A Tale of Two Fishery Officers

Garnet Blake and Leon Hancock are both fishery officers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

But the most powerful thing they have in common is the love and pride they have for their jobs. They also both believe Labrador, although they live in different parts, is the best place in the world to live.

Blake is from Goose Bay and moved to Nain 12 years ago. He intended to stay for one year, but he never left. He’s been with DFO for 19 years now, drawn by a life outdoors and the freedom that comes with living and working in a remote area.

Garnet Blake

He says the job of fishery officer sort of fell into his lap. He has always been interested in enforcement and in high school he set his sights on becoming a wildlife officer. The year he was getting ready to go to college there was a job advertised for a fishery guardian in The Big Land. He applied and it turned into a nine-year stint with the then Labrador Inuit Association.

Eventually, it led to him completing the Fishery Officer Career Progression Program with DFO and spending seven years as a fishery officer on the island portion of the province prior to moving to Nain.

“It was a time of growth. We were trying to establish the communal fishing license with the Inuit Association at the time so there were a lot of new things happening and there were quite a few training opportunities. It was new and fresh and I was outdoors.”

Blake admits there’s nothing typical about his days and that’s just the way he likes it.

He starts every day on the Nain community wharf. There, he might talk to the mayor, the manager of the fish plant or a community member. He never knows.

“My day starts outdoors before I even come to the office. And that often sets my pace for the day; before I get to the office, what I see and hear is often what steers me for the day.”

Blake’s role is different from a traditional fishery officer in other parts of the province. That’s because the land Blake works on is within the settled land claim area of the Labrador Inuit and is self-governed by the Nunatsiavut Government.

Blake is a beneficiary of the Nunatsiavut Government and the population of Nunatsiavut is 89 per cent Inuit and they can legally harvest fish for food.

The Nunatsiavut Government has its own conservation officers, which makes providing support to these officers one of Blake’s key functions.

“I’m giving them direction, answering questions to make sure they’re doing things correctly and legally. So, although I’m not doing direct enforcement at all times, I do still have an important role. It’s an educational, advisory role.”

It wasn’t just the time outdoors and the time spent on the water, but it was also the people that got him hooked on life in Labrador. The isolation gives him flexibility but also more community involvement like fish habitat work and a lot of interactions with youth.

The Nunatsiavut Government’s Department of Health and Social Development runs a mental health program for troubled youth called Life on the Edge. Blake was approached six or seven years ago and asked to be a part of it. He jumped at the opportunity.

He tells the group of youth about the equipment he carries such as GPS and other safety equipment, and how patrol plans are developed. He also talks to the group about ice safety and winter travel preparedness. They then spend part of their day building a survival shelter.

One day he got a call asking if he was going to be in the Hebron Fjord area, about 100 nautical miles north of Nain. The youth group was running a program there and asked him to bring up two tents that they didn’t have room to carry. Blake went, helped them set up and before he knew it, he was sitting down having a meal with them. On the way back down south, they stopped and had another night together.

Last year he took about a dozen youth and elders out for the day to pick berries.

“My Indigenous engagement here is constant. It doesn’t leave and it’s a good relationship. I get to have a big say in where we go. That’s a pretty neat part of my career.”

The biggest challenges, Blake says, are not work-related but more like unreliable transportation and the high cost of living. He uses an example from last summer when they had a stretch of fog and high winds and were 11 days without an aircraft.

“Not knowing when you’ll get fresh produce can be a challenge. If one of the stores here runs out of milk you move very fast to get to the next one to make sure you can get some before that one runs out,” he laughs.

Blake works alone so sometimes logistics can also be challenging. When planning a patrol, the fuel, food, people and communications are all extremely important especially since many trips take up to eight hours and have no cell phone coverage. He relies on every step of that plan. And with no access to a garage, Blake does all of his own vessel maintenance. He could spend two or three days doing preventative maintenance prior to a trip up north.

His career has taken him from the Flemish Pass to lunch in St. Pierre, to two nights in a tent in the Torngat Mountains National Park. But the joy of outdoor life outweighs all of the challenges.

“It’s a huge part of me. When I’m not working, I’m playing outdoors,” Blake says.

“I know that only Nain can offer the lifestyle that I have up here. DFO’s Indigenous engagement is very high right now and that really suits me. I get to engage with the community on any level I want and it’s supported and encouraged, so I really get to embed myself into places where I feel like I can be of value. Nain offers this to me.”

“When I’m done with my career, I think Nain is going to be embedded in me,” says Blake, whose job has evolved a lot since he started.

“When I started as a fishery guardian, I was setting up communal licenses for the north coast of Labrador and here I am back here 28 years later. There’s lots of times I still stop and think, “I’ve been so fortunate to make a career out of this.”

