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Bluebacks and Silver Brights: A Lifetime in the BC Fisheries From Bounty to Plunder

By Allan Safarik

Review By Kenneth Campbell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 187-189

For sixty years the Campbell Avenue fish dock on Burrard Inlet was the hub of Vancouver’s fishing industry, home to numerous fish plants, smokehouses, and floats where the boats tied up. The Safarik family business, Vancouver Shellfish and Fish Company, or simply Van Shell, was the first tenant and one of the last to go. For most of those years, Norman Safarik worked among the fishers, plant workers, big company executives, and fish buyers.

Bluebacks and Silverbrights is a collaboration between Norman Safarik and his son Allan, a poet whose publications include the recent collection of west coast poems, The Day is a Cold Grey Stone (Hagios Press, 2010). Norman, after retiring in his eighties, began to record his memories in longhand. Through a lively process, which Allan describes in his Preface, they worked together to complete this decade-long project. The result is a successful alliance of Norman’s vivid recall of his experiences at Van Shell, and Allan’s subtle structuring of his father’s stories.

Many of Safarik’s tales feature the memorable personalities who frequented the waterfront. The book, though loosely chronological, is built around these intriguing characters, giving rise to many of the chapter titles, such as “The California Con Man” and “The King of Fishmongers.”

Of note are the stories about the ground fisheries, from the trawlers that caught the cod, halibut, and other ground fish, to the buying, pricing, and processing at the plant, and finally to sales to local peddlers and high-end fishmongers. Safarik also deals with other ocean resources that passed through Van Shell’s plant, including clams, crabs, sturgeon, dogfish, and herring, as well as the salmon varieties of the title.

A thread running through the memoir is the ongoing tension between the small companies like Van Shell and the big players — particularly BC Packers, which had a plant on the dock — and with the officials of the federal fisheries officers. “It was no secret in the industry,” writes Safarik, “that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was almost an adjunct of the big companies” (309). Some of the most tensely-paced stories are of one side trying to better the other in a fish deal, or to get revenge for a bad transaction.

A second thread, woven through the stories of hard work and crazy escapades, is a serious environmental message. (The publishers classify the book as Environmental Conservation and Protection rather than British Columbia History). Behind the anecdotes lies a profound sense of loss of both the diversity of products harvested from the sea, and the quality available to us. Much of what we find in the fish market today, says Safarik, is “only really fit for the bin” (32).

The Gulf of Georgia, once rich with cod and salmon, is today “a barren sea,” and Safarik reflects on the reasons for the loss. “After working in the fishing industry every day for over sixty years,” he concludes, “I believe the loss of our great resource can be attributed to a lack of feed for the major food fish species. Frankly, there are not enough herring to go around” (32-33).

There are plenty of published memoirs of British Columbia’s fishing industry, but none quite like this. Most are told by the fishers, and generally focus on the salmon fishery. Safarik, however, brings a unique insight into the diverse fisheries that British Columbia’s coastal waters once sustained and the people who caught, processed, and bought them.

Bluebacks and Silver Brights: A Lifetime in the BC Fisheries From Bounty to Plunder
By Norman Safarik with Allan Safarik
Toronto: ECW Press, 2012. 379 pp. 34 b/w photos, $22.95 paper