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Environment

His Name Is Sugar. Fishing Is His Life. Are the Sweet Days Over?

Three generations of the Hamada family have harvested BC salmon. He’s the last Japanese Canadian on his wharf.

Braela Kwan 12 Aug 2020 | Hakai Magazine

Braela Kwan is a multimedia journalist who reports community-powered stories with a special interest in the environment. She is a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism. Tweet her @bbrraaeellaa.

As her fisher husband, Satoshi, bustled around their small apartment preparing to leave for the dock, June Hamada knew she was about to give birth to her first child. But on that warm July morning in 1965 she kept her contractions to herself.

It was, after all, a Monday.

After a Fraser River commercial fishery has been closed for multiple days, the first set opens on Monday at 8:00, says Satoshi. “That’s the most important set. The first set is always a lot of fish.”

“I knew there was a major catch that day,” says June, “so, I really didn’t want to stop him.”

She waited for her husband to leave their home in Marpole — a neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C., just blocks from the Fraser River — before calling her brother to take her to the hospital. Later that morning as Satoshi fished for sockeye salmon, someone hailed him on his boat’s radio to inform him that his wife was about to have his child. He opted to stay out fishing.

“He was catching a lot of fish, so he thought, 'No point in going back in. It’s too late. Kid is going to be born,'” says Dereck Hamada, the son who was born that day.

Satoshi caught over 1,100 sockeye before he headed for shore. He remembers that number; it was a good day out. Otherwise, his memory is foggy. “I can’t remember. Did I come home that night?” he asks June.

She gently reminds him that yes, although his fishing trips at the time were usually overnight adventures, he made an exception for Dereck’s arrival. He came home to meet his son before heading back out to sea the following morning.

The Hamadas tell me this story on a November night in 2019 in their one-story home built by Satoshi, tucked away in the heart of Richmond, a city that borders Vancouver. They moved into the house five months after Dereck was born. Huddled around a kitchen table better suited for two people, Satoshi, Dereck, June and I peer over fishing catch receipts, dated newspaper clippings and black-and-white photographs scattered across the tabletop, illuminated by bright-white kitchen lights overhead.

Our conversation was supposed to have happened at sea aboard the Magic Maker, the family boat built by Satoshi in 1967. Dereck and Satoshi had invited me to join them on a chum fishing trip to mark Satoshi’s 66 years of fishing on the B.C. coast. Instead, we have gathered indoors, to look back on 2019, the year that everything changed.

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The Magic Maker in 1967, just after Satoshi Hamada built it. Photo courtesy of the Hamada family.

First came August, when Satoshi normally fishes the Fraser River for sockeye. “August... should be the peak of sockeye, but there were no fish,” he says. Even in September, the sockeye didn’t come. (In the end, Fisheries and Oceans Canada [DFO] never opened any commercial sockeye fisheries on the Fraser in 2019.)

Then came October, the month that Satoshi and Dereck usually fish for chum salmon off Nanaimo, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, B.C. But that fishery never opened either.

“After all these years, this is the first year we never fished,” says Satoshi.

“On the south coast [of British Columbia], no one’s fished all year,” adds Dereck. “Everybody’s been sitting all tied up.”

Three generations of Hamadas have fished for salmon off the B.C. coast: Satoshi’s father, Reiji; Satoshi himself; and Dereck. But the legacy may end there. It’s doubtful that many other people know the south coast as well as Satoshi, and what he is seeing out on the ocean now is disturbing. If Dereck’s two children, Tai and Kaiya, 11 and 15, fish at all, it will be in waters that Satoshi would hardly recognize.

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Satoshi gill netting off the stern of the Magic Maker. Photo courtesy of the Hamada family.

The 11-metre Magic Maker, its engine vacuumed clean, waits at the dock in Steveston, a historic fishing village in the Fraser River delta. It’s the same wharf where Satoshi officially started fishing the Fraser in 1953. At that time, he didn’t own a boat. He fished by borrowing a rowboat or throwing a net off the wharf.

“Every night I would go out fishing from after school until 9:00, making about $30 or $40,” says Satoshi, describing his teenage years. “Small boat and short net. Every night.”

Satoshi eventually bought motorized boats that took him greater distances. He specialized in gill netting salmon, but also learned to troll, trap shrimp and crab, and dig clams.

Satoshi has been a regular at the wharf since the late 1930s, following in his father’s gumboots. Reiji Hamada, a Steveston native, was a fisher, boatbuilder and poultry truck driver.

Reiji fished out of the same wharf the Magic Maker lives today — it’s where he first brought Satoshi when he was just a young boy. Satoshi’s been there ever since. Now, many people recognize him at the wharf.

