Chad Hershler, Vancouver Magazine, January/February 2007
IT’S LATE JUNE—middle of halibut season—but Vic Amos isn’t anywhere near his boat. He’s in Parksville, surrounded by boxes, movers and his real estate agent, scavenging for a pen. Amos, 54, has fished one of his best Junes in years: about 60,000 pounds of halibut, heads off, or about 75 percent of his quota. And with almost no by-catch. By the terms of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans new “Integrated Fisheries” program, Amos had to lease extra quota to account for any by-catch (such as rock fish or cod) that he hauls in with his halibut. If he’d exceeded his by-catch limit, the D.F.O.—whose onboard camera monitors every fish he reels in—wouldn’t have allowed him to fish any more halibut this season, a potential loss of $150,000. Finding a clean spot—loads of halibut, little by-catch—is this hook-and-line fisherman’s version of striking gold.
Amos—a burly, clean-shaven man—is wearing a black shirt, black shorts and a black hat. He leans back in his old office chair. His Parksville days are over, which suits him fine. He and his second wife, Susan, 47, who works for the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, have just purchased a condo in Vancouver. She’ll spend the summer there; he’ll spend it on his boat. With what’s left over from the sale of his Parksville place, he hopes to buy a house in Port Alberni. “I’m jealous of those fishermen who can see the ocean from their bedroom window,” he says, grinning.
First things first, though. He has the rest of his halibut quota to catch. Not to mention his sockeye and tuna runs, or his 175,000-pound annual quota of dogfish. If Amos can’t catch the fish quota he’s leased, no one will lease to him next year and he’ll be on the hook for the money he’s borrowed (he pays almost $200,000 annually for his halibut license and quota alone). Once upon a time, an independent fisherman only had to catch and sell enough to pay his bills and make a living. Now he’s got to keep the D.F.O., his creditors and his lease-owners happy as well. Keeping his one-man, one-boat fish business afloat is getting trickier—and lonelier—every year.
Amos was born into the Hesquiaht band, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth fishing village north of Tofino. He always knew he’d be a fisherman; his father was one, as was his grandfather before that. This wasn’t what he imagined, though: squeezing in a house move between stress-filled trips counting fish in front of a camera. “Then,” he says, “you caught as much as you needed. You weren’t there to get rich.” His father was out for a week, then home for a week. Amos is lucky if he gets a weekend in Tofino with Susan while waiting for paperwork on, say, his lease for extra cod quota to go through. He used to join his father for harbour days, barbecues on the beach when all the fishermen would sit around the fire. Now, he docks his boat, cleans up and heads home for a glass of wine in front of the TV. His kids, adults now, complain that nobody wants to hang out by the boats anymore. Amos’ fishing chums—the guys he grew up with—have disappeared. He’s one of only three Hesquiaht commercial fishermen left; the other two are his brother and his nephew.
Last May, 11 Nuu-Chah-Nulth bands, including the Hesquiaht, began an unprecedented trial in Vancouver. The Nuu-Chah-Nulth has between 6,000 and 7,000 members, but only eight or nine commercial fishermen with individual boats and licenses. Dissatisfied with treaty negotiations, they’re attempting to establish their fishing rights through the courts. They believe that the combination of their aboriginal rights (pre-contact practices), aboriginal title (pre-sovereignty land and water ownership) and the Canadian government’s historical recognition of fishing as a key source of livelihood (Nuu-Chah-Nulth reserve lands were established primarily as access points to fishing) should give them first rights to the marine and riverine resources in their territories. Amos knows that a government-regulated fishing industry is a modern-day reality, but feels that these regulations have squeezed them out of their own waters. “All the guys I grew up with are on welfare. They’re in their forties and fifties, trained to fish, but with no more opportunities.”
