Filleting Fish and Catching Crabs

steve kaleb fish

There is a lot to say about Haida Gwaii, but in the interest of laying down something that’s a little bit tangible, I’m going to tell you about catching food.

We have eaten a lot of fish over the past ten weeks. While we were at the Unist’ot’en Camp, we ate salmon almost every day because that’s what people donated, it’s what they had to share. Earlier in our trip we ate canned salmon a friend had left with us in Vancouver in the spring as a thank you gift for having him. And on Haida Gwaii with a few friends, including a new one, we finally got to get right in it with our own hands.

Our friends Leanne and Bex were visiting the island the same time we were, staying with Steve (in the photo up there with Kaleb) who teaches science at the high school in Queen Charlotte City (the word city is used loosely). The whole town is right on the ocean, and Steve lent us his little runabout and some crab traps and set us loose on the water. Bex drove, Leanne filled the bait containers with freezer-burned salmon Steve had been saving for just such an occasion, and we dropped the traps.

We came back the next day to check them, armed with a fishing licence and approximate legal sizes for keeping the things. I hauled the rope up and when I finally got the first big cage to the surface, I was nearly overrun by more than a dozen crawling, snapping crabs. Bex and Kaleb squirmed a little, but Leanne and I pulled on gloves and got to work pulling out the best ones for our buckets and tossing the rest back. We were allowed to keep six.

The next task was to kill them. We had received specific instructions on how to hold them carefully with the legs in our hands and very quickly smashing their little faces against a rock. This would supposedly kill them instantly and pop the top shell off so we could clean them. Meat is translucent, Steve said. Chuck everything else.

erin crab

I realize an exoskeletoned sea insect is not quite the same as a furry, bloody mammal, but killing them wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but it felt right, having decided to go out and pull the thing out of the water for the express purpose of eating it, and then taking responsibility for that decision. It gave me a little more hope that I have it in me to live out values that would have me take more responsibility for all the food I eat. It felt close to some kind of ideal, where the killing of the food is the ceremonial part, and the sharing and eating of the food is joyful and messy and somewhere far away from the rules the say how civilized people are meant to consume their food. Typical table manners don’t really apply when the table in question is weighed down with crab legs and garlic butter and the elbows of five hungry people.

Just as we were digging into the crabs, Steve came home from a day of fishing and set immediately to filleting two little pink salmon (not actually pink on the outside, the way sockeye are. Confusing, I know) and two enormous spring salmon. When Kaleb and I hopped out of our chairs to watch, he very graciously showed us what to do and then handed over the knife and let us try.

As a kid, I occasionally ate fresh caught fish. A trout from our lake in Ontario or a pike caught on a fishing trip once. I remember squatting in the grass while my dad cleaned and filleted them, and then we’d fry or barbecue them. But I’ve always thought of salmon as fancy restaurant food. Something expensive you’d get on a special occasion and which I have never been able to afford on my own with any regularity. Eating salmon seemed like a privilege, and so the jump from extravagance to instrument of basic survival has been a big one. But there’s no other way to put it. In the northwest in particular, the ability to fish, for so many people, means the ability to feed themselves and their communities good, healthy food.

The dark red blood of the fish was a bit of a shock after the crabs, something a little closer to what I have inside my body. But putting my hands on the bright flesh broke down what remained of the gap between luxury and sustenance. Steve grabbed the maple syrup, soy sauce and garlic and threw a couple fillets on the barbecue, and we all ate it.

To our great surprise and gratitude, Steve even gave us one of the fillets (probably the one we’d made the greatest hash of) to take with us back to the mainland the next day. Following the overnight ferry, we cooked it on the propane stove in the Safeway parking lot in Prince Rupert and ate it with relish (metaphorically. Literally, it was mustard).

Safeway salmon

Hunting/gathering/growing our own food is something Kaleb and I have been talking about a lot over the past year or so, progressing from watching carrots and beans magically appear out of dirt in the backyard to learning more about permaculture and the growing rhythms of where we live to thinking seriously about taking up hunting and fishing as a means of feeding ourselves in good ways.

If there is one thing that has come up again and again over the last few months of travelling, it’s food. Salmon in particular. Salmon is the lifeblood of the northwest, running thick through almost all of the river and streams in the province, and everyone from First Nations families reoccupying their land to white fishermen in Terrace to young high school teachers in Queen Charlotte City are connected to it. It has become very important to us to get connected to it, too.


p.s. I swear I’m not as sunburned as I look in that photo. SPF 60 4lyf.

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