Satoshi thinks his nickname, Sugar, may have something to do with it. (The first part of his name, Sato, is pronounced like the Japanese word for sugar.) “My name is easy to remember. Everyone says, ‘Hi, Sugar,’” he explains. That extends to people he doesn’t know, which often leaves him wondering, Who the hell are you?

A plain concrete driveway by Steveston Harbour was once the site of a community of 15 small wooden homes called the Pacific Coast Camp. The cabins stood adjacent to the wharf, raised on stilts to protect them from the highest ocean tides. Satoshi lived in one of the cabins while he was starting to fish the Fraser River. In 1959, he met June, whose family also lived in a stilt house.

June and Satoshi started casually dating. “He was kind of a playboy,” says June. “After a while, I said, ‘Look, if you’re just fooling around, I don’t want to see you anymore.’ He thought it over. He was more sincere after that.”

Just as his father had driven a poultry truck to make ends meet, Satoshi needed other skills to support a family. In 1959, Satoshi obtained a carpentry diploma. For a few summers, he fished on Mondays and Tuesdays, and worked carpentry jobs the rest of the week.

June and Satoshi were married in 1963. Four years later, Satoshi built the Magic Maker. In a sea of painted wooden and fibreglass commercial fishing boats, Satoshi’s boat stood out. He was one of the first fishers in the area to have an aluminum boat, which the other fishers teased him for. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, that tin can, tin can.’ [That boat] was the best thing that happened to me,” says Satoshi.

His boat requires minimal upkeep in comparison to wooden or fibreglass boats, which need to have their hulls scraped and painted annually to avoid being weighed down by algae and barnacles. Satoshi manually scrapes barnacles from the Magic Maker, but he’s never had to paint it, saving him more than $5,000 over the 50-plus years he’s owned it.

Building the boat and settling down with June to start a family were, in a way, acts of faith for Satoshi, particularly in light of how Japanese fishers had been treated in the not-so-distant past.

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June Hamada and Satoshi at their home in Richmond, BC, in 2019. Photo by Braela Kwan.

Satoshi’s upbringing at the Steveston wharf was upended in 1942 by a turn of events that took him and his family away from everything they knew and worked for. When Satoshi was seven years old, the Hamadas were ordered away from the coast and incarcerated at an internment camp in the interior of British Columbia. They arrived two weeks before the cabins were completed and had to sleep in tents surrounded by a blanket of snow. In all, about 21,000 Japanese Canadians — many of them from families that had been in the country for generations — were sent to internment camps because Canada and Japan had become enemies during the Second World War.

Satoshi and his family went to Lemon Creek, a small community in the Slocan Valley, more than 650 kilometres from Steveston. The homes, businesses and belongings of these Japanese Canadians were confiscated and sold to pay for their own detainment. Nearly 1,200 fishers lost their boats, including Satoshi’s father.

“They took everything away,” says Satoshi.

Throughout their internment, young Satoshi transported buckets of water on foot for washing and cooking. There was no electricity, so he gathered and chopped firewood to fuel the wood stove for heat and cooking. But Satoshi stayed true to his family’s coastal roots. He was consumed with finding lakes, rivers and streams with trout. “Every chance I got, I used to go sportfishing,” says Satoshi. “I [went] before school, after school.”

As he got older, he started working as a labourer. After two days of firefighting, he got a paycheck for $14. “The first thing I did was buy myself a new fishing rod,” he says.

When the war ended in 1945, the federal government gave Japanese Canadians two options: resettle outside of British Columbia or volunteer for deportation to Japan. Satoshi’s parents signed a deal that would see the family move to Japan. The deal fell through the day before they planned to leave, and instead the Hamadas were permitted to temporarily remain in British Columbia and relocated with 10 other families to Vallican, a small settlement near the town of Nelson. Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to the coast until April 1, 1949.

Like many other Japanese-Canadian families, the Hamadas waited years before returning home. Satoshi and his family moved back to Steveston in 1951, where he finished school and then began his fishing career on the Fraser that continues to this day. An unwavering thread, fishing ties Satoshi’s childhood to his adulthood, weaving in Dereck’s upbringing and adulthood, and everything else in between.

“I like fishing,” Satoshi says. “I could fish until I die.”

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Satoshi mending fishing nets in 1966. Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond Archives, Photograph #1994 22 7.

Dereck learned everything he knows about fishing from his dad. By the time he turned 11, he was spending his summers out on the boat. Seasickness is one of his earliest memories. “It’s not the waves that make you seasick, it’s the smell of diesel exhaust,” Dereck says.

