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Hooked on halibut: For many commercial fishers, it's a family affair

Tiare Boyes and Cheri Hansen weigh in on what it’s like to work on the water during the halibut fishing season.

The commercial halibut season is underway along the coast of British Columbia and boats are already starting to deliver the flat fish to dinner plates.

From now until early December, the B.C. halibut fleet will haul in an estimated 5.7 million pounds of halibut.

That’s a 9% increase over last year’s total allowable catch under rules set by the International Pacific Halibut ­Commission, a joint U.S.-Canadian body that uses scientific research to ­determine just how much fishers can take without damaging the long-term health of the stock.

The Americans will take the lion’s share of this year’s ­41-million-pound total allowable catch — nearly 80% — because their territory stretches over California, Oregon, Washington and all of Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and covers nine of the 10 designated halibut-fishing areas along the Pacific Coast.

B.C. fishers’ share of the catch is 18.3%, and about a quarter of the area they fish in is preserved as protected zones.

The agreement for sharing the catch expires at the end of 2022 and takes into consideration the science, abundance by area and the territory of each ­country, says Chris Sporer, ­executive manager of the Pacific Halibut ­Management ­Association of B.C., an industry association representing the majority of ­commercial halibut licence holders in the ­province.

Sporer said allowable catch totals have fluctuated for both sides over the years. Twenty years ago, B.C. was allowed to take up to 10 million pounds, but those ­numbers have ­settled in the five-million to six-million range in recent years, as more ­scientific research is collected on how to best protect the ­long-term viability of halibut stocks.

The majority of B.C.’s commercial halibut-licence holders are small, family-run enterprises in boats averaging 50 feet and crewed by four to six people.

Although 435 licences are issued each year by the federal government — 25% of which are for First Nations — the ­limited entry will see only about 150 boats head out this year, based on the allowable catch, said Sporer. The average licence, depending on quotas, is worth about $1.2 million.

And the catch is closely watched, with strict protocols on where boats can dock and how much is unloaded, and fishing locations tracked by GPS. The keeping of detailed log books on what’s caught and released is enforced, and backed up by either onboard observers or video cameras that monitor each fish taken, as well as by-catch species that can count toward each boat’s total quota if not released alive.

“It creates incentive to minimize your by-catch,” said Sporer.

“The mantra the fleet lives by is conservation.

“[If] we look after the resource, the resource looks after us.”

The Times Colonist caught up with two women working on B.C.’s ­commercial halibut fleet, asking them what it’s like to work on the water during the halibut fishing season.

Women are increasingly filling roles on commercial ­fishing fleets as well as scientific, administration, marketing and ­processing positions associated with the fishing sector, says Tiare Boyes, who has fished all her life and is part of a ­commercial halibut boat based out of Courtenay.

“I think that more space has been made for women in ­fishing,” she said.

“I know my mother’s generation fought hard to be respected and paid equally for their labour. I was lucky to follow in their footsteps because I have met little resistance in the almost 20 years I have been going to sea, working in ­management and science positions in the fishing sector.”

Q&A: Tiare Boyes

Second generation fisher out of Courtenay, crew member about the Borealis I

Tiare Boyes is itching to get out to sea.

As part of a commercial fishing family, she knows it’s a lot of hard work and long days, often with unpredictable weather and results, but it’s a rewarding adventure, both financially and on a personal level.

Like a strong tide, the commercial halibut season pulls her family together around what she considers one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries.

The Courtenay fisher, 32, works aboard the Borealis, the family boat of her father, Dave Boyes, along with a crew made of her fiance, Tim Courtier, cousin Angus Grout and long-time family friend Pete Wyness.

How long have you been fishing?

I have been working as a deckhand on my family’s fishing vessels since 2012. This season will be my 20th going to sea as a commercial fish harvester. Like most other fishing kids, I grew up on my family’s fishing vessels; my mom used to wrap me snugly on her back when I was a baby as she worked on the boat, and I spent every year of my childhood bundled up in a lifejacket, playing on the docks with the other kids. My father, Dave Boyes, started fishing while he was in university to pay for his tuition. What was supposed to be a summer job to get through grad school turned into a lifelong career. My mother met my father through fishing and they have been working together ever since.

Describe the halibut season — how often the boat goes out, for how long and to where, and how much does the family’s licence permit you to catch?

My family used to participate in many different fisheries, but now our boat works harvesting wild Pacific halibut and other groundfish and we are a research vessel working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a charter vessel collecting data for the scientific stock assessment surveys. Our season is open from March until November or December, but each licence has a limit to what they can catch.

