The beginning of the black cod fishery in BC

~ Interview with Blair Pearl, Commercial Fisherman

​Black cod in the ‘60s and ’70s was simply a bycatch fishery. Halibut boats would go out and bring small limited catches of black cod in with their halibut or rockfish loads. Back in those days, the BC halibut fleet was allowed to fish in Alaska and the Americans were allowed to fish in BC. When the International Pacific Halibut Commission announced that this agreement would end, knowing that half of the BC fleet would have to move south and fish in a more congested area, Blair decided to change focus and target black cod specifically.

They bought all 1.5 million pounds. The most interesting part of the whole thing was that it wasn’t because he had black cod, a highly touted species of fish, but simply because he had fish.

No one was doing this at the time and information was very limited about gear and how to fish them. Blair had gotten his gear over top, or hung up, with a  Japanese black cod boat’s gear on a seamount trip previously and was able to look at the traps they used. With some research, he designed and built traps for his new steel vessel called the Ocean Pearl, now the LaPorche.

On only his second trip on the new boat, fishing a new species, Blair filled the boat in 8 days with a deck load of 100,000 pounds. The market at the time was to the Jewish community in New York where they mostly smoked the fish. After this fishing success and knowledge that he would soon flood the market, Blair ordered a new boat to be built and had the Ocean Pearl fitted with a freezer system.

At this time, the Japanese were fishing in what we now call Canadian waters. The 200 mile limit for foreign vessels at that time was 12 miles. The BC fishermen could not catch the 3500 tons of black cod that fisheries had deemed reasonable for the biomass simply because there was no black cod fleet. Because of this, the Canadian government had little incentive to stop the Japanese from catching the black cod and bringing it back with them to Japan.

A year after Blair’s first trips on the new Ocean Pearl, his new vessel was ready and fishing immediately. This was, and still is, one of the most iconic vessels on the west coast of Canada. This new boat he had built was a 115’ longline trap boat. I vaguely remember being at the christening as a five-year-old.

With the new boat, named the Ocean Pearl (the other one changed now to the LaPorche) Blair could fish 12 months a year. He did and they caught fish. So much fish that the Canadian government phased the foreign boats out of the BC waters. Blair said he was bringing in 2 million pounds on those two boats. Almost 30% of the total allowable catch.

The early ’80s brought some other fishermen into the black cod fishery but very little. Blair only remembered two or three other operations at this point. In an attempt by the government to get people out of the halibut industry, fishermen were offered $350,000 to change over to black cod. Many took advantage of this and led to limited licensing and how we still currently have 48 black cod licences.

The recession of ’81/’82 brought problems for much of the globe and the black cod fishery was not exempt. Blair said the bottom fell out of the market for black cod in ‘81 as Japan was not interested in purchasing. Because his operation was set up to fish year-round, this is what he continued to do. He continually fished and paid his crew half of their shares out of his own pocket whilst putting all of his catch into cold storage.

Month after month, trip after trip, he said nobody even sniffed at it. By November of that year, he couldn’t afford it anymore. He had shelled out big bucks to his crew, the cold storage facility and now had 1.5 million pounds of fish sitting there with no home.  He took his last $10,000 and his sales partner Bill Luck and they flew to Japan. When in Japan he realized they were just not interested. So he flew to Taiwan and found himself in a large seafood market staring at a 30lb block of turbot. He asked how much it cost. The reply was $1.30/lb. 

He flew home, shipped a sample back to Taiwan and shortly afterwards had a representative from the company come to his cold storage facility to look at the rest of the product. They bought all 1.5 million pounds for $1.36/lb. The most interesting part of the whole thing was that it wasn’t because he had black cod, a highly touted species of fish, but simply because he had fish. They wanted fish and he had some.

Blair said that was the last tight spot he’s been in business. Since then he has gone on to do many things, both in the seafood industry and in others. His children and grandchildren are involved in many aspects of the fishing industry today.

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