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There is a Future in Our Fishery: A Conversation with Lee Tremblett

September 16, 2019

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 edition of the Union Forum.

Lee Tremblett, 42, is a 4th generation fisherman and father of two from Bonavista. 

Lee operates a multi-species inshore enterprise, fishing primarily crab, cod, and lobster, with other species like capelin, herring, mackerel, and squid when they are available. The question of when and how his interest in the fishing industry developed was an easy one for Lee to answer.

“I think my interest in the fishery came early, at around age 10 or 12. It was then that I started going to haul cod traps with my dad and grandfather. Getting seasick daily, I still enjoyed the water and seeing what we caught. Hanging around my pop had a big influence. Whether he was building boats or mending nets – whatever he was doing, I was there. He always told me there were a lot of hard times for them living on bare minimum some years, but life was good. You could make a decent living, you were working outside, and in tough times you made do with what you had but still survived.”

“My father also fished, and did so during the 80’s when cod was a booming fishery. People were doing well in the fishery, so he invested big. He kept going even though there were a few bad years after the cod moratorium in 1992, with a big investment in a new boat and cod traps.”

Lee’s father invested in a new fiberglass 35 footer in 1990. His father said it was a lifetime boat for Lee if he ever wanted to keep it going. There was far less maintenance than the previous wooden trap skiff that required oakum in the seams and yearly paint jobs.

“He named her High Hopes, which was extremely fitting at the time. Still is,” said Lee.

When asked about growing up in the fishery, Lee jokes, “Both my grandfather and father always said, ‘Don’t go at this racket, my son,’ and, ‘Get your schooling.’ They always knew I didn’t listen well.”

Lee’s family history in the industry has clearly had a positive impact on his choice to be a fish harvester and to carry on the tradition. It is clear those family traditions, experiences and tragedies shape how one views the industry.

Lee’s grandfather fished in the summer and worked the lumberwoods and heavy equipment in the off season. When he got older, he passed this fishing tradition to Lee’s father and uncle. In 1985, they experienced a tragic accident on the water while fishing herring.

“My father spent 3.5 hrs in the water and my uncle passed away from the cold. Strangely enough, my uncle was the one who could swim really good; my dad couldn’t,” Lee said.

“My father didn’t quit then, although he was far more cautious with the weather after that,” he added.

Lee’s father was involved with various committees and the FFAW throughout his fishing career, always trying to find ways to be a voice and make positive change for the fishery and his fellow harvesters. He was also one of three friends who came up with the idea of a Fisherman’s Memorial for Cape Bonavista. They raised the majority of the funds required through card games and a call for donations.

Lee said of his father, “he always felt he was lucky, I guess, that his name wasn’t there, but respected the countless other friend’s names that were.”

Tragically, Lee lost another uncle a few years ago while he was hunting ducks on the water. “He too was a good hand on the water, carrying on the family tradition, but his time was just up, I guess,” said Lee.

But still, his father did not give up. “I think my father looked at it like if he were to quit at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the boat going as a young feller myself, not knowing all the ropes at the time,” said Lee.

Sadly, Lee’s father endured a long battle with cancer a few years back and ended up in a wheelchair for a year. “That was hard for him not being able to get on the boat. In the end he was happy I was there to keep the enterprise going for myself and my kids if they ever wanted to get into the fishery,” recalled Lee.

In this transitional time in our industry, it is clear that young harvesters face numerous challenges.

“I feel there are a lot of challenges for young people in the fishery,” says Lee. “Keeping up with required training and new regulations being the main one, as we need to keep on top of our profession and new regulations and policies coming down the pipe. Getting these courses offered locally and at a good time is a challenge and the cost associated with them is also a factor when travel is concerned. As the owner of a small boat enterprise, it always feels like we’re competing with bigger operations and under tight timelines to fish during a good weather window. We’re also facing declining quotas, so that has a big effect on how much you’re able to invest in your enterprise to improve safety and to get more quota.”

Despite challenges, Lee is always optimistic and sees a bright window ahead.

“I feel there is a good future in the inshore fishery for a small multi-species operation such as mine. You can never put all your eggs in one basket, so they say. Cuts in crab quotas and limited cod to catch means we need to be diverse and pursue other lesser known fisheries like whelk, toad crab, and lumpfish. The lobster fishery also seems to be increasing because of the v-notching harvesters have been doing, and other species are being managed and remain steady. I believe there’s a good future in seals also. Seal meat is gaining popularity in other places and the fur is a wonderful product,” Lee explains.

Lee also adds, “Our fish is often far superior to other products you see in the stores. We have worked hard to ensure our product is of high quality. Maintaining quality will only pay if the processors recognize what we are doing and follow suit.”

Lee also says that a buyback program would go a long way to increasing the viability of existing enterprises, making it more worthwhile for those who want to stay in the fishery.

As a father of two young children, Lee’s children have clearly inherited the family tradition of life on and from the ocean.

“My kids love it on the water,” Lee says, and jokingly adds, “I’m sure they would like it more if it paid them a day’s pay right now!” He continues, “They aren’t quite aware of our heritage connected to the fishery, but I try to teach them the few skills they can learn at their age. Being a teenager around here there are a lot of other things on their minds. I make sure to involve them in cutting up bait or filling needles with twine while they watch YouTube or Netflix. My daughter is a skilled young girl who loves crafting and helping out dad when I need it. She would make a fine skipper one day. My boy likes chopping up the bait and would have no problem getting his hands dirty, that’s for sure.”

Lee has some advice for the younger generation of fish harvesters:

“The only real advice for the rest of the younger folk is to diversify with different methods and species, and get all the training you can. It may not pay off in the beginning but you’ll be happy you did it down the road. There are lots of ups and downs when you’re on a fishing boat. Anyone getting into this industry these days will need quite a bit of investment to keep up with the rising prices of boats and gear. We need to keep pushing for fair prices for our product. If seafood prices don’t rise with the cost of operating, you will need something to fall back on. Not every year is going to be a good one.

Younger generations are more in tune with the environment and would do nothing to harm it, unlike the mentality of some of the older generations. They are great stewards of the resource.

There is a future in our fishery. People need to realize it’s a true profession…not just a job.”