“A Lifetime Upon These Waters: An Oral History of Prince Edward County’s Vibrant Commercial Fishery”
by Amy Bodman
In the late 1980s and early 90s, Suzanne Pasternak, a recent newcomer to Prince Edward County’s South Shore, began documenting through photos, videos, interviews, and conversations the stories of her neighbouring fishing families. Most of them fished out of Point Traverse harbour where a seasonal fishing village had been established for over 200 years. Suzanne recognized that she was witnessing a vanishing legacy. Changes to the fishery, the ecology of the lake and the ownership of Point Traverse itself meant that the fishing village’s days and the lifestyle of the fishing families were numbered.
Early Fishing Village, 1920's or 1930's (Photo: Suzanne Pasternak Collection)
With the creation of the South Shore Joint Initiative in 2018, Suzanne enlisted board member Amy Bodman to help complete the task of documenting the commercial fishery stories. Fellow SSJI board member, Dick Bird, who grew up admiring and working with Prince Edward County’s fishing families, joined the project. Dick realized that collecting the stories of the fishing families was urgent as many of the fishermen were now in their twilight years. Amy and Dick joined Suzanne to create an illustrated oral history book of Prince Edward County’s commercial fishery. The planned volume will encompass excerpts from the work Suzanne did in the 80s and 90s as well as many new interviews and photos. An archive of the material will be deposited in the Prince Edward County Archives at the Wellington Library. We hope the book and the archive will be completed in the next year.
Drying Nets, 1989 (Photo: Suzanne Pasternak)
The growing archive includes interviews with 18 different members of fishing families, a boat builder, a representative from the Glenora Fishery Lake Ontario Management Unit, a family-run fish processing operation and stories from people outside of the fishery who deeply admire the fishermen and women they have known. Also, the archive contains hundreds of photographs and other documents, many provided by the fishing families themselves.
Point Traverse Dock, 1989 (Photo: Suzanne Pasternak)
The fishing people we have interviewed are brilliant mariners who, through knowledge passed on for generations, have learned to respond to the unpredictable nature of Lake Ontario. They know the lake inside out and are intimately aware of how it is changing. As small business owners, they are constantly adapting to the demands of regulation, the availability of fish and changes to the marketplace. Many are innovative craftspeople who make, design, adapt and repair much of the equipment they use. Fiercely independent and deeply self-reliant, they are proud of their legacy. They are people who love the Lake because they have lived and depended upon it, observing its changes and all of the life connected to it. They want the fishery, and the abundance of the Lake that allows it, to continue.
Point Traverse dock with fishing tug, 2022 (Photo: Amy Bodman)
Despite enormous pressure and change, a vibrant commercial fishery still exists in Prince Edward County. The stories we have collected show a picture of a way of life - an industry - that was and continues to be a formative part of Prince Edward County’s cultural history.
South Shore Joint Initiative is grateful for Suzanne’s decades of continuing work documenting and communicating in song, video and print this important Prince Edward County cultural history. We are also grateful for the Canada Summer Youth Employment grants that have allowed us to hire our invaluable team member Finn Stanners for two summers. We deeply appreciate project grants from the Municipality of Prince Edward and from Picton Rotary and the generous support of PEC Archives, County Magazine and the numerous individuals who have enthusiastically helped us with this project.
Sorting Shack (Photo: John Rorabeck)
Published in The South Shoreliner #19 l August 2023 e-newsletter.
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