Our family’s fishing vessel usually goes out in the late spring/early summer months, depending on the weather conditions, market and other fisheries going on. This year we will head out in June. Usually, it takes us two eight-day trips to harvest our catch. Some years it may take three trips, depending on how good the fishing is, what the weather conditions are and what the market is doing.

The licence we own allows us to harvest 1% of the annual total allowable catch. This year, it works out to about 57,000 pounds of halibut. We usually fish in the waters of Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait halfway between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii.

Are the licences expensive, and what are you paid as a crew member?

Licences can be very expensive, like any limited-entry industry, like buying farmland, a taxi licence or any other established business. Years ago, there used to be many licences with too many fishermen catching too many fish. This wasn’t good for the fishermen, who got a poor price; for the consumers, who got a poor product; or, most importantly, for the fish.

The fishermen, provincial and federal government came together to design a fishing system whereby there were a limited number of licences, each of which is limited in what they can catch, which means us as fisherman can deliver a better product for a better price and the fish stocks are not being over-harvested.

My family has always depended on fishing as our main source of income. I worked and paid my way through school, obtaining my master’s, on my fishing income and today I am paying my mortgage with my fishing wages. On our boat, each crew member gets a crew share, which is a percentage of the landed value of the fish.

What does a typical day fishing look like, and what are your tasks as a crew member?

As we leave harbour, we start baiting our hooks and getting our gear ready. When we get to the fishing grounds we wake up early in the morning to set our lines with the tide. We let the gear soak (and hopefully the fish bite!) for a few hours, then we haul it in, which takes many hours. Each fish is brought aboard by hand, dressed and packed in ice immediately to ensure the best-quality product. Before we can clean up and are done for the day, we chop bait and put it on hooks ready to be set the next morning. There is also lots of work to be done before the season starts, as we haul the boat out each year to clean, inspect and paint the hull. We spend many hours tying hooks and making sure the gear is all in shipshape condition.

Is it hard work?

Halibut fishing is extremely hard work and it can be very physically demanding, but it is also very rewarding and our crew has a lot of fun when we are out at sea together. Some crew members have been working on our boat for almost 40 years. We are very close and know we can rely on each other if there is ever an emergency at sea. There is a deep feeling of camaraderie. I know that if I can’t pull my own weight, one of my fellow crew members will have to work harder to get the work done, so we all try to share the load and make sure everyone gets enough rest and good food. There is no better feeling then heading to port with a full boat of nutritious fish destined to feed Canadian families and families around the world. Our muscles get pretty sore, but it comes with a deep sense of pride in a job well done.

How are the halibut caught?

We use baited hooks that are “snapped” onto ground lines that are weighted at each end with an anchor and marked with a flagpole and buoy. We pick up an end and haul the line in, bringing aboard one fish at a time. Usually we put out three lines of gear.

How are your sea legs? I usually have one miserable day each year when we get into bad weather, but in the end I always find my sea legs. Our boat tries to avoid the bad weather. We are always listening to the weather report and deciding on where/when we will be fishing, but there are times when we get caught in an unexpected storm.

You have a master’s degree in marine and coastal management from a university in Iceland. How does this tie in with fishing?

I did my undergraduate degree in environmental studies because I wanted a career helping to make a difference, but I couldn’t find any courses that focused on sustainable seafood, so I decided to go back and do my master’s. I wanted to study in Iceland because they were offering a multi-disciplinary, course work/thesis program with students and professors from all over the world. It was a fantastic experience. I got to work on board a research vessel in the Arctic Circle and I got to learn how fisheries are managed in other countries around the world. I feel very passionately that sustainably harvested seafood is an integral part of the future of humanity if we want to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

In my view, I cannot be a fisherman without being a marine conservationist because we need to treat our fish stocks with respect and acknowledging that some of the lowest-impact forms of protein comes from wild-capture fisheries. If we rely solely on agricultural-produced protein, we run the risk of destroying entire terrestrial ecosystems to replace them with farms. If we create sustainable harvest policies with robust science and monitoring programs, we can relieve pressure on our agricultural systems by eating nutritious, and sustainable, seafood.

What would you say to young women who might be interested in careers on and around the ocean?

There are many women who work in the B.C. fishing industry. I am following in the footsteps of generations of hardworking women on the coast. I hope the numbers are growing! It is a very adventurous and rewarding career to work at sea. I would encourage any young women considering a career at sea to get their sea time and marine tickets as early as possible, because this will open many doors in their futures. I would also encourage them to reach out to me or another fisherman if they are considering a job in the industry. It is a very tight knit community and it’s important to get to know people, and one of the best ways to do this is to walk the docks and chat with people.

