Smagnis Says: The SOK (spawn on kelp) fishery has been a way of life for Coastal First Nations long before the advent of a commercial fishery. The Heiltsuk were forced to take a stand against the comercial fishery in their territory because of dwindling stocks.
The Denman Isle is in stealth mode, dark except for a spotlight off the bow.
Skipper Barry Curic sits in the dim wheelhouse of the 21-metre steel seine vessel, watching intently as a band of red shows up on his sonar screen. The sonar is scanning the waters 300 metres ahead at a 12-degree tilt in search of silver — dense schools of herring loaded with roe exclusively for the Japanese markets.
Herring stay deep during the day to avoid predators and come closer to the surface at night to feed on krill. Curic doesn’t want to scare them back into the inky depths. “Stand by,” he tells the other five crewmen.
As the boat approaches its prey, the red colour also appears on his depth sounder, meaning the herring are now directly below us. It’s time to strike. Curic rises from his chair and announces: “OK, guys. Let’s try it.”
It’s 9:30 p.m., and we are positioned in calm, 30-metre-deep waters north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The Denman Isle is on a federal fisheries department contract to conduct test fisheries. The crew obtains herring samples to gauge the roe count, and helps to determine when a fishery should be called.
The government says herring returns to the Strait of Georgia are near historic levels this season, projecting a return of almost 160,000 tonnes of adult spawning herring. And while the Japanese aren’t paying what they did for the roe in the late 1970s to the late 1990s — prices to fishermen have dropped from a high of about $5,000 per tonne to several hundred dollars — the fishery helps to maintain the infrastructure of the industry, including its processing facilities.
It also represents an economic boost to a commercial fleet that only sees a significant fishery on Fraser River sockeye once every four years. Curic’s contract with federal fisheries helps to protect him from the vagaries of the industry.
“That’s why I bid on these charters. I know what I’m going to get paid and so does my crew, no matter what,” says Curic, who co-owns the Denman Isle with business magnate Jimmy Pattison’s Canfisco, the dominant player in the commercial fishery.
Curic orders me to stay off the main deck while the crew is fishing to avoid getting in the way or getting hurt. Indeed, there are a thousand ways to injure yourself on a fishing vessel, especially at night and in freezing temperatures.
His 24-year-old son, Zac, lost the tip of his right pinky finger last December during a herring food fishery off Galiano Island. “It pulled my finger into the wheel of the block,” he recalls. “Ripped my glove apart.”
Russell Gamble, a Haida from Skidegate and the boat’s skiff operator, hurt his left knee when he slipped on ice. “I might need some deck crutches,” he says with a smile. “I can feel it swelling as we speak.”
Some of the crew is still recovering from a flu that went through the boat last week. Curic insists I not touch or bump any of the instruments in the wheelhouse for fear of “catastrophic” consequences, although it’s unclear whether he means for me or the crew’s ability to catch the herring.
I stand on the flying bridge and watch the crew employ a small motorized skiff to set a purse-seine net 365 metres in length and 55 metres deep. A line passes through rings at the bottom of the net. When pulled, it draws the rings together and prevents the fish from escaping.
These days, seiners catch more than fish. Sea lion populations have grown steadily in B.C. waters since federal protection in 1970. Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates 48,500 of the larger, tan Steller sea lions winter in B.C. compared with 6,300 of the smaller, darker California sea lions, most of those off southern Vancouver Island. More accurate assessments are in the works.
In recent years, sea lions have learned to jump over the cork line floating at the surface and gorge on the trapped herring before jumping back unscathed before the net is pulled close to the boat.
This evening, the water surface boils with fish. The panicked herring school up and squirt out of the water to escape the onslaught. Hundreds of gulls squawk and dive.
“Most are OK, just doing their thing,” Derek Morton, who started commercial fishing in 1975, says of the sea lions. “But every once in a while, you get one glancing at you and it’s usually a 1,000-pound bull, with teeth like a big bear. You don’t know what they’re going to do.”
One shredded a fish-pump hose, then left with a swagger. “As he’s swimming away, he eyeballs us, as if to say, ‘you lookin’ at me?’ ”
Bad things can happen when sea lions learn to associate fishermen with a free lunch. Last year, a sea lion jumped up and bit a herring-boat skipper in the rear end, leaving a nasty bruise. Such incidents are rare, but do happen.
In January this year, a sea lion jumped onto a commercial fishing boat at dock in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and severely bit a crewman, who later underwent surgery to reattach a partially severed leg muscle.
In San Diego in 2015, a sport fisherman was holding a yellowtail tuna for a photo when a sea lion suddenly leapt onto the boat, dragging both fish and fisherman into the water. The man spent two days in hospital and received 20 stitches.
And in 2014, another sea lion jumped from the water and bit the rear end of a young man sitting on the railing of a commercial fish boat in Sitka, Alaska. He was not seriously hurt.
On occasion, sea lions also get tangled and the seine nets have to be cut to carefully release them.
As the net is set tonight, it doesn’t take long for several California sea lions to storm the ramparts. Several more Steller sea lions remain on the outside, close to the net and eager for leftovers.
The crew doesn’t haul in all the fish, but tosses out small net hoops to obtain a sample of the catch. When at least 10.5 to 11 per cent of the herring sample (including males) by weight consists of roe, that’s generally the go-ahead for a fishery. This particular catch is closer to 5.5 per cent, and the herring are a bit small at an average 18.8 centimetres.
