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Tide Changes: A True West Coast Fishing Adventure

By Dave Holland

A Gillnet's Drift: Tales of Fish and Freedom on the BC Coast

By W.N. Marach

Poachers, Polluters and Politics: A Fishery Officer's Career

By Randy Nelson

Review By Colin Levings

May 6, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 232-234

It is common knowledge that the salmon fisheries of BC are a fraction of what they used to be, and the scientific and sociological literature is full of theories about how this happened. Too much fishing is, of course, one of the usual suspects, and fishers have lamented the over-exploitation of the resource (e.g. Safarik, 2012). The three books covered in this review provide a different perspective on the salmon industry because they deal with the personal aspects of actually becoming a fisher, or in the case of Randy Nelson’s book, dealing with the poachers and polluters who affect salmon production. Each of the books gives a vividly personal view of the salmon industry in the 1970s, a time when salmon were still relatively abundant, at least compared to today. A common theme in the three books is the authors’ love of nature – simply being on the water and outdoors was a treat and appreciated for its value. All three authors also clearly valued their independence. Running their own boat or organizing their own patrols had intrinsic value to these men.

Dave Holland’s book focuses on the first two years of a lifelong career as a fisher, recounting how he started out harvesting oysters in 1973 and then got into salmon trolling. Because fishing was his chosen and sole profession, he provides many insights into the industry and the people on the Coast involved in it, especially around Lund where he started fishing. What I found interesting in his book was how helpful other fishers were in getting him set up as a troller and the apparent lack of competition between them and the “new guy.” Perhaps this is a reflection of the relative abundance of salmon when he started his career – there seemed to be enough for everybody. His approach to describing his colleagues is gentle, and his tone affable. I gained a great appreciation of coastal communities, especially in the northern Strait of Georgia (sometimes called the Gulf of Georgia and now known as the Salish Sea) and near Port Hardy. Double-ended “Gulf trollers” similar to Holland’s first vessel were once icons in the region, but fewer are afloat now. The author provides a great narrative on the troller as a fishing machine, but a few diagrams or drawings would have helped readers not familiar with these boats. This does not at all detract from the book, which has a very readable and comfortable style.

Nick Marach started gillnetting as a part-time occupation in 1972 and spent ten seasons on the Coast, fishing in some of the same water that Holland did. His entry into the industry was somewhat more haphazard than Holland’s, with more training by the school of hard knocks.  Perhaps his experiences were more reflective of a greenhorn’s life trying to learn how to run a boat and catch fish. As well, he had a smaller network of friends to help him, as he was working out of the large and somewhat impersonal port of Vancouver. Marach’s writing style is quite analytical, which might appeal to the person who wants a good descriptive narrative. Gillnetting is in some ways an easier method to catch salmon relative to trolling – there are no lures, lines, hooks, and poles to worry about. Nevertheless, it is not as simple as putting a net in the water and pulling back the catch. Marach gives the reader a good sense of the nuances involved in gillnetting, such as reading the tides and currents and, of course, knowing the Coast and the fish. The book has a glossary which helps the reader understand the gillnetter’s lingo. The author does a very good job of “character development,” not really necessary in a non-fiction story but it is well done in this book. I thought his description of a widow who provided him with a licence for his new boat one of the most lively and entertaining parts of the book.

Nelson’s book is an unabashed memoir of his life as a Department of Fisheries and Oceans Fisheries Officer and recounts his experiences patrolling in the Fraser River and elsewhere in BC. He began his career in the late 1970s. Unlike Marach and Holland, Nelson does not dwell on interpersonal relationships or “friends” – his work was more cut and dried with somewhat less mentoring. Though he was trained for the job, he also had a natural instinct to preserve the resource. It was his task to conserve salmon by preventing them from being illegally harvested during their spawning runs in the Fraser River as well as by protecting their habitats. His book is a series of vignettes set in chronological order from the start of his career as a conservation officer in the late 1970s to his retirement as a senior fisheries official in 2013. Nelson does an admirable job of injecting humour into each vignette, a welcome technique as the poaching stories do tend to be similar from case to case. He also convincingly describes the dangers involved in fisheries enforcement. This is a high risk job, a fact not appreciated by many people. Like Holland and Marach, of course, he faced the dangers associated with being on the water. Unlike the fishers, however, Nelson also had to cope with wild animals, physical and verbal assaults, as well as the stress of not really being in control of one’s destiny – inevitable in an organization where top-down control was the norm. Nelson also provides a number of lively vignettes dealing with protection of salmon habitat in the rivers. Clean water and undisrupted freshwater habitat are required for salmon production. Nelson worked hard to prevent habitat damage so that the natural systems continued to support fisheries. Like Holland, Nelson was a “flatlander” who moved to BC as a young man and quickly learned about BC’s amazing salmon resource.

This trio of memoirs is worth reading to get the authors’ personal perspective on how they found their way into the “salmon community” as it existed in the 1970s. They provide insight into the way things were back in the day when a large number of people in BC could earn a living or feed their families by harvesting salmon from the sea, or, in the case of First Nations, from the rivers and the ocean. Commercial fishers included trollers, gillnetters, and seiners (see Pepper, 2013 for stories on seining). There also was a complex infrastructure supporting the industry that included shipyards, fish packers, canning and processing plants, and the delivery system to the consumer. This infrastructure included the fisheries officers who were charged with making sure the harvest was legal. At least for the fishers, this way of making a living is much diminished now, and these memoirs offer interesting and entertaining stories for current and future generations about earlier days of the fishing industry.

Fishing the Coast: A Life on the Water
Don Pepper
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing. 2013.

Bluebacks and Silverbrights. A Lifetime in the BC Fisheries from Bounty to Blunder
Norman and Allan Safarik
Toronto, ON: ECW Press. 2012.

Tide Changes: A True West Coast Fishing Adventure
Dave Holland
Kelowna: Webb Publishing, 2014. 217 pp. $19.95 paper.

A Gillnet’s Drift: Tales of Fish and Freedom on the BC Coast
W.N. Marach
Victoria, BC: Heritage House Publishing Company, 2014. 208 pp. $17.95 paper.

Poachers, Polluters and Politics: A Fishery Officer’s Career
Randy Nelson
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 240 pp. $24.94 paper.