It starts with a crab’s eye view of being hauled up from the depths in a trap over the gunwales of a boat.
That’s the tough life of a crab, but this is the story of a fisherman.
Todd Chafe of Petty Harbour is the focus of a new video made by the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters (CCPFH).
He started hauling cod traps with his father when he was 12. He did his time in Alberta but the dark tidal pull of the water called him back, and now he’s taking over his father’s enterprise.
The problem here is that Chafe’s story isn’t all that familiar anymore. The fishery is becoming devoid of young people, and that’s part of what this video, just one in a series made by the CCPFH, is all about.
“One of our main concerns for years now has been intergenerational transfer of the fishery to a new generation,” says John Sutcliffe, CCPFH’s executive director.
“The fishing population is certainly aging. Our intention was to inform both harvesters in various regions, but also to let the more general public know about the fishery and what work and life in the fishery is all about.”
And these days, life in the fishery is all about professionalism.
Chafe remembers what fishing was like in the 1980s. He says fishing was what you did when there wasn’t anything else to do to make a living. It was the province’s safety net. But that safety net frayed and broke a long time ago and those left hanging on in the fishery are the ones who really want to be there. They’re the people who love it, like Chafe.
“You can’t ask for no better. You get up with water splashing in your face and you’re watching the sun come up. You’re your own boss, come and go as you please. If the weather turns bad, come in out of it. If not, stay out.”
That sense of freedom is all well and good, but the fishery is up against some pretty lucrative employment offers these days, and being your own boss and smelling the salt air isn’t quite compensation enough for most to give the fishery a second glance, let alone a lifetime of pulling crab pots. Chafe says that he can’t see people getting into it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. The industry is changing into one with higher standards with regards to safety. What Chafe wants to see is change in philosophy.
“The fishery is changing every year and every day, but it’s got to change a lot more from what it is now to really get into the habit of realizing, b’ys, you’re fishing for food and not only money,” he says.
It’s not dollars coming up over the side of your boat. It’s food for people. In order to make more money, the quality has to go up. It sounds simple enough, but it involves changing the way the majority of people out on the water do things.
Panning crab at sea is one practice Chafe thinks would act as a catalyst to turn the industry around. That involves getting the crab in a pan on ice while out on the boat so that when you hit the dock, it can be passed right over to the processor without further handling of the crustaceans. The more it’s handled, the more the quality disintegrates, says Chafe.
“If everybody panned at sea, the price would go up and that would trickle down. We got to get the quality up. We should be making a lot more money than what we’re making,” he says. “If the quality don’t go up, we’re not gonna survive. Nobody is fishing.”
And that’s the purpose of this video, too, says Sutcliffe. It shows the philosophy of the people in the fishery now and how they believe in a sustainable, high-quality, professional trade.
There is a public perception of the fishery and the people in it, but that’s really not the story. The fishery takes place in remote areas, generally far from metropolitan centres.
A more sustainable industry
Some people may know little about the fishery, but they’re still demanding an industry that is more sustainable.
The video shows these people just what fishers like Chafe are all about. The culture of the fishery is changing. People are smarter when it comes to training, safety, substantiality and learning about the market and what the market is asking for.
“It’s slow, but I think those kinds of changes strongly suggest that there is a future for a very committed, highly trained and well compensated workforce in the future,” says Sutcliffe. “But in the present time we’re in a bit of a hiatus here where it’s not all that clear to people making career decisions.”
The video shows that too — a young, bright Chafe with fresh ideas plugging away at the fishery. Even if that were persuasive to a younger generation out there with an aptitude for sea legs, there is still a tidal wave of a barrier for young people entering the fishery: the money it costs to get an outfit set up with a boat and a licence.
“That’s the biggest single barrier, for sure,” says Sutcliffe.
Right now, licences are spread over many people, and younger people who would like to get a hold of them can’t afford it. At the end of the video, Chafe says, “At least now the ones who are fishing should be considered professional because they are highly trained. It’s the only way to go.”
Will the video make a difference?
“I hope so,” says Chafe. “It is a profession and you should be proud to be in it.”
He says if they can get the number of people in the industry down so that people in it can get bigger quotas and fish for seven to nine months of the year and get the quality up so that they get a better price, the industry could turn a corner.
His optimism isn’t about to sink, anyway.
“I think the future is going to be better in 10 years than it is now.”
To view the video, go to http://youtu.be/IOQSQHNpjY8 or search crab fishery-Petty Harbour, Newfoundland on YouTube.