Salty, riotous tales of Vancouver's fishing industry populate Norman Safarik's Bluebacks and Silver Brights
Bluebacks and Silver Brights
By Norman Safarik, with Allan Safarik, ECW Press, 379 pp, softcover
Norman Safarik spent more than 60 years in the fish business in B.C., most of them at the Campbell Avenue fish dock (actually the Vancouver Harbour Commission Wharf) on the north side of the massive B.C. Sugar refinery building.
His father, John, started up the business, Vancouver Shellfish and Fish Company, in 1917 at the foot of Gore Avenue and moved to the Campbell dock in 1926. Ten years later, Norman started to work for his dad.
Now, 95 years after his father, a pre–First World War Slovak immigrant, got into the business, Norman, himself retired and living in North Burnaby, has written an account of those many years with the help of his son, Allan, a Saskatchewan-based writer.
And what an account it is. Bluebacks and Silver Brights, published this spring, is a more than welcome addition to the modest library of B.C. fishing lore. (The term bluebacks refers to early coho salmon, and silver brights are prime ocean-caught chum salmon.)
The memoir, appropriately subtitled A Lifetime in the B.C. Fisheries: From Bounty to Plunder, is a timeline of rough-edged tales that traces the establishment, rise, and fall of a mighty fishing industry in this corner of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s the personal anecdotes about the more than colourful personalities who inhabited the boats, docks, processing plants, restaurants, bars, and fish-company offices in Vancouver from the 1930s onward that make this book a compelling page turner for anyone interested in Vancouver history.
There are the sleazy, Panama-hatted agents and purchasers, the often hated government inspectors, the hard-working fishermen, the hard-drinking fishermen, the arrogant corporate fish processors, and the ubiquitous rip-off artists. Then there were both the very lucky who got rich from the piscine bonanza, legally or not, and the very unlucky who lost their lives to their mercurial mistress known as the Pacific.
You’ll encounter a surprisingly discreet punch-up in a Vancouver courtroom, a pistol pulled on an uncooperative seafood buyer in Vancouver’s toniest steakhouse, a drunken dockside dispute settled with a rifle, a Keystone Cops fishboat getaway from a surprise government inspection, and many more tales illustrative of the almost frontier mentality that ruled the business in its early days.
Technological advances in transport and refrigeration and freezing changed the industry forever, along with strict seasonal catch regulations and licensing restrictions, but the biggest change, dutifully noted by Safarik senior, was the headlong plunge into blatant exploitation of the resource without regard to conservation, sustainibility, and future stocks.
There’s no better illustration of the differences between those halcyon fishing days and the state of the regional marine biomass today than his stories of what used to be caught in English Bay and the waters between Stanley Park and Richmond. Besides the avalanche-abundant seasonal herring and salmon, there was skate, pollock, octopus, prawns, crabs, cod, red snapper, halibut, squid, and many more species in profusion.
It seemed like the fish could never run out.
We all know how that turned out. So, of course, does Norman, and he doesn’t downplay his complicity in the eventual rape of the resource.
He does say, as he wrote in a letter to the Commission on Pacific Fisheries Policy way back in 1981 (used as a coda here), that “what is gone we cannot weep over”, and he posits several steps that can be followed to attempt to resurrect the salmon fishery, in particular, in B.C. He has mostly harsh words for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (then the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), bemoans the “disgraceful affair” that the herring fishery had become (before its virtual collapse), decries wasteful fishing techniques, and has some prescient things to say about the Native food fishery.
All in all, an insightful and entertaining read that hides its true value—a real grasp and appreciation of the importance of fish to the early development of Vancouver—in the details of some ridiculously diverting fish stories.
Now, if some enterprising filmmaker would just get out to Burnaby and record Norman’s lifetime of stories, and soon, we would have the foundation, along with this book, of a damned fine local documentary.
Norman and Allan Safarik will discuss and read from Bluebacks and Silver Brights at SFU’s WAC Bennett Library, in Room 7100 (the Special Collections Room), on Thursday, October 11, 2012, at 12:30 p.m.