By Jason Murphy. First Published 04/02/2018
In our last exchange before I got on the boat to leave Billy’s place, he told me that I was “by far the worst” interviewer he had ever met.
I don’t doubt this, not least because I never intended or came prepared to interview anyone – Sealives was conceived as a photography project first and foremost – but there are other good reasons to not doubt his word.
Firstly, Billy is no stranger to being interviewed.
In his eighties and after a lifetime of, in the words of Charlie Sneed – Billy’s sometime neighbour – “working his bones off”, to keep body and soul together living in the area that is now called the Broughton Archipelago (Billy doesn’t like this name, he told me he always referred to himself as a “Mainlander”) he has become something of a local living legend.
Tourists come to visit Billy’s museum of coastal curiosities that he has collected over the years and to hear his stories.
Documentary crews show up periodically to capture his life and his insights. His book has been an inspiration to those who have read it and when I visited, his cabin was still strung with Christmas cards from a slew of well-wishers.
So when it comes to being interviewed he knows the form.
It would be inaccurate to portray him as a museum piece himself though, and this brings us to the second reason not to doubt his word – Billy is not the kind of person to say anything he doesn’t mean.
Up at five every morning Billy’s life is still one centered on hard work. He fishes, salvages logs – hauling them ashore with a chainsaw winch – and is constantly engaged with all the difficult and gritty chores of living on the edge of the wilderness, chopping firewood, maintaining the place and helping others do the same.
His fishing boat, The Ocean Dawn sits at the end of his dock as a picturesque testament to his lifelong career as an owner/ operator in the BC fisheries, a career that got started with a rowing boat when he was nine years old.
So Billy, an expert in his profession, experienced as the day is long, and self-sufficient from an early age has no need to say something he doesn’t mean.
Nikki Van Schyndel and Billy are like peas in a pod. Her natural enthusiasm matching his restless work ethic. Together with Billy’s dog Buster the three of them are getting stuff done day-in-day-out.
Needless to say, Billy cares deeply about the environment, but its the kind of care often found in people who work or have worked in the fisheries – unsentimental and forthright in its defense of fishing and the right of humans to draw a living from the environment. And what he cares most deeply about is maintaining the place he has called home all his life as a place that people can live and thrive.
He tried to work constructively with the farming corporations when they first arrived, supplying information on where the wild salmon run in the belief that they would use that information to avoid those areas. He told me that the farms were then positioned exactly where he had indicated they should not go. Burned by this experience and persuaded by the work of Alexandra Morton he now opposes the farms and doesn't believe they are a useful part of keeping the area alive.
A few years ago he was instrumental in establishing a privately funded salmon hatchery in the area – a story that got my attention because of the relatively low cost of establishing hatcheries to help re-stock depleted salmon populations in comparison to the money that the government gives to fish farms every year – an important potential solution to dwindling wild salmon stocks in other words.
We visited the hatchery site and I took pictures as he explained how the process works. There were problems with the project – the location wasn’t perfect – but he told me that in the end difficulty in finding staff willing to work there became the biggest issue.
He has worked tirelessly to keep the community where he lives alive. Pulling float homes ashore to provide homesteads for people.
Many people wouldn’t appreciate all of Billy’s views. Like many fishermen, he sees the charismatic sea mammals that suburban environmentalists dote on as a natural enemy of wild fish stocks and stresses that the pressures these predator species – dolphin, seals, sea lions – create shouldn't be forgotten when discussing reduced numbers of wild salmon. His suggestions for how to remedy this are simple and deadly for the sea mammals.
In the end, I got a lot out of our conversations and found the hatchery project inspiring. The main emotion I came away with though was a kind of fear. Not of Billy or what he thought of me, but fear that his cynicism – built upon a lifetime of witnessing a decline in the area as a place that people can actually live – is justified. And fear that his knowledge will soon be lost.