Four Decades Of Gillnetting In British Columbia

By Roy L Hales

There are more than more 40 names on the Cortes Island Museum’s list of fishermen from the 1970’s. Some were wives, who worked alongside their husbands. Others may have been deckhands. The names of 28 boats are given, though not how many were working in any given year. Now there are two.1 In this week’s radio program (podcast below), the owner of one of those 28 fish boats describes close to four decades of gillnetting in British Columbia.

Four Decades Of Gillnetting In British Columbia

Joe Jordan’s last boat, “My Lin”© named in honour of Joe’s wife Lynne – courtesy of Joe & Lynne Jordan

“I was close to 40 when I started fishing. Gill netting was quite easy to learn because everybody had the same depth net and the same length net by law. You can find out what everybody was buying, see where the high boats were fishing and when they were fishing. (This meant) you could be there with the next tide, the same as they were. There were a lot of variables with trolling, but you could pick up gill netting in a couple of years,” said Joe Jordan.2

Fishing was good back in the 1970’s, when the season lasted from March until November.

There were times fishermen worked for days without stopping, taking 45 minute sleep breaks when possible. Jordan said he has gone 4 to 5 days without a real sleep, but added that was when you start hallucinating. (Lots more detail in the podcast)

“It was a good life. I really enjoyed it … (and) made a lot of friends. You help somebody and they’d help you. I’ve towed lots of vessels and been towed in myself. We travelled together and a lot of us became close friends,” he said.

Misguided Government Regulations

Commercial Fisherman at Whaleton, on Cortes Island – Courtesy of Cortes Island Museum “In Celebration of Wild Salmon” Exhibit 2001/2

“(But) The last several years it was a few hours here, a few hours there. Some years you only got a couple of days fishing. That wasn’t what I wanted, so I just retired after that.”

In the podcast above, Joe Jordan talks about a way of life that has largely disappeared and the misguided government regulations that crippled it.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,

“Starting in 1996, federal programs and industry conditions reduced participation in the BC fishery. The number of licensed fishermen and fishing craft in the industry dropped.

“ … Half a century earlier, regulations had let most boats fish nearly every day of the season, but by 1997, controls brought on by the strong fleet and weak stocks kept many boats tied up for 10 or 11 months of the year, with chinook and coho salmon showing serious signs of decline.”

Noticeably absent from this quote is any reference to incidents where government mismanagement allegedly devastated fish stocks.

The Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters states, “Government programs and policies, often contentious, reduced the pacific fleet from 5,900 vessels in 1990 to 3,200 in 2004. Most of the major salmon canneries closed. The more dependent communities suffered greatly.”

A Fleet Ravaged By Consolidation

Commercial Fisherman at Cortes Bay, on Cortes Island – Courtesy of Cortes Island Museum “In Celebration of Wild Salmon” Exhibit 2001/2

A 1999 report from the David Suzuki Foundation notes that in three years, 71% of the people working in the province’s commercial fishing industry lost their jobs. “What remains in the commercial fishery is not a vibrant and healthy fleet, but a fleet ravaged by consolidation.” DFO licensing practises “diverted the fish away from the populous small-boat fleet and delivered the resource into the hands of a venture capitalist…”3

This was a reference to the fact Jimmy Patterson had acquired 37% of the province’s seining fleet by 1998.4

The Cortes Island Museum’s records still show an active fishing community operating out of Manson’s Landing in the 1990s, but there are only single entries for Cortes Bay, Squirrel Cove and Whaletown. As I mentioned earlier, there are now only two commercial fisherman on Cortes Island.

DFO Does Not Respond

Commercial Fisherman at Squirrel Cove, on Cortes Island – Courtesy of Cortes Island Museum “In Celebration of Wild Salmon” Exhibit 2001/2

Over a month ago, a communications advisor to the Department of Fisheries contacted the radio station offering opportunities for CKTZ programs to interview “a Sunshine Coast-based DFO fishery officer on a wide range of issues of interest to your listeners.” She has yet to respond to my request for an interview.

Answers From The Community Level

Commercial Fisherman at Manson’s Landing, on Cortes Island – Courtesy of Cortes Island Museum “In Celebration of Wild Salmon” Exhibit 2001/2

“In searching for the answer, the tendency is to look for objective truths – in science or economics. But science has limits. The scienists are usually a long way from the fish and the honest scientist is the first to admit that science can only provide partial answers. And DFO scientists have often been overruled by their political masters,” wrote the authors of the David Suzuki Foundation report.

“ … If answers are to be found, they will be found mainly at the community level among people who care about the fishery, not just for its theoretical benefits but for the tangible profit – economic, social and cultural – that accres to those commuities. It is not enough to ponder fish biology or wonder what a salmon is worth in dollars alone. We must evaluate its ultimate worth and then put it into the hands of those to whom it is worth the most, for they will take the greatest care in its management”5

DFO Is Starting To Listen

Though the salmon runs have declined, Joe Jordan believes they will come back. He points to the recovery of  salmon runs will come back . says the Department of Fisheries is starting to listen.

“They are starting to ask the older retired fishermen for advice. Before, they wouldn’t even think of doing that. Now there people in the fisheries being asked for their opinion,  what should happen, and how to take care of it.”

More names of Commercial Fisherman on Cortes Island – Courtesy of Cortes Island Museum “In Celebration of Wild Salmon” Exhibit 2001/2
Cortes Island Sunset© by Thea Block

Top Photo Credit: Fishermen on Cortes Island© by Thea Block; Soundcloud image credit: Joe Jordan’s first boat “Lil Bit” – courtesy Joe & Lynne Jordan


Show 5 footnotes

  1. Ken Block; Chris & Amy Kendel
  2. Roy L Hales interview with Joe Jordan
  3.  David Edwards & Terry Galvin, SET ADRIFT: THE PLIGHT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA’S FISHING COMMUNITIES, David Suzuki Foundation, 1999, p 10
  4. ibid, pp 11
  5. ibid,  p 5