On a sunny May 23, a keen group of eleven Delta History Hunters gathered outside the red harbour master’s house in Ladner Harbour. Our leader for the tour of the fishing harbour was John Stevens, a fourth generation Delta fisherman. He is the son of Homer Stevens who was a leader of the . Joan Bennett and Angela Husvik, DMAS board members, who also have deep roots in the fishing industry, were among the participants on the tour.
John began by giving a brief overview of Ladner’s fishing history and its roots in thousands of years of First Nations history. He mentioned how aboriginal fishers used stinging nettle fibre for nets. We were all puzzled as to how they collected this tricky plant in order to make twine from it, so I subsequently checked Nancy Turner’s excellent book “Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia”. This is what I learned: “Stinging nettle stems were an important source of fibre for most coastal peoples” in B.C. and they were gathered in October, when the plants were fading. (I believe that the nettles sting less then, than when fresh in the spring.) The fibre was prepared by “stripping off the leaves and drying the stems in the sun for a few days”. This was followed by “cracking off the brittle inner pith”, separating the outer fibres which were then pounded and worked further. The last steps were spinning them on a wooden disc spindle and “twisting the thread into a two-ply or four-ply twine”. Although women made the twine, men made the fishnets in some coastal cultures. John explained how the earlier immigrant settlers learnt from the aboriginal fishers and began making gillnets. Delta’s first salmon cannery was opened by Alexander Ewen on the Fraser River in 1870. The workers were a multi-ethnic group, from diverse backgrounds, and that tradition continues in the fishing industry to the present.
We headed over to the fishing harbour dock, past the net-mending racks, and checked out the gillnetters. These boats have a fence-like net, hauled in by a large rotating drum on the back of the boat. John showed us illustrations of the old gill net fleet at the turn of the century in “Corklines and Canning Lines” by Geoff Meggs and Duncan Stacy. This book has many photos from the Delta Museum and Archives. Subsequently we were shown trollers, that have hooks on long steel lines held on outrigger poles on either side of the boat, and long liners that are used to catch halibut, with multiple rows of hooks. To attract halibut, pieces of octopus were often used. Finally we saw the large seiners which set a circular net around a school of fish. In the old days, they used to do this from the beach, with either manpower, or using shire horses to set the net and pull it into a purse under the fish. Some of the larger fishing boats we saw would go as far as the Alaska shores in their search for salmon and halibut. Fishers have to be extremely tough to stand the rough winds and water and all the heavy machinery that has to be handled. It sounds like really hard physical labour. Although women were not originally part of the work force, there was a change in the 1960s and more women joined crews or even had their own boats. We enjoyed hearing Joan and Angela describe fishing with their families and life on the boats.
As John talked about the different methods of fishing, he reminisced about former fishing days, the problems with the salmon fishery management and difficulties encountered when managing quotas and selective fisheries. There was much more said than I can recount here, and it was an excellent tour of the fishing fleet, enjoyed by all the group. Afterwards, most of us went for coffee at Localz on Delta Street, Ladner, and we signed up three new members for the Delta Museum and Archives Society.
I hope you can join us for next month’s Delta History Hunters’ Tour when we will be visiting Tecarte Farm on Kettles Road, owned by the Bates Brothers. For more information email johnstevens(at)lightspeed.ca
Written by: Anne Murray, Board Member of the Delta Museum and Archives Society