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Review

Still Fishin’: The BC Fishing Industry Revisited

By Alan Haig-Brown

November 4, 2013

Review By Diana Pedersen

Is there a future for sustainable commercial fisheries that support independent fishers and their way of life in British Columbia’s coastal communities? This timely question has recently been examined by Alan Haig-Brown – former fisher, journalist, writer, and long-time champion of commercial fishers and of British Columbia’s underappreciated fishing heritage. Since the mid-1980s , Haig-Brown has been photographing BC fishers and their boats as well as interviewing both the members of successive generations of fishing families and the builders and restorers of classic fishing boats. In 1993, his award-winning Fishing for a Living documented a century of evolution of commercial fishing as a way of life on the BC coast, with a primary focus on the seine fisheries for salmon and herring. In Still Fishin’: The BC Fishing Industry Revisited, Haig-Brown widens his focus to include other fisheries, traces the recent fortunes of some veteran fishers and their classic boats, and makes the acquaintance of a new generation of fishers. Highlighting the dramatic changes in government regulation of the fisheries over the past three decades, Haig-Brown warns that the resulting corporatization and privatization of British Columbia’s fishing industry threaten as never before to turn the independent fisher into “the equivalent of a grocery bagger in a vertically integrated food empire” (216). 

Still Fishin’ takes the form of nineteen illustrated profiles of people and boats, based primarily on interviews conducted by the author. Haig-Brown’s reminiscences of his own fishing apprenticeship in the 1960s and 1970s and his reflections on the evolution of the industry are skilfully integrated. The boats appear as principal, and often beloved, actors in the drama of British Columbia’s commercial fisheries, playing multiple roles as they are sold, refitted, converted, or restored over the decades. Haig-Brown allows us to hear the voices of a range of people with deep connections to the fishing industry. Many have inherited their livelihoods on the BC coast as descendants of immigrants from countries with strong maritime traditions (including Norway, Finland, Croatia, Japan, and Vietnam) or as members of great First Nations fishing families (such as the Assus of Campbell River and the Hunts of Fort Rupert). In Still Fishin’, independent fishers speak of their love of the life, the work, and the boats; their debts to their forebears in the industry; their hopes for the coming generation and for the fish; and, frequently, their discouragement and anger regarding the current fisheries management regime. 

Contrasting British Columbia with Norway, Haig-Brown is critical of what he sees as a widespread indifference to the province’s fishing heritage, with the exception of a few communities such as Campbell River and Steveston. He is filled with admiration for those individuals who devote their skills and money to the restoration and refitting of classic BC seiners; many of these fine boats are leaving the province to find a home in Alaskan waters. As Haig-Brown and many of the other voices in Still Fishin’ explain at length, government policies introduced in the 1980s to reduce the size of the fleet (ostensibly a conservation measure) have resulted, paradoxically, in bigger boats, greater capacity, and increased corporate ownership. More expensive boats make it difficult for a new generation of aspiring fishers to buy into the industry. An even greater obstacle, however, is the Byzantine system, administered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, requiring exorbitantly priced licences to fish during extremely brief openings and allowing those licences to be purchased by non-fishers. The result is that more and more fishers are working as employees of corporate speculators. In Still Fishin’, the situation of independent fishers in British Columbia is repeatedly contrasted with that of fishers in Alaska, the latter having a greater say in the setting of fisheries policy. In Alaska, regulations require that licence holders be on board the boat during the fishing, thus preserving a system of owner-operators and discouraging speculation. 

The fact that enthusiastic and educated young people still aspire to join the fishing fleet is cause for optimism for the future, according to Haig-Brown. So, too, is the existence of an alternative fisheries management regime in Alaska, demonstrating that, in British Columbia, policies could be changed and a sustainable system more supportive of independent fishers put in place. As some of those fishers explain in Still Fishin’, opportunities can still be found by embracing niche markets, cultivating the domestic market, and developing value-added products. Alan Haig-Brown is to be commended for providing a thoughtful analysis of the present and future of the BC fishing industry and for allowing the voices of independent fishers and their supporters to be heard by a wider public. Readers new to the topic would have been better served by a more substantial author’s introduction offering a succinct survey of developments in the fishing industry and fisheries policy over the past century. Nonetheless, this is an interesting, enlightening, and accessible book that adds a human dimension to a timely discussion of complex issues often obscured by technical jargon and statistics. 

 

Still Fishin’: The BC Fishing Industry Revisited by Alan Haig-Brown
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing 2010. 264 pp. 40 b/w photos. $26.95