Dereck eventually outgrew his seasickness. Summer after summer, the father-son duo fished for up to three weeks at a time, and came home only briefly to recharge before heading back to sea. Fishing was Dereck’s first job. He liked getting paid, especially for working outdoors, although he couldn’t help feeling like he was missing out on what was going on at home. But each year, the routine of solitude settled in as Dereck got to work.

“I would basically just do my own thing. Bring some books, listen to music. My dad would be on the radio talking to his friends most of the time,” says Dereck. “Typical Japanese, Asian sort of relationship — you just don’t really talk a lot with your parents. You just get bossed around a lot and do what you’re told.”

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‘I would basically just do my own thing. Bring some books, listen to music.’ Dereck Hamada and Satoshi out at sea on the Magic Maker. Photo courtesy of the Hamada family.

In 1987, Dereck graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in accounting. He launched into his new career immediately, putting fishing on hold. But Dereck craved a more balanced lifestyle and time outdoors, rather than being stuck in the office year-round. In 1994, he started his own accounting practice, which gave him the flexibility to take time off during the summer fishing season. He returned to the Magic Maker with Satoshi, but the fishing wasn’t quite the same.

“By that time, salmon fishing was starting to decline. It wasn’t really a worthwhile venture for me,” says Dereck.

In the decades that followed, Dereck fished only now and then. He sold his practice and worked as a chief financial officer for a submarine company, but was working for himself again as a chartered accountant by 2015. As Dereck was once again his own boss, he tried a return to fishing full time with his dad — but the fishing days were scarce.

Decades ago, Satoshi says, he was averaging around 45 fishing days a year. Today, he is lucky if he gets two or three. The number of fishing days has been steadily decreasing, but 2019 was the first year Satoshi saw zero fishing days.

Dubbed the worst commercial fishing season in 50 years, 2019 was disastrous for B.C. fishers. The number of sockeye salmon that returned from the ocean to spawn in the Fraser River was estimated in September to be just 10 per cent of the DFO’s pre-season forecast. Sockeye was once Satoshi’s most abundant catch. On the east coast of Vancouver Island, the number of chum salmon returning to the Nanaimo, Cowichan and Goldstream rivers by late November was only 57 per cent of the pre-season target.

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Charts based on DFO data for The Tyee by Braela Kwan (data) and Ericka Rathje (design).

Many recreational, commercial and First Nations fisheries in British Columbia that were expected to open did not, says Ian Hamilton, a fisheries biologist with the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance. He says 2019 was “a pretty tragic year for salmon stocks.”

Hamilton describes the science of managing Pacific salmon as a “dark art” because there is no single reason for the decline. “Everybody likes to point fingers at different areas but at the end of the day, the sad fact is that we don’t know,” he says.

The fish have endured a steady rise in river and ocean water temperatures, a mass of uncharacteristically warm water in the Pacific Ocean called the Blob, increased exposure to floods and droughts, the spread of non-native species, and the proliferation of deforestation and other human activities. All of which are destabilizing salmon food webs and habitats.

According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, 18 regional populations of B.C. salmon are endangered, meaning that they face imminent extinction, while 13 more are in the threatened or special concern category and are likely to become endangered if no action is taken.

“Most of the stocks in the lower Fraser are in decline,” says Hamilton. “It’s savagely true.”

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Graph based on DFO data for The Tyee by Braela Kwan (data) and Ericka Rathje (design).

Satoshi first observed the decline of salmon almost 25 years ago. “In 1996, we started getting less and less fish,” says Satoshi. “Making less and less money.” That same year, area licensing was introduced, splitting the B.C. coast into three areas for gill net fishers. Prior to this change, Satoshi and Dereck could fish the entire coast without restrictions.

Satoshi bought one area license for the south coast in 1996, meaning that the area he was allowed to fish was just one-third of its previous size. With a smaller fishing area and fewer fishing days, Satoshi was catching fewer fish.

Nitinat Lake, nestled on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, is where Satoshi has seen the decline of salmon most clearly. The lake connects directly to the open Pacific through a narrow tidal passage.

In 1972, more than one million chum salmon were caught at Nitinat Lake, 2,500 of which were caught by Satoshi, a successful haul for the time. He made $4,000 in two days of fishing.

It was a different story when Satoshi went chum fishing at Nitinat Lake in October 2018. The Magic Maker was one of 10 boats on the lake that day. Some of the other fishers caught two or three fish, but Satoshi caught none — a “clean skunk,” he says. That day marked a new record for Satoshi. It was the first fishing day ever that he caught zero fish in one set.

“I’m not going back there no more,” he says.

