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Alan Haig-Brown

September 16th, 2012

It was fishing that paid Alan Haig-Brown’s way through school, and later he edited the trade magazine Westcoast Fisherman. Over the years he has watched fish stocks decline and corporate consolidation increase.

But, Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen conducts a federal inquiry into why we’re missing millions of Fraser River sockeye, Alan Haig-Brown remains optimistic about the future of the commercial fishery in Still Fishin’: The BC Fishing Industry Revisited (Harbour 2010), a follow-up to his Fishing for a Living (1993) and The Fraser River (1996).

The son of conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown, Alan Haig-Brown swam the Campbell River as a child and in his teens he worked as a deck-hand on a commercial fishing boat, taught to seine fish by his father-in-law Herb Assu of Quadra Island.

At 68, Alan Haig-Brown still speaks with passion about the fishing life and profiles a wide range of people “still fishin’” in his new book. Almost fifty years after he first worked as a deck-hand, Alan Haig-Brown was interviewed by Mark Forsythe of CBC’s BC Almanac.

BCBW: You started working as a young man on a wooden seiner. You say it taught you lessons you’ve followed all your life. What lessons?

AHB: (laughs) Taught me to get up in the morning! It also gave me pride, and it did turn me into a man. I was tested in a lot of ways. I fished winter herring in Hecate Strait in February, and eventually went back to school, and every time I had a hard time studying I thought, “Do you really want to be out there on Hecate Strait?”

But, at the same time, I was recently on a small wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand. We set the nets and at sunset we dropped the anchor and waited for the nets to fish a bit. There were two men in their 30s, and one boy about fifteen, and even though I wasn’t understanding the language, I watched those two teachers teach one student. You can’t replicate that student/teacher ratio in a government school. It was beautiful, and the look on that boy’s face. It took me back.

BCBW: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen since you were a young deck-hand?

AHB: Well, the license for that boat I first fished on no longer exists. I was fishing out of Cape Mudge, and if you go to a coastal community—Alert Bay, Bella Bella—you will not see small boats there with local owners, and captains who will take their poor son-in-law out and help him grow up as I did.

BCBW: What’s happened to those licenses and those boats?

AHB: Two things. Throughout a number of countries in the world—Iceland New Zealand, Canada—they went under economists’ advice to licensing of vessels, and transferable licenses. If you could transfer a license from one vessel to another, you could build bigger and better boats. They also had a government buy-back of some of the licenses, and once the government’s in the market, the price goes through the roof. Salmon licenses reached $600,000, which couldn’t be supported by a fishery.

The licenses that they bought back were the least productive in an economist’s word of return on capital investment. Then you got this term that was very popular in the press, it was called, “Too many boats chasing too few fish.” What that meant was, we took out the boats, like the one I fished on.

BCBW: …a small wooden seiner?

AHB: That’s right. A small wooden seiner with a captain who, if the fishing was OK, we went fishing, if it wasn’t, we went and caught crab and had a crab bake. His whole thing was to employ family. And to maintain, in his case, a centuries old tradition.

So as those values decline through the buy-back and the transferability, allowing for corporate ownership, you have a concentration of licenses in vertically integrated companies that can afford to pay these prices because they handle that fish several times and make money on it in several different places.

So the result has been—if I was an 18-year-old kid on the beach today, needing an opportunity to grow up, the boat would not be there.

BCBW: Your title is Still Fishin’. So who’s figured out a way to make a go of it?

AHB: Russ Sanderson, who advertised when he was twenty years old for a troller lease to go fishing the west coast of Haida Gwaii. He’s grown up in this environment of leasing. He worked out a way, and doesn’t expect to buy a boat. He’s doing well with it. It’s a long row that he’ll have to hoe. He’ll have to pay a lot of dues, first of all to what we call “armchair fisherman” or a “slipper skipper”…sitting at home collecting the money. Or even to a corporation that’s bought that right. Then, when he eventually buys quota for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, he’ll have to go to the bank. So a lot of the fish will be killed to pay the bank, not the fisherman.

Having said that, fishing on the B.C. coast is such an amazingly independent, powerful life and experience that people will continue to do it.

BCBW: What about the sockeye on the Fraser? Three years in a row, commercial fishermen have not been able to go out and get them. DFO predicts ten million, one million come back. How can you be optimistic about that?

RHB: I’m not optimistic about the Fraser River. Taseko mines has recently applied for and received permission from the provincial government to put run-off from their tailings at Gibraltar Mine straight into the Fraser. I’m not saying that is killing the sockeye, but if you take things like licenses to pollute—Vancouver’s sewer treatment is minimal—and look at the cumulative effect of real estate development, pulp mills, run of river hydro, there’s so much. But, it’s very hard for the public to finger any one of those. The commercial fisherman is out there with his walls of death, catching all the sockeye…well… there used to be a very big spring salmon fishery in March on the Fraser. There has not been one for 30 or 40 years.

BCBW: And yet you write a book called Still Fishin’.

I remember once going fly fishing with my father. We went to a favourite spot. We parked the car and there was another car there and he said, “Aw, someone’s in the Islands Pool.” But then he said, “I shouldn’t say that, it’s so important to have people on the rivers, in the pools because that’s what will protect them—the public knowledge of the rivers.”

Having a lot of fishermen up and down this coast in all the nooks and crannies that the cruise ships don’t go to is the best protection we can have for the coast.

Essay Date: 2010

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