Leon Hancock

Leon Hancock feels the same way. Outdoor life is the only way of life for him.

From Forteau on the south coast of Labrador, Hancock has only been with DFO for four years, but he worked for eight seasons as a fishery guardian. Now he’s based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“My father would take me hunting when I was young and wild meat was a big part of our diet, especially seabirds. Hunting was also very important to my grandparents. They grew up in a time where game was important to their survival. Fish and game was on the menu most every day.”

Growing up, Hancock spent many hours in a fishing boat with his father; something he really enjoyed. He also spent a lot of time around other harvesters, listening to their stories and learning from a young age how important the fishery was to their community and also how important it was to past generations.

“I was getting started in the fishing industry, my father was an inshore fisherman for over 40 years. My grandfather and great-grandfather were inshore fisherman,” says Hancock, adding that the moratorium ended a tradition for his family. That’s when his father sold back his groundfish license to the federal government and Hancock went to college. “Both of us had to leave the fishery.”

But it got him thinking about his future and since he liked the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, he decided to go to college to study natural resources with the hopes of getting into enforcement. That way, he figured he could play some part in protecting the fish and wildlife resources.

Although Hancock worked as a provincial wildlife officer, he had a strong yearning to get back on the water. He had more interest in the fishery than in wildlife enforcement, so he applied to DFO and “was lucky enough to get hired,” as he puts it.

In Goose Bay, Hancock, like Blake, really enjoys working with Indigenous communities and their conservation officers. Like his family history, he knows how important the fishery is to them. On the Labrador coast, much of the fishery involves Indigenous harvesters, whether fishing for food, social or ceremonial purposes, or commercial operations.

“I get to learn a little bit about their culture and the importance of the different types of fish,” he says.

“I get the chance to learn things I didn’t know before when it comes to Indigenous fisheries.”

Hancock also likes how engaged he gets to be with youth, another thing he has in common with Blake. “We’re always welcome in the schools. The kids are always happy to see us. They ask a lot of questions. We’ve also organized beach clean-ups with the youth.”

He knows how important it is to engage with young people. “In Labrador there are many people who still appreciate and respect our fish and wildlife resources and it is a big part of the culture here especially for Indigenous people,” Hancock notes.

“I feel that it is important to educate young people who are not as involved in the fishery or do not live near the coast. Educating the young, teaching them about endangered species, keeping the oceans clean, the importance of the fishery to our region helps them develop an appreciation for it.”

Other community work includes licensing workshops such as the one on the south coast this past spring with commercial fishers, courses for people looking for a personal use seal license (they’re required to do a course on humane killing methods among other topics) and last fall they held a panel discussion for the public on recreational salmon angling to get feedback on catch and release angling.

Travel is part of Hancock’s job as well. They have a large area to cover so trips are usually 10–12 days at a time. He says the biggest challenge for him is actually the size of Labrador.

With not many staff, they have to travel the coast frequently, especially in the summer, working with Indigenous groups.

June means a 10-day trip to Cartwright during the snow crab fishery, standing on the wharf doing inspections on fishing boats, checking for licenses, measuring samples of crab and making sure all the catch has been offloaded.

And every summer, fishery officers in Goose Bay travel for two weeks on a mid-shore patrol vessel from the south coast to the north coast.

Hancock fondly remembers one patrol on an Aurora military plane. “We left Goose Bay and flew north right up between Baffin Island in Greenland, checking on boats and getting some pictures. I’m used to flying on the King Air, which is really small. This plane was really big. And just to be that far north for the first time. You could see the snow on the mountains in the camera,” he says, adding that the “Torngat Mountains are one of the prettiest places in the province.”

Most days, however, are filled with gear checks, checking licenses and tags and in the spring when the seal hunt is open, a lot of snowmobile patrols.

He doesn’t deal with as many commercial fishers or as many different species as his island counterparts do but that’s just fine with Hancock.

“I enjoy hunting and fishing, the way of life here. I grew up in a northern community, so I just like being north. I like the winters. I like skidooing, I like boating in the summertime. It’s just the way of life here that I enjoy,” Hancock says, adding that he’ll stay in Happy Valley-Goose Bay as long as he can. “Some days I look around and say I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. It’s a great job.”

In addition to Blake and Hancock, DFO has an enforcement presence consisting of more than 200 experienced fishery officers, fishery guardians and Aboriginal fishery guardians throughout the Newfoundland and Labrador Region.

However, they cannot be everywhere all the time. Everyone has a role to play. The Department encourages the public to report any suspicious fishing activity to Crimestoppers at 1-888-222-TIPS (8477) or their local DFO detachment.

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