When Amos was growing up, all his father needed was a boat, some gear and a D.F.O. issued “Sea License” that permitted him to harvest as many fish as he could catch. While Amos was establishing his own fishing business in the late-’80s and early-’90s, however, more and more commercial fishermen were targeting specific fish stocks. The D.F.O. began to require specific licenses for each fish, which led to the current system of independent fisheries, each with its own Total Allowable Catch (T.A.C.) and prescribed season. In some cases—halibut, for one—an Individual Quota system was introduced, whereby each licensee was given a personal T.A.C. Once the allotted number of licenses and quotas were distributed in each fishery, they became commodities, like stocks, that could be bought, sold, traded or leased. Unlike the east coast fisheries (which have an “owner-operator” licensing policy), anyone could buy in.
In time, values soared and many struggling independent fishermen couldn’t buy in. Amos was lucky. During the D.F.O. transition to independent fisheries, he acquired a dogfish license and, eventually, his 175,000-pound quota. He was also shrewd. Buying a halibut license and quota were out of his range (his 80,000-pound quota, for example, would cost him $3,000,000 to buy today), but he knew there were leases out there. He began to lease his halibut license—along with 10,000 pounds in quota—from the Hesquiaht band in 2002 (licenses and quotas were distributed to Nuu-Chah-Nulth bands as part of ongoing negotiations). The rest of his halibut and by-catch quotas he leased from other bands and non-native quota holders. In his first few years fishing halibut, the price shot up from 30 cents to $1.60 a pound.
Other fishermen didn’t fare so well. A 2004 study by Eco-trust Canada indicates that between 1994 and 2002, small rural communities (with populations of less than 10,000) lost 540, or about half, of their major fisheries licenses—“a result,” according to the study, “of ‘fleet downsizing’ and [the] sale of licenses to urban areas.” Rural fishermen such as Amos, with enough licenses and quotas to justify rising costs (a five-day trip costs him $2,000 for digitalized monitoring alone), could afford to keep fishing. For many others, though, the only option was to sell out—mostly to other fishermen and big business from the cities.
THE CANFISCO BUILDING, just over the Main Street overpass by the Port of Vancouver, is hard to miss. Bright red with striped awnings, it sits on a pier with trawlers moored alongside. Flowers over the entrance greet you, along with the overpowering scent of gasoline and fish that wafts up from the warehouse below. Rob Morley, vice president of Human Resources and Corporate Development, has an office directly above the warehouse, with a view that spans the North Shore Mountains and downtown skyline.
Morley, 54, has been working with fish his entire adult life. Vancouver born, he went straight from studying economics at UBC and SFU into the D.F.O., then on to the Fisheries Council of B.C., and then into the private sector—working for B.C. Packers, which in 1999 was bought out by Canfisco. For the past seven years, he’s helped establish Canfisco, now marking its 100-year anniversary, as the largest player in the B.C. fish trade. With most of its fleet devoted to wild salmon, Canfisco—a subsidiary of privately owned Jim Pattison Group—lands, processes and sells in excess of 45 million pounds of salmon each year. Aided by a peak-season staff of 2,000 and a fleet of over 750 vessels, Canfisco sells its west coast fish—fresh, frozen, canned, salted and smoked—to hundreds of customers in 24 countries around the world, including all the major grocery and mass merchandise chains in Canada.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in August, and Morley—slender, graying hair, in a lime green shirt and brown pants—sits at his desk surrounded by old black and white photos of fishing boats and west coast sunsets. “Fish is heavily traded worldwide,” he says. “We’re a small player. We wouldn’t even rank in the world’s top 50.” With low-cost retailers like Wal-Mart demanding higher quality goods, he says, companies have to be efficient. “We need to provide our customers with the product they want at the price they want.”
The old system, Morley claims, was inefficient. Fishing season would open and we’d get fished out in a matter of days. The new system allows Canfisco to control its resources (the 2002 Eco-Trust study found that Canfisco owned one-third of all herring seine licenses and 20 percent of all salmon licenses—a total of 244 licenses and quotas in various fisheries, with a market value of over $100 million) while spreading out the season. With the quota system there’s no rush, and with fewer boats competing for quotas, independent fishermen like Amos can provide a consistently high volume of fish and establish a stable relationship with companies like Canfisco. Canfisco, in turn, can then provide them with economy-of-scale perks, such as low-cost fuel cards.