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Satoshi chum fishing at Nitinat Lake on Vancouver Island, BC, in 1972. Photo courtesy of the Hamada family.

Dereck sees a bleak future for salmon fishing. “It’s worse every year with climate change and all the impacts on fish habitat and everything. For all the reasons, there’s fewer and fewer fish returning to each spawning ground.” He is certain his children won’t be able to experience fishing the same way he did. It isn’t just the fish that are disappearing, he says — so is “part of the family heritage.”

Satoshi and Dereck have taken Dereck’s children out on the Magic Maker a handful of times. Like Dereck as a young child, Tai gets too seasick to enjoy being out at sea. Kaiya, a hard worker who is immune to ocean-induced nausea, has a special incentive to fish with Dereck and Satoshi. “Daughter wants to come fishing with us so she can get quick money,” says Satoshi.

When Kaiya and Tai go fishing with their father and grandfather, they receive a percentage of the earnings. At the beginning of 2019, Dereck was hopeful that he would get to take Kaiya out once that year, but the opportunity never came. With no openings in 2019 and further uncertainty in 2020, Dereck is resigned to the fact that his children will not have the same fishing opportunities he did growing up.

“They’re not going to be able to do it even for a summer job. If they could, I’m sure they would,” says Dereck. “But it’s not practical. They won’t go fishing for work.”

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Dereck and Satoshi at the wharf in Steveston. Photo by Braela Kwan.

Throughout their careers, Reiji, Satoshi and Dereck developed a foundation of knowledge and expertise about gear, safety and species ecology not found in textbooks or records. Ecologists call the Hamada family’s fishing wisdom “local knowledge” — veteran observations about natural resources that “essentially emerge through long-term continuous practice,” says Charles Menzies, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia.

As wild Pacific salmon become less and less abundant, Dereck’s kids won’t be able to practice fishing often enough to absorb their family’s rich inheritance of experience. Without active observation, demonstration and participation in salmon fishing, the youngest generation of Hamadas will lose pieces of knowledge and identity central to the generations preceding them, a pattern that ecologists call “invisible losses.” These losses are not obvious to outside observers, and frequently go unrecognized or unacknowledged in the public dialogue about fisheries. Even if Dereck’s children are able to fish in the future, it will be in a very different ocean than the one their forefathers knew.

With the environmental conditions and fishing industry regulations shifting rapidly, “the knowledge you learned yesterday isn’t necessarily going to help you tomorrow,” Menzies says.

Born and raised in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Menzies has been fishing since the fourth grade. He seined salmon, gill netted herring, and longlined halibut alongside his dad, continuing to fish until he was hired as faculty at the University of British Columbia in 1996.

For the Menzies family, like the Hamadas, the legacy of family fishers is ending. Menzies’s twin 28-year-old sons won’t be fishing as their father and grandfather did.

“They’re not necessarily interested in it, but forget about interest — there’s no opportunity,” says Menzies.

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As fish decline, so does knowledge among the youngest generations of fishing families, a pattern ecologists call ‘invisible losses.’ A peek into the Magic Maker’s window. Photo by Braela Kwan.

While he waits for other opportunities to get the Magic Maker out to sea, Satoshi keeps busy. One week after my first visit to his home, the fishing catch receipts, dated newspaper clippings and black-and-white photographs that covered the table have been replaced with a small propane burner. Satoshi is hosting a tempura party, during which he coats chopped vegetables in an egg-and-flour batter, then drops them into a precariously perched pot of boiling oil. Beads of scorching-hot grease spatter in every direction.

“I warned him it’s not a very good idea,” says June. “It’s not a very big table.” Dereck, too, is agitated by the flying oil. “I have to wear sweatpants to those dinners because you smell awful by the end of it,” he says.

If he isn’t hosting tempura parties, he’s working on repairs on the Magic Maker, doing odd carpentry jobs for his friends, or tending to his billowing garden in the front yard. Three days a week, he works one-hour fish-cutting shifts at a seafood store, a job he has held casually for 12 years. Satoshi prides himself on keeping fit, saying it has given him an advantage over the fishers he grew up with. The fishers at his wharf all used to be fellow Japanese Canadians. Satoshi is the last one remaining.

“When they reach about 78 or 80, they quit. I’m now 84. I figure I will go out for another two years. Maybe until I die,” says Satoshi. Until then, he will likely continue to go out on the boat.

“I can do everything. He can just sit there and yell at me,” says Dereck.

“As long as he’s on the boat, he’s happy,” says June.

This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is reprinted with permission in The Tyee. Hakai Magazine is based in Victoria and superbly covers coastal science and communities in B.C. and around the world. You can get their stories weekly for free.  [Tyee]

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