In a salmon fishing career spanning the 1940s into the 1970s, Pepper witnessed major technological changes, particularly the transition from table seining through the puretic power block to the advent of the drum seine. A detailed chapter on building a seine net in 1953 reveals the depth of skill and knowledge required for a successful fishery. Pepper also demonstrates some of the unwritten rules followed on the seine boat fishing grounds, such as taking turns making a set and the length of time allowed before closing up.

Of particular interest is the description of the highly competitive “Blue Line” fishery at the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. From the 1960s into the nineties, only the elite fisherman vied for lucrative sets along the Bonilla-Tatoosh fishing boundary, otherwise known as the Blue Line. It took skill, preparation, and some conniving to acquire a set as close to the line as possible. Pepper recounts his Blueline experiences in the 1980s when he was fishing with his lifelong friend and fishing partner Byron Wright aboard his vessel Prosperity. This personal connection focuses the book in the final chapter when, in 2004, the Prosperity and the old crew made one last voyage in search of sardines in a memorable trip that ending up circumnavigating Vancouver Island.

Fishing the Coast has an index and is fully illustrated with photographs and drawings of boats, nets, and logbooks. Charts and maps allow the reader to locate the narratives. Pepper’s interest in the importance of local knowledge, along with the technological changes that occurred in the post-war salmon fisheries, make this a significant contribution to the history of commercial fishing on British Columbia’s coast.

Fishing the Coast: A Life on the Water
Don Pepper
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2013. 224 pp. $24.95 paper