Tofino Profile: Jeff Minkus
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
This guy is on fire--passionate about the things in life that occupy his mind. Talking to Jeff is like maneuvering white-water rapids, and Jeff has got all the paddles. He loves his wife, his dog, his backyard, the friendly neighbourhood of Ocean Drive dwellers, his photography hobby, but it's wild fish and fishing that turn Jeff into a whirling dervish of words. Specifically, it's his passion for the whole spectrum of wild species of fish and sea life and doing what it takes to keep the wild oceans lakes and rivers healthy that makes Jeff's mind tick.
He began working as a photojournalist, freelancing for the Vancouver Sun and The Province, then salaried by the Delta Optimist. As a young guy, he had a great time covering sporting events ringside for The Canucks, the B.C. Lions or the Molson Indie car races. But fishing has been his game for many years now. Not surprising really. Jeff was born and raised on the banks of the Fraser River, in Delta. You could call him a river rat, in the river swimming for hours, water-skiing, hanging around the net sheds, fascinated with the guys setting crab traps, the log salvagers, the old salts of the river. Nearby was the salmon-farming community of Ladner with its fish plants and canneries. His first independent home was a float house on Canoe Pass, the southernmost finger of The Fraser.
Jeff is now committed to Tofino, the place his mother "cherished and loved". His mother, Barbara Smith, was known as Sister Davita when she taught elementary school at Kakawis in the late sixties. Jeff tried living in Tofino in 1990, but found the village too quiet for a youngblood, so he left. "You couldn't even get a bag of chips after 6pm." He fished for herring every year for fifteen years, starting just at the tail end of the real heyday of the herring fishery, which he likens to a gold rush. He describes being so excited he couldn't sleep the night before, all the boats waiting for the announcement to Go!, the rush of the throttles thrown open to start hauling herring for days on end. "You'd work your ass off, but the payoff was great! Now," he laments with a sigh, "everything is quota."
Currently, Jeff fishes for prawns from his 38-foot aluminum boat. Named The B.C. Valour, Jeff plans to re-name it wildside, the name of his company, Wildside Seafoods. Last year, he was away fishing six months, the year before, nine months. As you read this, Jeff and his crew of three are fishing northern waters from Bella Bella to Prince Rupert. Jeff is the only full-time prawn fisherman living in Clayoquot Sound. "Most of the catch is shipped to Japan because BC prawns are so clean, they can be eaten raw. According to Jeff, shrimp and prawns cultivated commercially on some farms in other countries are raised in questionable conditions.
This brings Jeff to the topic of fish aquaculture in general. He says this year will be the first time in ten years that he won't be fishing in Clayoquot Sound. "I'm not catching anything in the proximity of fish farms," he says. "Wild fish fishers are finding the areas around fish farm sites in steady decline, and not regenerating. The further away you go from the farms, the more productive the sea bottom is. Add to this that I've lost $5000 worth of gear--ruined on abandoned fish farm gear left lying on the sea bottom after the farms were abandoned."
The word 'frustration' peppers Jeff's speech a lot. He's frustrated that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (dfo) requires observer coverage on his boat most of the time--management fees he pays for. Why isn't there observer coverage required on fish farms? He's frustrated by the apparent downward impact salmon farming has on wild fisheries. And he's really frustrated by dfo management of wild fisheries by people in Ottawa making arbitrary decisions based on computer models. Why don't they rely more on the local and traditional knowledge of long-time fisherman who can see and interpret actual conditions? He's frustrated because dfo doesn't follow its own mission statement that includes the responsibility to maintain "healthy and productive aquatic ecosystems, (and) ... sustainable fisheries".
"In comparison to Canada," he says, "Alaska seems to value its wild fisheries.
Fisheries there have a different approach, doing all they can to keep people and jobs in small towns. Here, if there's a problem, dfo seems to rush in and shut things down."
Jeff's frustration surfaces from a deep regard for wild places and wild life. He thinks the wild should receive priority over all else, but he suspects it is easier for the bureaucrats to simply regulate "managed" enterprises. The wild ends up playing second fiddle. Jeff's passion makes him outspoken, not politically correct. You might think this would make him edgy, but in fact, Jeff is described as a "sweetheart of a guy".
Jeff has branched out recently, direct marketing his Wildside Foods. The catch is cleaned and iced and delivered four hours out of the water to end user chefs in Victoria and Tofino. He has a provincial vending license to sell to the public from his vehicle, his boat and his house. The business is expanding. During the interview, Jeff fields a phone and provides cooking directions and a couple of recipes to a client.
Sushi, anyone? The fish just jumped out of the water onto Jeff's boat!
Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.