Curic estimates the Denman Isle this evening sat on a school of 900 tonnes, and caught one-third of that. When the fish are released from the net they remain in a ball on the surface, disoriented for several minutes before swimming away. Now’s the time for the sea lions who didn’t have the guts to jump the net to suddenly gorge at will.
Sea lions also swim alongside the vessel, waiting for herring to spill one by one off the deck. The Stellers emit long, loud belches, and the largest have heads that look like walruses. There’s no apparent animosity between the two species of sea lions. About 20 show up tonight, but farther north, near Comox, hundreds can wind up in the nets.
PREY FOR MARINE LIFE
The roe-herring fishery is not without its critics. Aboriginals have protested the commercial fishery in some areas, including the central coast, where the traditional spawn-on-kelp fishery is seen as more sustainable. In this fishery, the herring swim away after spawning on the kelp and live to spawn another year, whereas those caught in the commercial fishery die.
Other critics argue that because herring serve as prey for so much marine life, including whales and salmon, they should be off-limits to the commercial fishery. Pacific Wild, based on B.C’s central coast, notes that even terrestrial species such as wolves and bears benefit from the spawn.
“The extent of the herring’s role in ecosystem function is not fully understood, nor is it taken into account in federal fisheries management,” the environmental group says. “In addition, government methods for estimating herring stock returns are highly uncertain.”
Gillnet boats, which are smaller and capable of fishing closer to the shoreline, are predicted to harvest 13,763 tonnes this season, compared with 11,805 tonnes for the seine fleet in the Strait of Georgia. Combined, that is 8,025 tonnes more than last year. The maximum harvest rate is 20 per cent.
The gillnet fishery opened March 4 near French Creek north of Parksville, while the seine fishery started March 6 at Cape Lazo near Comox — with tragic consequences. The fishery should continue into next week.
The 19.5-metre wooden vessel Miss Cory sank in about 250 metres of water. Four members of the crew were rescued, but a fifth, Mel Rocchio, 51, of Alert Bay, is believed drowned. The boat was handling a herring set at the time.
The federal transportation safety board is investigating the accident, and the Canadian Coast Guard is monitoring for pollution. There are no immediate plans to raise the vessel.
Among earlier accidents, in 2008, a fisherman, also from Alert Bay, died when a Canfisco seine boat capsized while hauling in herring in bad weather near Gabriola Island. In 1998, a man and woman died after a herring skiff swamped after its nets got snagged close to shore near Bella Bella.
A federal quota system has been in place for decades on the B.C. coast. Each licence holder is guaranteed a certain share of the catch under safer conditions than the old, competitive free-for-all fishery. Fishermen form pools that allow multiple licences to be fished at the same time. The quota system also makes it easier for the federal government to monitor the fishery, helping to prevent overfishing.
Curic, a resident of West Vancouver, knows what it’s like to lose a fishing vessel. He started commercial fishing at age 10 on his uncle’s salmon seiner in 1970. He first skippered his own vessel for BC Packers in 1992, the Sleep Robber — which he lost in 2001 along with 30,000 kilograms of salmon. “One of my crew members fell asleep (and) ended up pile-driving it onto a reef off of Prince Rupert.” The loss was insured.
The risks of handling a big catch remain today. “Herring fishing can blow your net apart, moving it around like a rag doll,” Curic says. Booms can also be pulled down by the weight. “It’s like 150 cars hanging off your boat. That’s a lot of weight. It can be tense.”
Still, he misses the competitive nature of the traditional fishery, when the best skippers made the most money. “When it’s a derby, an open fishery, the sky’s the limit.”
There have been other changes to the fishery over the years. The Japanese don’t pay what they used to for roe herring, which put an end to $1-million catches and the owners of herring licences leasing them out for $100,000 or more and just sit home and rake in the money. Nowadays, licence holders settle for a small fraction of that, typically paid as a percentage of the catch.
Barry McMillan, president of J.S. McMillan Fisheries Ltd., recalls fishermen receiving a high of about $5,000 a tonne during the heyday of the fishery, but today must settle for closer to $150 to $600 depending on the roe. (Payments of $1,000 to $2,000 a tonne used to be more common.)
The economy eventually slowed in Japan and roe herring changed from a high-end annual corporate gift to a product sold in supermarkets.
“It got crazy,” McMillan says of the old days. “We had to hire security guards because each pail (of herring) was valuable. It continues to move. It just doesn’t have the economic punch it used to have.”
Rob Morley, vice-president of Canfisco, says the herring are frozen upon landing and later thawed out gradually for processing. The flesh and oil are rendered for feed for livestock and farmed fish. Efforts are underway to market to China, which could be a game-changer.
5 A.M. WAKEUP CALL
After an hour’s work on the Denman Isle, the seine net is back on its drum and the herring are analyzed. Curic heads into Nanoose Bay to anchor for the night at around 11 p.m.
Crew members — including Ante Benic and his son, Dominik, the ship’s cook — retreat to their bunks for a 5 a.m. wakeup call. That’s when the great spectacle of man and nature continues anew, played out to few witnesses beyond its participants.
As Curic puts it: “It’s a whole different world out here.”