What does it really cost to get fish out of the ocean and onto your plate?
On the winter afternoon of February 17, 2013, the crew of the Miss Ally hurried to get the last of their longlining gear back on deck. The storm they had hoped to avoid was approaching, bringing hurricane-force winds and waves that could easily swallow a boat the Miss Ally’s size.
The five men aboard the Miss Ally—a 12-metre Cape Islander from Woods Harbour, N.S.—were fishing for halibut far off the Nova Scotia coast, where the continental shelf falls off to deeper water.
Katlin Nickerson, the boat’s 21-year-old captain and owner, was likely in the wheelhouse, watching the progress of his crew on deck: Billy Jack Hatfield, 33; Joel Hopkins, 27; Cole Nickerson, 28; and Tyson Townsend, 25.
Environment Canada had warned for nearly two days that a winter storm, headed up from Cape Hatteras, would hit Nova Scotia on the 17th. Yet the Miss Ally crew remained at sea to haul their gear, despite the obvious and approaching danger. Why?
As I have detailed in my recent book, The Sea Was in Their Blood, the captain’s fatal decision to stay at sea and retrieve his gear was influenced by many factors.
For example, the boat’s overhead spotlight malfunctioned, making it difficult to locate the longlining gear. Plus, Nickerson was fishing partly with gear loaned by a friend and fellow Woods Harbour captain, John Symonds. Looking back, Symonds fears Nickerson did not want to abandon the gear.
There was also the issue of money. Nickerson owed a lot of it.
Two years earlier, Nickerson paid $700,000 for the Miss Ally, a lobster licence, and fishing gear. He was aided with a down payment from his maternal grandparents, but the bulk of the total was financed with a loan from the Nova Scotia Vessel Loan Program, which provides money for fishermen to build, buy, and upgrade boats.
As Symonds told me while I was researching the book: “The boy was in debt to his eyeballs, let’s face it.”
Symonds gave Nickerson his first fulltime crewing job, right out of high school, and thought of Nickerson like a son. “He knew he was pushing it to the limit,” Symonds added. “But he had to, because he had big bills.”
The Atlantic fishery is a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2015, commercial landings totalled $2.8 billion, representing the lion’s share of all landings in Canada.
Licences, depending on the species, can range in cost from tens of thousands of dollars up to hundreds of thousands. There are currently Atlantic Bluefin tuna licences listed for around $180,000. Some lobster and crab licences can fetch more than $1 million.
In July, federal fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc said licences are “over-valued” and indicated he wants to work with the industry to make the licensing process “fairer”.
“Fishing licenses (sic) have become over-valued in recent years, especially here in southwest Nova Scotia. This makes it extremely difficult for young fishermen to access the fishery, and more often than not prevents new entrants altogether,” LeBlanc said in the text of a speech delivered in Western Shore, N.S.
“A system where access to a fishing license is determined by who you’re related to, or how many hundreds of thousands of dollars you have, or how much debt you are willing to take on, seems unfair.”
It’s unclear, however, how LeBlanc intends to lower licence prices. “It’s not going to be easy,” he added.
Melanie Sonnenberg, president of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters’ Federation, says licence prices have risen for many species, though not all. And while she agrees licence prices must allow for new, young entrants, she notes the current prices aren’t arbitrary.
“The fishery itself has grown in terms of its value. And that’s reflected in the licence prices,” said Sonnenberg, whose group represents thousands of fishermen on both coasts. “If landings aren’t strong you’ll see licences come back on their own. It’s all about supply and demand.”
For many fishermen, she noted, a licence is seen as part of an eventual retirement package, so the value cannot simply be stripped away. “It is a sign of prosperity, there’s no doubt of that,” she added of the prices. “We don’t want to do anything that upsets that.”
I asked Sonnenberg if financial pressure is influencing the decisions fishermen make on the water.
“I suppose it’s always a concern,” she said. She added, however, that there’s an industry-wide tradition of informal mentorship that helps ensure young fishermen—often those with big debts—conduct themselves “wisely and safely.”
“People look after their own,” she said.
The financial pressures involved with fishing extend beyond licences. Quota is another expensive component. Then there’s the cost of owning a fishing vessel. Even 50-foot lobster and crab boats can cost well over $500,000.
