The Last Fisherman in Ramea

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Don't miss the slide show at the end of this post

It’s strange. I have never had any interest in recreational fishing. When other voyagers talk about the cool gear they have that always hooks a fish on an ocean passage and how good the catch was to eat, all I can think of is the mess on deck. It’s not that I don’t like to eat fish, I do, I just don’t have the hunter gene.

But what is stranger still, given the above, is that I have always been fascinated by commercial fishing and the men and woman that make their living in that most dangerous of all professions. I guess you could say that I’m kind of a commercial fishing groupie.

So it is no surprise that one of my most cherished memories from our cruise of the south coast of Newfoundland last summer was meeting and going tub-trawling with Kerry Hatcher on his 35-foot long liner Our Choice out of the island community of Ramea. But that memory is also tinged with sadness.

Fisherman, Man and Boy

Kerry and I stood in the wheelhouse as we headed out into the dawn light and he told me of his life as a fisherman. How he had started fishing with his uncle, served a few years on big draggers, bought an open speedboat of his own, and then finally managed to save the money and get a loan to buy the Our Choice. About how he and his wife, Bonnie, fished the boat hard—just the two of them some years, so as to save a deckhand’s share—to pay the bank off in record time.

And this was not in the boom years when the fish were plentiful and the price good, back in the eighties. No, this was after the collapse of cod stocks and the moratorium of 1992 that drove so many Atlantic Canadian harvesters out of the fishery forever.

Survivors

But not Kerry and Bonnie, they were the survivors in a decimated industry. Getting by on determination, ingenuity and, above all, hard work. A bit of crab, a bit of halibut, and a pitifully small cod quota. Getting by by spending as many as 102 nights a year at sea in a 35-foot boat on one of the tougher pieces of ocean anywhere.

Tougher and Tougher

But now not even Kerry is sure he can make it, even though their boat is all paid off. The price of crab is down. Halibut is still well priced but the quota is small. And most perplexing of all, despite the tiny quotas, cod was going for just sixty cents a pound when we went out—not worth the ever more expensive fuel and the bait to catch it. What ever happened to supply and demand economics I ask you? And the week we went fishing, the only buyer in Ramea closed up shop—just another blow.

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If Kerry is struggling, how can a young person hope to get a start, what with a boat and gear to buy? Simple, they can’t. Kerry at 45 is the youngest of less than half-a-dozen full time independent fishermen working out of Ramea, and most all of the others will retire in the next few years.

This is Ramea, where for hundreds of years, hundreds of men went to sea and down-the-Labrador to make a living. And it’s come to this. As Kerry said quietly, his face made eerily sad by the green glow of the radar screen, “John, I’m going to be the last fisherman in Ramea”.

Fault?

Over the past 20 years of voyaging the north I have been privileged to meet many independent fishermen, and befriend some too. I have witnessed it get ever harder for them to make a living—higher costs, more regulation, less quota, lower prices in real dollar terms.

Who’s at fault? I’m not going there, mainly because I don’t know, and even if I did, what good would it do to rant on? The damage is done.

We All Lose

But one thing I do know, when the way of life of the small boat independent commercial fisherman is gone, and the coastal towns and villages they inhabit and support are all derelict or full of summer people and art galleries, we will all be the poorer for it.

It’s All About Price

Is there anything we can do? I just don’t know, although my guess is that the key to saving the small boat independent fishermen is figuring out a way to give them a fair price. The current situation where Kerry gets paid sixty cents for a pound of fish that sells to you and me for $9.00 just does not seem to make sense. (Just to clarify, I’m talking about a pound of filleted fish at retail. A whole gutted fish, like that Kerry lands, yields a little less than half its weight in fillets, plus other products.)

The recent upsurge in farmers’ markets here in North America has gone some way to solving the same problem for the small farmer. Maybe we consumers can do the same thing for fishing by insisting on better quality and being willing to pay for it.

Tub-Trawling

Tub-trawling is a traditional, labour intensive, low habitat impact, high quality product producing, hook and line method of fishing that should not be confused with dragging, which is known in many parts of the world as trawling. Are you clear on that now?

Just in case you are not, and really because I’m fascinated by the process, I have put together a slideshow of photographs I took on my two trips on the Our Choice.

Slideshow Instructions:

  • The slideshow does NOT advance automatically.
  • Control the slideshow with the strip below images or the arrow keys once enlarged.
  • Click on the first picture to enlarge the show.

Slideshow requires a reasonably up to date copy of the Adobe Flash plug-in or iPhone/iPad or Android and that java script be enabled.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Marc Dacey March 7, 2013, 1:57 pm

    I didn’t think I had the hunter gene until I ate a mahi-mahi hooked offshore. Granted, I was pretty hungry, too, but fish eaten at lunch that was swimming at 10:30 is a very different experience even from the most exclusive farmer’s market…outside of St. John’s, I suppose.

