Steveston, B.C., near Vancouver, is a historic fishing village where the industry carries on amid fitting tributes to its heritage.
STEVESTON, B.C. — I’m face-to-face with a sixgilled shark, his razor-sharp teeth and his menacing, yellow-green eyes no more than an arm’s length away.
Quick — I ask myself — what is it you’re supposed to do now? Punch him in the snout? Flee? Shout?
Fortunately, I don’t have to choose any of those. The shark is quite real, but only his football-sized head remains, peering out from atop a bed of shaved ice.
Sandy-haired Justin Agricola, 17, has placed the shark’s head here to draw customers to the metal pans of cod, sole, perch, octopus, hake and other seafood on the fantail of the fishing boat Golden Penny, co-owned by Justin’s dad, Bob.
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“It gets people’s attention,” said Justin, tucking a small lemon sole halfway into the shark’s mouth.
On this sunny day, a dozen boats are selling fresh and frozen-at-sea fish at Fisherman’s Wharf in Steveston, a waterfront village about 25 minutes north of the U.S. — Canada border. Their catch comes from as near as the Strait of Georgia, immediately to the west, and as far away as the Queen Charlotte Islands near Alaska.
Steveston, a corner of land at the mouth of the Fraser River, is actually a part of Richmond, Vancouver’s sprawling southern suburb. But its fishing harbor, historic cannery, museums, shops and restaurants give it an identity of its own.
“It’s like a small town,” said Steveston Bookstore owner Bill Chung, who’s been in business here more than 20 years. “In 15 minutes you could be in downtown Richmond, but out here it’s a different world. More relaxed.”
In winter, the place is nearly deserted. But in the summer, Steveston is at its liveliest, with a dozen restaurants expanding onto outdoor tables above the wharf, street musicians playing for tips, families strolling Garry Point Park and cyclists cruising along several miles of trails.
Think one part La Conner, one part Westport and one part Jolly Olde England — that latter part evidenced in the pints of Guinness quaffed at the pubs, and the plates of fish and chips available on nearly every menu.
There’s also an Asian influence in some of the shops and restaurants, reflecting Richmond’s large percentage of immigrants from China and other Pacific Rim countries.
At the start of the 20th century, this was one of the world’s busiest fishing ports, with 15 canneries, six hotels and an assortment of saloons and gambling dens. Even today, it’s home to Canada’s largest fishing fleet, some 600 boats.
Steveston draws its name from its first white settlers, the family of Manoah Steves, who arrived from New Brunswick in the 1870s and began farming vegetables in the marshlands. His great-grandson, Harold Steves, 73, still raises a few dozen grass-fed beef cattle on a small local ranch.
Steves, a member of the Richmond City Council, traces the community’s interest in tourism to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“We realized that farming was on the way out and fishing was on the decline and the next best option was to develop tourism on the waterfront.”
A key to the effort was the successful court fight against a developer’s plans to put seven-story apartment buildings on Garry Point, a windswept, 75-acre thumb of land jutting into the Strait of Georgia.
Now a park, Garry Point is ideal for strolling, kite-flying or relaxing on a driftwood beach while the sun sets over Vancouver Island.
In 1996, the park dedicated its fishermen’s memorial, featuring a large aluminum replica of a net-mending needle pointed skyward above granite plates engraved with names of those lost at sea.
The roster hints at the diversity of the work force: Sverre Johnson of the Snow Prince, George Hanazawa of the Silver Cloud and three members of the Secord family — Becky, Jack and Peter — of the Anthony J.
Heritage on show
Steveston’s history is particularly well displayed at two local treasures about a mile apart, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site and the Britannia Heritage Shipyard.
At the cannery, where half-hour tours come with the price of admission, visitors see equipment used in what once was British Columbia’s most productive cannery, packing more than 2.5 million cans of salmon in 1897.
“It was easy to lose a finger — or more — on some of these,” said guide Mark Penney, showing us a 1907-vintage contraption that could split, gut and cut the tails off large salmon at the rate of more than one a second, replacing a crew of some 30 Chinese immigrants, some of the first cannery workers.
It was almost always cold in the cannery, which was constructed on pilings over the river, and conditions for workers were difficult. A 1913 photo shows Japanese women, two with infants in slings on their backs, working the canning line.
Huge sailing ships carried wooden cases of canned salmon from here to ports around the world. As far away as England, canned salmon from the Pacific Coast of North America was a relatively cheap source of protein.
About a dozen blocks east of the cannery, Britannia Heritage Shipyard, along a marsh off the river, depicts Steveston’s past in a collection of preserved and renovated buildings, including a net loft, boatyard, fishermen’s bunkhouses and family homes.
Some buildings are furnished the way they might have been decades ago, complete with a poker game in progress in the bunkhouse. Digital displays in picture frames show photos of yesteryear.
The shipyard hosts the Richmond Maritime Festival (Aug. 21-23), with a floating exhibition of boats to view, entertainment and activities for kids.
Art, biking and books
Summer weekends see brisk business along busy Moncton Street, a block back from the water, where art galleries and crafts shops mingle with marine-supply stores, the tiny Steveston Museum, bakeries and, of course, fish-and-chips emporiums.
Bicycles can be rented to ride along miles of flat dike trails running east along the river or north along the Strait of Georgia.
Chung, the Taiwanese immigrant who owns the bookstore, said, “Fishermen used to come in here with $100 bills and buy all the paperbacks they could carry.”
He still has paperbacks piled to the ceiling at the back of the shop, but up front there’s more stuff appealing to travelers — picture books of the area and its wildlife, note cards and maps. For businesses relying on a tourism-based economy, “You make it in the summer or you don’t survive,” Chung said.
The catch offered at the docks varies with the season, but can include salmon, prawns, halibut, sole, squid, cod and more. Some of the vessels selling seafood on any given day are list on the “sales float” site at www.stevestonharbour.com.
The shark meat here may go into shark-fin soup, but the shark head that greeted me at the stern of the Golden Penny was more display than merchandise. When an onlooker asked — apparently out of curiosity — how much Agricola wanted for it, the teenager shrugged, “I’m not sure. I’ve never really sold one.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com