(Newport (Chandler), Gaspésie) Camille Gagné is the first woman in the Gaspésie to have obtained a snow crab fishing licence. At the beginning of the season, the captain of Cap Barré took us on board for an outing in Chaleur Bay with his two deckhands and three students from the Micmac reserve of Gesgapegiag.
“Are we completely detached? Me, I’m ready. If you’re ready, let’s go! »
It’s 5 a.m. From the wharf of Newport, in the city of Chandler, the pink glimmers of dawn appear on the horizon. “Have a good trip,” Camille Gagné told the Cap Barré crew. We’re going to put the stabilizers on for your comfort. »
In other words, we will try to limit the effects of seasickness.
The water in Chaleur Bay is still less rough than the one where Camille Gagné usually fishes, between Mont-Louis and Cap-Gaspé.
If Camille is fishing this year in area 12 before going to “her” area 12A, it is because of the reduction in her quota and because the Cap Barré is acting as a school boat this year with three youngsters from 17 years old from the Micmac native reserve of Gesgapegiag. “I’m doing an adult school project on the reserve,” she explains. The idea is to give young people structure and get them interested in a career. Basically, I drill them fishing. »
You have to be strong. Camille Gagné picks up her “little ones,” as she affectionately calls them, from Gesgapegiag before 3 a.m. Nearly 150 kilometers separate Carleton-sur-Mer – where she lives – from Newport. He sometimes comes home at 10:00 p.m. and leaves at 2:00 a.m.
Today is Thursday, April 13. This is the third day at sea, but the second day of fishing, since the first was used to place the 35 buoys of Cap Barré.
After three mornings of getting up in the middle of the night, Jason Jerome, Tyson Condo and Sullivan Hinson are still there. “It means a lot to us,” says Sullivan, who says he is experiencing – by far – the most grueling physical ordeal of his life.
Nothing to help nausea on board: fishermen have to prepare the “bouette”, the mixture of mackerel and herring packed in nets which is used as bait in the cages.
Camille consults the winds and the probability of gusts. It will be a beautiful day. “It’ll just brew a little bit.” Whether it’s wet, hail or snow, that’s not what I’m looking at. It’s really just the wind that matters to me. I can’t fish above 15 knots with the youngsters, she points out. They must learn to move their feet properly. The danger is that the rope will pull you into the water. »
“Did you get me a coffee, honey?”
“Yes, my Min,” Camille replies.
Min is the diminutive of Minou, the nickname Camille Gagné gives to her faithful deckhand, Michaël Dunn-Denis.
For the first time this year, Camille can also count on the help of her “true” lover, Francis Dupuis, who usually fishes for shrimp. He is proud of his girlfriend, whom he met on the Rivière-au-Renard wharf after a day’s work. “She’s good and I’m not just saying that because I’m her boyfriend. She really has it in her. But I never thought one day to work for my girlfriend. Usually, I’m the captain! “, he jokes.
Camille and Michaël studied together at the School of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Quebec (EPAQ). They are like brother and sister. “Camille is listening to me,” Michael said. I have been with several captains and I was not allowed to say a word and do nothing. I operate behind and she has a clear conscience. »
“The crew is like a family,” Camille will tell us as the sun rises over Chaleur Bay. The bond is strong. We spend a lot of time together and each other’s life is in the hands of the others. »
“I’ll beat you up,” Camille says to Fred and Francis.
But a thread is broken, so much so that we will have to fall back on the only CD on the boat, which brings together good old Creedence Clearwater Revival hits.
As the thundering chords of Travelin’ Band echo from the cabin and Camille shouts “we’re on” as we approach the first buoy, emotion grabs us by the throat: how lucky are we to be able to experience a day of crabbing!