    I don’t understand the economics of food that can get mefresh apples from Chile in January for .99/lb. on sale, but which screw Canadian fishermen over and make fish and chips a minimum of eleven bucks per here in Toronto. Meanwhile, we are clearly eating down the food chain: some of the new fish on sale are revolting in texture, if not protein count, and if you saw them alive…eeek. Not that that should matter, I suppose.

    Reply
  • Ben Eriksen March 8, 2013, 12:34 pm

    I feel sick from the last comment. I know all those things, but it’s so important to remind ourselves DAILY of the negative effects of the chemical foods thrown before us by our trainers.

    I loved Ramea too when we were there in 2011. Your passion for the plight of the fisherman is similar to mine which developed when I was a p/t commercial shell fisherman on Long Island… where the story is similar. Thanks for sharing this story and wonderful photos.

    Reply
  • Horatio Marteleira March 8, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Professional small-scale fishermen seem to be getting ripped off worldwide. Here in Peniche, Portugal, the once large fleet is dwindling fast. Supermarket chains and processing plants buy fish cheap and sell it expensive. The catch has to be sold at official auctions that everybody says are rigged – not enough fish and bidding prices are still low, but high at supermarkets. Greed will eventually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
    On a personal note, I’d rather eat oatmeal than have fish entrails sliding around the cockpit just when you need to reef.

    Reply
    • Marc Dacey March 8, 2013, 2:04 pm

      As a fellow who has eaten a big plate of percebes in Sines, after a day aboard a 40-footer on delivery, I would say that Portugal has some of the finest seafood in the world. If shadowy “market forces” are destroying the centuries-old tradition of Portuguese fishing, it is as close to a betrayal of national culture as I can imagine. We remember “The White Ships” (A frota branca) here in Canada, and some of the older gentlemen in my part of Toronto sailed with them, and the names of the restaurants reflect that.

      For anyone interested, here is a link to an old documentary of how fruitful Canadian waters used to be not only for Canada, but for Europe. It was mostly poor Portuguese who did the work:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaXl6m85dOY

      Reply
      • Horatio Marteleira March 8, 2013, 2:35 pm

        Great video. The fish dishes here are A+, but a big plate of percebes in a restaurant must have put a dent in your wallet. I normally stop in at Sines twice a year and eat at the ancient “Adega de Sines” tavern for 7 euros.

        Reply
        • Marc Dacey March 8, 2013, 9:07 pm

          I can’t remember where we were, but it was a pretty modest restaurant quite a way up the hill, but facing the harbour. The bill for five people was pretty modest: about $135 or 135 euros…I can’t recall. Not expensive, anyway, as we had beer and vinho verde as well. Vilamoura…now that was expensive.

          I was crewing for the guy who owns the Delmar Conde 1200 “Giulietta”, which is currently racing ORC out of Cascais.

          Reply
          • Colin Speedie March 9, 2013, 1:56 pm

            Hi Guys

            myself and Ronnie at the same place two years ago and had the most fantastic meal – Sunday lunch and all the locals were in.

            Portugal we loved – it’s tragedy to hear of the fisherman being cheated in this way.

            Best wishes

            Colin

  • Douglas Pohl March 8, 2013, 2:24 pm

    On the other hand are those commercial fishermen who worked together be it from organizing a cooperative, association or owning boats together… they built a better mouse trap. Case in point. Kodiak Alaska cod longliners… organized with an association to meet rules, regulations, federal regulators and politicians head-on with what was good for Alaska and fishing residents. Then they realized they needed stock quotas – without which you soon learn you cannot afford to go fishing because you cannot catch enough to make a profit… so there needs to be a system of resource allocation be it limited entry, IQFs and a free market to buy-sell as demand permits. Smart fishermen pulled resources; financial and fish stocks and built more effective longline fishing vessels – latest factory longliner cost which is due to throw the lines this month a reported $24 million. That makes their fourth vessel in just 7 years – successful businessmen – I’d say HELL YES! But it took a lot of sweat, slime and tears – even with an engine room fire on one of the ships they have made it. People make the difference – its all about people. Alaskan fishermen are the most independent, stubborn, hard working and ingenious breed I know… they earned it the old fashion way – one hook, one fish at a time. My hat goes off to them! Keep fishing!

    Reply
  • Tassio July 30, 2013, 2:24 pm

    Intimate and beautiful photos!

    Reply
    • John July 30, 2013, 3:44 pm

      Thanks, Tassio, high praise indeed coming from you.

      Reply

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