The average consumer, biting into their lobster roll, pan-fried haddock, or halibut steak, likely lacks a full appreciation of the financial burden borne by fishermen, let alone the potential physical risks fishermen endure to get seafood from ocean to plate.
Even Mike McGlone, a Nova Scotia fishmonger who has worked in fish retail and wholesale for 25 years, admits he did not fully consider the physical danger and financial risk endured by fishermen.
“Until I read the book I didn’t fully appreciate what it takes on the water and the risks associated with it, or the passion and the commitment that fishermen have,” he said in an interview.
McGlone has sent copies of The Sea Was in Their Blood to his clients in Atlanta, New York, Toronto, and Montreal. He hoped it would help enlighten them about the realities of the industry.
“We take for granted that there’s going to be fresh seafood on the counters in grocery stores and on plates in restaurants,” he added. “We do not fully understand and respect what it takes to get there. And yet we’re the first to complain that it’s too expensive.”
For fishermen, the only way to pay for big boats and expensive licences is to catch a lot of fish. Yet prices can fluctuate wildly, particularly for lobster, which was worth more than $2 billion in Canadian exports in 2016, making it the country’s most valuable seafood export.
Nickerson entered the fishery during a period of poor prices. During 2011/12, his first lobster season with his own boat, the early price was just $3-4 a pound—a price that offers no chance of profit. A year later, the price was similarly poor. And it was influencing Nickerson’s decision-making on the water.
In late December 2012, Nickerson and his lobster crew—Hatfield and Hopkins—steamed from Woods Harbour to haul his lobster pots. It was a stormy day. The wind was screeching across the harbour and no other boats were on the water.
The conditions made it difficult to work. Suddenly, a wave crashed over the stern, completely covering Hatfield and Hopkins. The two men barely managed to cling to the swamped deck as the water drained away, leaving them soaked amidst a tangle of gear and traps. Nickerson quickly retreated to shore.
John Symonds—Nickerson’s friend and former captain—later expressed alarm about the decision to haul in such rough conditions.
“What are you doing?” he asked Nickerson.
According to Symonds, with lobster fetching just $3.50 a pound, the young captain was barely making any money and was behind on his payments.
“John, I got some big bills coming at me and they’re not getting paid,” Nickerson told Symonds.
Two years of poor lobster prices were causing Nickerson to fall behind financially. “He got himself in quite the hole,” concluded Nickerson’s father, Todd, himself a fisherman.
That’s why Nickerson was keen to fill his boat with halibut in the winter of 2013. Halibut prices typically rise 25–50 per cent in winter because the supply is low; fewer fishermen are willing to go after halibut in dangerous winter conditions. At the time, halibut was fetching $7 to $10 a pound—a big incentive to catch some.
But a key fact remained: Nickerson and his crew had to go offshore in the middle of winter to fill the Miss Ally.
Late in the afternoon of February 17, after finally getting his gear aboard, Nickerson reported—via satellite phone—that he had 15,000- 20,000 pounds of halibut in the Miss Ally’s hold, worth up to $160,000.
Separating that catch and the wharf were 130 kilometres of storm-churned ocean. The decision to stay at sea was risky—and ultimately fatal.
Huge seas hammered the boat, with waves towering more than 10 metres high. One wave, measured by a nearby weather buoy, rose to nearly 20 metres. Nickerson reported hurricane-strength winds of 80 knots (150 km/h).
Shortly after 11 p.m., the boat’s Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) was detected by satellite, triggering a flurry of activity on shore.
Despite a two-day air and water search, the five men were never found.
When I talked to John Symonds in 2015, two years after the sinking, he’d recently bought a new boat. He had two framed photos in the wheelhouse: one of his mother and one of Nickerson, his former crewman. In the photo, Nickerson was smiling and holding a lobster.
Symonds had also recently purchased another lobster licence. He wished he had the extra licence in 2013. He would have given it to Nickerson. Perhaps having more lobster to catch would have kept the 21-year-old out of the halibut fishery. Perhaps Nickerson would still be alive.
“I can’t say enough good about him,” Symonds told me of his lost friend. “He was just number one. He was a go-getter.”