North Island fisherman spent his life on the sea
VANCOUVER — For almost all his life, Pat Alfred had fished. A descendant of the blue-blood native fishermen who had made Alert Bay famous, he’d ridden the industry from its apogee, when salmon and herring seemed limitless, to the bottom when fish stocks declined and the federal government bought back commercial fishing licences.
Alfred, who died when a fishboat capsized in a storm Monday night, had been on fishboats for nearly 60 of his 70 years.
He started out on his father George Alfred’s seiner when he was just into his teens. He skippered his own seiner, the Pacific Lad No. 1, for years. When he gave it up, he continued to help friends and relatives whenever the increasingly scarce herring and salmon seasons would briefly open.
Of late, his wife Pauline — who had cooked on the Pacific Lad for years — had talked with friends about wanting him to tie up for good. Pat had tried it once before, for a few years, but always ached to be back on the boats.
Last week, Pat signed on to help Chris Cook, another Alert Bay fisherman, crew the 23metre seiner Westisle during a short food herring fishery near Gabriola Island. All but one of the six-man crew were from Alert Bay, and were by extension all related to one another. On board were Cook’s son Dempsey and deckhand Arthur Hunt, and two others.
On Monday, as they approached Pylades Channel, a storm front approached B.C., bringing with it gale-force winds and blinding snow. But for a sturdy vessel like the steel-hulled Westisle in the hands of seasoned fishermen, the worsening weather would have meant little, especially in the relatively protected channel.
Still, the trip worried Pauline. As recently as Sunday, when she attended a relative’s funeral at Gilford Island, she confided to lifelong family friend Bob Joseph that she worried that Pat was getting too old to fish and might have an accident.
“She was upset that he still wanted to be out on the water,” Joseph said. “She thought it was time for him to stop fishing.”
On Monday night, as the storm battered the coast, whipping up waves and creating white-out conditions, Pauline’s prophecy came true.
“It’s sort of a prophetic end,” Joseph said of his friend. “There was no denying his passion for the sea. He was passionate about life, about fishing. It was what he liked to do.”
But Alfred was also more than just a fisherman. For 12 years he was the chief councillor of the Namgis First Nation, and was also deeply involved in the politics of fish, First Nations and community development. The Alfred family has a large footprint in Alert Bay, home to 800 band members.
“Pat was born and raised in Alert Bay, and he was active in promoting fishing rights of First Nations up and down the coast,” said Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer. “Fishing was his life, but so was his community and his family.”
Cranmer said Alert Bay will now begin to prepare for funeral on the weekend, and at a later date will hold a memorial potlatch.
The last time Joseph spoke to Pat was a few days before the trip.
“We talked about fish stocks, about opportunities for youth, about the lives that need to be improved. He was a man full of energy and life, and he was an inspiration to me.”
Pewi Alfred, Pat’s granddaughter, said he was a remarkable man who was devoted to his seven children and seven grandchildren.
“He would call us up every day and tell us he loves us,” she said. “I will miss that very much.”
Patrick Alfred with his bride Pauline at their wedding. Alfred died after the Westisle, the herring seiner on which he was working, capsized in Pylades Channel Monday.