Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fish Tales

Last night I had a strange series of dreams about my former life in Canada. These dreams brought me, with incredible realism, back to a time before I had conjured up the idea to teach English in Russia. Since I woke up I've had the memories of my life in Port Hardy on my mind.

When I lived in Port Hardy, more than a year ago, I was the Port Supervisor for a fisheries monitoring program with an environmental consulting company. There's a lot of fancy titles there but it's really not all that complicated.

Canada's commercial fisheries, one of the three largest in the world and representing 30% of Canada's gross GDP, is managed by the Department of Fisheries & Oceans, or DFO. Because DFO doesn't have the money or personnel to monitor the entire fisheries in both oceans, they contract private companies to do it. By law there must be a government-certified "observer" at every fish offload at a Canadian port to record what was caught and how much, to ensure compliance with regulations, and to report all this information. Fishing trawlers require an At-Sea-Observer on board when they are out fishing as well as a Dockside Monitor when they offload. The company I worked for provided both services.

I was the supervisor for the Dockside Monitoring Program in Port Hardy. When commercials vessels were returning to port after a week of fishing on the Pacific Ocean they would "hail in" by calling an 800 number. The hail would then be registered in a computer somewhere and on my big Blackberry-like phone I would receive a "ping" and all the hail information. I would then call the fishing plant the vessel was offloading at to confirm the time, and then call one of my staff of observers and "deploy" them to the offload. I was also responsible for hiring, training and supervising the dockside observers, as well as ensuring accuracy of information, maintaining good PR with the commercial fisheries, DFO and the community in general. I also observed a million offloads myself.

Because of my job I had to pass a series of government exams showing that I could properly identify the bulk of the Pacific fish species. Russian factory ships would park off the coast of Canadian and US waters so that domestic boats could sell their catch directly to them. These giant JV ships (Joint-Venture) took millions of pounds of fish back to Russian markets, and it was interesting when I spotted a Yellowtail Rockfish, a species native to the north-east Pacific, in a Russian grocery store a few months ago.

At one point in my Port Hardy-fisheries life, I had a nice house near the beach with a view of the Rocky Mountains on the mainland, a Cavalier Z22, a beautiful blonde fiance, a good salary and job with a great company, and a lot of power. My job was stressful, particularly at the start of the fishing season (March) when 20+ boats a day would want to offload in Port Hardy and I only had 5 observers. The trick was to not burn out my observers so I developed a system whereby I would rotate half of them for night shifts and the other half for day shifts. I would observe whatever was left and created a "mobile office" so I could keep doing my supervisor duties while observing at the dock.

Fishermen themselves are not a friendly lot, and the majority of them feel that government observers counting their fish is an invasion of privacy. Add to that the fact that we then billed them for our services and you have a sometimes stressful situation on your hands. I remember one night in late October 2007. It was 9 pm and a hook-and-line boat was offloading at the government wharf. The skipper was drunk and angry and his crew were throwing insults at me. Finally I said "If you want I can leave, and your fish can rot. Or we can stop fucking around and get this offload finished." At which point the drunk skipper grabbed a tire-iron and swung it at my head. I managed to get out of the way, looked at him for a moment, and then walked away (thus forcing the offload to stop) and called DFO.

Aside from moments like that, however, it was a rewarding job. The data collected was used by government to monitor quotas, and research groups and universities used the data to determine fish migration patterns, stocks in the ocean and other important marine information. Although far from perfect, the system is one of the only like it in the world and the company has consulted with Norway, Australia and the United States to help them set up similar conservation programs.

When my fiance and I broke up I stayed with the job for 9 months, but I became restless and bored and lonely in Port Hardy, and started to panic that I would miss out on seeing the places I always dreamt of seeing, so I decided to come to Russia to teach English. I helped train my replacement (who promised to hire me the moment I returned to Port Hardy), packed a single suitcase, caught a Greyhound bus to Victoria and then a flight to Ottawa.

Every now and again I think that I made a big mistake in leaving my job and home in one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of the world. Today is one of those days.

On the other side of the coin, however, I have been enjoying my time in Russia and I really enjoy the company of the friends I've made here so far. Some day this will be a memory and as I'm counting fish while eagles glide overhead on thermals and the Rocky Mountains poke through clouds on the horizon, I'll think back to my time in Russia and know that this will all be worth it.

Unless, of course, it isn't. In either case, I might as well enjoy myself.


  1. This, Canadian, is a wonderful post. I just can't figure out how anyone could write such faultless prose. I spend a lot of time proofreading my writings, and still I find errors.
    Maybe it's your more agile mind.

    I'd like to put this in StumbleUpon but first I want your OK, and also some suggestions for category... maybe environment, ecology, or expat.

    Port Hardy sounds very special, but I think you did the right thing to wander again.

  2. Thanks for the compliments, loquacious, although I admit that I don't feel the same way about my writing.

    Feel free to add this to whatever you want!

  3. Greetings Canadian!

    It's interesting that Moscow was the largest city in Europe in the 1500's and now approximates that mark, along with a larger Istanbul.

    What's strange is some directories don't include Russia in Europe, but place it in Asia. Also sometimes Moscow and/or St Petersburg are not listed, but Tbilisi, Helsinki, Minsk, are.

    Again I learned a lot from reading your blog!

    All the best!

    Rob... Loquacious