Massive sockeye run too late for those who wanted to follow footsteps of fisherman Al Brown

The refrain of the Song of the Sockeye and choruses of The Coho Flash Silver echoed through the Maritime Labour Centre yesterday as the family and friends of fisherman Al Brown gathered to remember a remarkable man whose life summed up so many of the strengths and values of BC’s now devastated salmon fishery.

The 30 million sockeye now thronging the Fraser have come too late for those who hoped to follow in Brown’s footsteps, fashioning a living by harvesting a renewable resource that supported commercial fishing for more than a century.

Brown died Aug. 15, before the magnitude of the current run was confirmed, but if advancing years and declining health had not taken him, the news of this latest monumental example of fisheries mismanagement might have finished him on its own. He was 86.

Brown died at his Kitsilano home at Macdonald and 23rd, a house he inherited from his father and where he not only raised his own family but built his third and last boat, the Sea Deuce, in the back yard.

When his second son Kerry asked him why he had become a fisherman, Brown replied, “because to be a good fisherman, you have to be good at everything.” Brown had the combination of intellect and skills — mechanic, electrician, navigator, carpenter, oceanographer and much more — that made for successful fishing.

More importantly, he was a warm and engaging human being, adept at poker, comfortable at the track, and a great father and grandfather with his lifelong partner Nora.

A graduate of Kitsilano High School, Brown served in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve during the war, crossing and recrossing the North Atlantic on a corvette escorting convoys. The nine-to-five jobs on offer after the war held little appeal and when a chance to go fishing came his way, he jumped at it. His first gillnetter, a derelict named Alice G, was entirely rebuilt in his back yard.

Brown was a lifelong member of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, where I encountered him in the late 1970s.

No one who met Brown could forget his uncanny ability to improvise, from circuit-testing for polarity with a potato to building a bicycle-powered band saw. When he finally built Sea Deuce from the ground up, the vessel incorporated a former Sherman tank engine and countless other unique innovations. Brown and his brother-in-law, Paddy Binns, were among the first fishermen to troll for sockeye and pioneers of the combination boat, which combined gillnetting and trolling gear on a single vessel.

His masterwork, however, was the 42-foot Solidarity, built for the fishing families of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. What began as a transfer of second-hand fishing gear to desperately poor fishermen after the Sandinista revolution evolved into the construction and delivery of an entirely new boat, built with the contributions of countless Canadian labour, church and business donors.

Leading the work, however, was Brown, who carefully outfitted the Deltaga fiberglass hull with as many as five different types of fishing gear, all based on his own practical knowledge as well as the information he gathered during a visit to San Juan del Sur. Those who wondered why the project took so long seldom reckoned with the untold hours Brown spent managing his ever-changing and often unskilled work crew, who saw Brown as much as a personal mentor as a project leader.

By the time Solidarity was loaded on a freighter for delivery to San Juan del Sur in 1995, the Sandinistas were out of power, Nicaragua’s civil war was burning out, and the local fishermen’s co-op had been taken over by a private company. But the boat — simply called “Al Brown’s boat” by the fishermen — produced and continues to do so today.

With Solidarity in Nicaragua, Brown should have been able to focus once more on his own fishing, but a decade of fleet reduction, privatization and catch restrictions was closing in on the commercial fishery.

As Brown’s son Dennis recorded in his book Salmon Wars: the Battle for the West Coast Fishery, the cumulative effect of those changes was the eventual destruction of the commercial salmon fishery. This year’s massive sockeye run, an eloquent reminder of what we have traded to make way for farmed salmon and continued environmental pressure on salmon rivers, cannot be harvested by the fishermen who remain.

It was a testament to the respect Brown commanded  that yesterday’s service was attended by people from every part of the industry, from former cannery owner Don Millerd to MP John Cummings and many former union leaders and activists. Brown is survived by his wife Nora, his sons Dennis and Kerry, his daughters Maureen and Tara, and two grandsons.