Q&A: Cheri Hansen

First generation fisher out of North Vancouver, operator and crew member aboard Ocean Quest

Cheri Hansen always looks forward to halibut season. The former food and beverage worker and mother of two joined the fleet 18 years ago and is heading out on the Ocean Quest for the boat’s quota in Hecate Strait below Haida Gwaii.

“I absolutely love the adventure, freedom and opportunity to see the coast with all its marine life, including humpbacks, orcas and dolphins,” said Hansen, 39. “Very importantly, I can work hard and earn a decent living during the season with a schedule that allows me to raise my young kids.”

How did you get involved in the commercial fishery?

I wasn’t actually pursuing a fishing career. It just so happened to work out that way. My dad dabbled in fishing as he grew up on the coast, but chose the career of marine construction instead. I’ve always loved working with my hands, working hard and being outdoors. I despise the 9-to-5 routine.

When I was 21, my parents’ friend’s son, who was a fisherman, was looking for crew. Both my mom and sister suggested that I apply to work for him because it would be a cool experience and I could handle the work. With a lot of persistence and about four or five phone calls back and forth, he called and said he needed a deckhand. I first started working as a crew member and then later running the Majestic Belle and the Ocean Quest. I’ve been commercial fishing ever since. I also do some contract work where I do safety orientations onboard commercial fishing vessels.

As a crew member, what are some of your responsibilities?

The easy part seems to be the fishing. Prior to heading out, I get all the licensing and transfers complete with DFO, so that we have the fish we are planning on catching on our license. Every four years, vessels have to go through an inspection with Transport Canada, so we are in the middle of doing that right now. This helps make sure we have all of our safety equipment inspected and up to date.

The crew gets the vessel ready to fish. We put all the gear on the drum, and ensure all the equipment is functioning as it should. I organize ice, bait, fuel and grub just before departing.

Once we get to the fishing grounds (quite often a 24-hour trip from port, so we all take turns taking a wheel shift), we will prepare for fishing. We are up early to chop bait, bait the hooks, set the gear out (normally four strings), then clean up from the morning. We let the gear soak for a while and then we haul the gear back after lunch. We will rotate through different jobs on board from time to time, but normally I end up dressing and scraping the fish and then placing them down in the hatch, where they get belly iced and layer iced.

Is it hard work? And what keeps you in the industry?

It is physically very hard work with long hours while you’re out fishing, but I love what I do. As hard as it is to leave my kiddos when I head out on a fishing trip, I know I am so fortunate to get so much quality time with them in the off months. That keeps me in the industry.

Are the wages you receive good wages to support your family?

I am married with two kids, ages five and six. The wages I earn during the season contribute to creating a decent living for my family.

What is the best thing about commercial fishing to you?

I absolutely love the adventure, freedom and opportunity to see the coast with all its marine life, including humpbacks, orcas and dolphins. Very importantly, I can work hard and earn a decent living during the season with a schedule that allows me to raise my young kids.

What is your most memorable fishing experience?

It was an absolutely incredible experience in 2020 when we had a rare harbour day during the season. We were anchored off of Cape Scott when about 15 orcas were swimming about 10 feet away from us. We rounded out the day with a very satisfying beach clean-up that resulted in 186 bottles and 10 large bags of garbage, a black bear sighting and a wonderful campfire in the evening.

What do you believe everyone should know about wild Pacific halibut and the fishery?

Everyone should know that it is one of the best-managed fisheries in the world that has a low environment impact. In fact, other fisheries model themselves after the wild Pacific halibut fishery. It is also a fishery that is largely made up of small family businesses.

What do you believe are the most important issues facing the industry today?

The biggest issue facing the fishery is public perception. The public doesn’t understand that the wild Pacific halibut fishery is very different. It is managed to a much higher standard and is sustainable. Every fish that we harvest is fully accounted for. We have cameras on-board every boat to record the catch and at the dock a government-approved observer records all the fish landed and each halibut is tagged.

How would you describe the future of the halibut fishery?

It’s a bit uncertain and sometimes it’s hard to be super excited because there are now so many variables affecting the fishery. There is always biological uncertainty because the abundance of halibut fluctuates over time and fishermen are used to that and we can deal with it. But if measures to protect marine areas or other species are developed without collaboration with fishermen, it increases the uncertainty for fishermen and our families.

Would you recommend the work to other women?

I would definitely recommend fishing as a career for other women. Fishing is a way of life and I love being a part of the industry. I work hard to play hard and you can still make a decent living. But to be honest, I’ve never really thought of myself as being a female in the industry. I’m a fisherman and that’s what I do.

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