Fifty years ago, Canfisco owned 32 fish plants in communities along the B.C. coastline. Now they own two in Prince Rupert, two in Alaska, and one in Vancouver, and have an interest in a fish plant in Delta. It’s part of a larger trend: by 2002, 44 percent of all B.C. quota holders and 40 percent of all license holders were from metropolitan areas; of the 436 halibut licenses now available, only nine are owned by fishermen based out of Vancouver Island’s west coast. “Trying to prevent this evolution causes more problems than it solves,” says Morley. “Trying to regulate where you locate a business—that goes against the trend. It creates weaker businesses.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, Amos and his wife sip coffee at a café near Robson and Denman. He’s booked late August off to take Susan and his son to Phantom of the Opera and the PNE. He could have done a tuna run with his crew, but he’s too tired. He’s always tired these days. In 2004, he had surgery for hardening of the arteries (“a genetic problem,” he says, “like my good looks”).
He’d met Susan in 1996, while they were both working for the tribes on the island. He was helping organize their finances; she was their property manager. He invited her out to his cabin one night for dinner and a snowstorm kept her there for five days. Now married, they see each other when they can. Amos’ ex-wife complained about his lifestyle—he never knows when he’s coming or going—but for Susan, life is unpredictable, and she likes that.
Of Amos’ six children from his previous marriage—ranging in age from 17 to 30—only his second-oldest son, 21-year-old Will, plans to fish. Will is watching the Nuu-Chah-Nulth trial closely. The outcome will affect him directly. For now, Amos hopes to negotiate a long-term lease for Will on one of the band’s licenses, and give his son a chance to pay off his own boat over time. “I have to encourage my boys to go into it,” Amos says. “It’s in my blood.” He pauses. “But maybe I shouldn’t—it’s a tough industry.”
Tough as it is, Amos is somehow making it work. Each year, he renegotiates his “bread and butter” halibut leases with the various bands—and in some cases, when money is required upfront, his main buyer, S & M Products in Vancouver, advances him enough to secure payment. His crew consists of his kids and several unemployed Nuu-Chah-Nulth, most in their forties. With bunks for four, they make five-day excursions out of Port Alberni along the west coast of Vancouver Island from January till the end of October. If all goes well, Amos gets his halibut quota without going over his by-catch. If not, he has to scramble for more by-catch quota, or sink. So far he’s been okay—his buyers have bailed him out—but he doesn’t like pushing his luck.
Through the season, he delivers his halibut to S & M, which ships it fresh to markets in Europe and San Francisco. With over half of his roughly $400,000 in gross revenue going to his leases, and a quarter going to labour and D.F.O. costs, he’s left with under $100,000 to cover boat payments, maintenance, repairs—and his own earnings, about $70,000 in a good year. The last two months of each year, he fixes his boat, renegotiates his leases and prepares for next season. It’s non-stop, but he won’t be doing it forever. Ten more years, he figures, and then onto something less active: a 40-foot cruiser, Susan alongside this time, perhaps a little prawn-, crab- and salmon-fishing. Who knows? Maybe a few barbecues on the beach.
IT’S LATE OCTOBER, and Amos is in the galley of his 47-foot boat, Em-Ali II, moored in Port Alberni for the winter. There are still dishes in the sink, sleeping bags on the bunks and stink from inside the hold. Since landing three days ago he’s been trying to get his financials in order for the new house and hasn’t been able to get near the boat. The new house is right by the ocean, a 15-minute walk from the docks—everything he could have dreamed of. “We were just walking around here one afternoon, and saw the place,” he says. “It just happened.”
He points out his brother’s boat—the only other one he recognizes—moored nearby. “I don’t see any of my tribal members down at the dock anymore,” he says, hunching down to go back into the cabin. Susan will be over from Vancouver at week’s end. Until then, he’ll clean up the boat and start making phone calls. Christmas isn’t far off. The January chinook run is right around the corner.