Camille Gagné is the daughter of farmers, who still operate the H.L.G. beef farm in New Richmond. His grandparents come from the Gaspé, but his mother was born on the North Shore, in Gagnon, a town that was deserted and even demolished in 1985. “My grandfather worked in the mines. »
“I also have Filipino roots,” adds Camille, which explains her gleaming black hair and typical Pacific Islander features. “When I was young, my mother went to work in the West and there she met my biological father who had immigrated to Canada from the Philippines. When she returned to the Gaspé, she met my adoptive father, Henri-Louis Gagné. He taught me everything. Mechanics, maintenance… above all, he taught me to work hard. But if I fish, it is because of the father of my children. He passed on his knowledge to me. »
For years, this mother of a 16-year-old boy and a nearly 10-year-old girl was co-owner of the Poissonnerie de la Gare in Carleton-sur-Mer, in addition to operating a processing plant and a restaurant. “My weeks were bumped up,” says the one who felt like she was missing out on something.
At the start of the pandemic, Camille was returning from a two-week vacation in Hawaii. For once in her life, she had time to think. “I told the father of my children that it hurt me not to know what I wanted to do with my life. He said to me, “You always liked that, fishing.” »
Camille has realized the obvious: she feels so good on a boat. Why not have his? “I called the fisherman accreditation office and asked them if I had enough sea time.”
At the end of 2020, Camille heard of a snow crab quota for sale with a 44-foot boat, and not just any boat…
When the transfer process began with Transport Canada three months later, Camille learned that the tonnage of the boat required a patent… which she did not have. On January 3, 2021, she was therefore on the benches of the School of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Quebec (EPAQ), in Grande-Rivière, a two-hour drive from her home. “I went back and forth for six months with a waiver to be able to fish. »
All this time, Camille was unaware that she was a pioneer. “When I told a friend who thinks I still have plans that don’t make sense that I bought a quota of crabs, he said, ‘Are there a lot of girls fishing for it?” »
After checking, the answer was no. She was about to become the first captain-owner-operator of a snow crab fishing license in the Gaspé.
Recently, another woman from Gaspésie bears this title, Mélanie Langlois, while a handful of women from the North Shore and the Magdalen Islands have crab fishing quotas without necessarily being captains. of their boat.
Number of crab fishing license holders in Quebec
Amount obtained by anglers by the pound so far in 2023 (compared to almost $7 last year)
The day before our fishing day aboard Cap Barre, we witnessed an unloading at the Newport wharf. In a mischievous tone, a man told Camille that she could call him at any time of the day, but also… at night.
The next day, the main interested party did not even remember this comment.
“You have to be tough to be a fishing girl,” she said. You have to establish your base to be respected. It’s not a soft spot. »
If this decreases over time, there can be great rivalry between fishermen and it even happens that cages are emptied unexpectedly. Not to mention all the rules of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to respect or the possibility that right whales force the closure of a fishing sector.
But if there is one thing that Camille has been able to forge over the years, it is a solid shell. Because of the tests, she lived some.
When there are only five buoys left to raise and Camille returns to the cabin saying that she “hates it when there are no crabs”, we dare to ask her if she has already met her biological father.
This is where she tells us that she had to get in touch with him (through her aunt on Facebook) in her late twenties because her 11-month-old daughter had cancer. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia caused by genetic mutations in blood stem cells. “When I was asked about my family background, I said I didn’t know everything. »
For nine months, Camille stayed at her daughter’s bedside at the CHU de Québec. ” It was dreadful. We discovered that she had cancer the second day of fishing, so we had to decide that dad would support the family and that I would stay in Quebec. »
“It’s a big ordeal that has scrapped our family and couple life. For my son too, it broke something, says Camille, letting a few tears flow. Overnight, he woke up and his mother was gone. He also lived through the fear of losing his sister. That’s a lot for a young boy. »
Today, Coralie is 10 years old. “She’s on fire and she wants to study marine biology. »
As for his brother Tristan, he has the appeal of the sea. “The nicest thing I could say to her is, ‘Drop school and come fishing.’ He loves it and he wants to go to the School of Fisheries. »
The year 2022 has also been difficult. Camille even says that for the second time, she knelt down.
Cap Barre’s engine and transmission had to be changed. The bank dithered over the loan, and then, on the first outing, the engine overheated. Camille started crab fishing two weeks after the season opened.
The coup de grace… Fisheries and Oceans closed the herring and mackerel fisheries (a moratorium still in effect). “No opinion,” says Camille. We were opening in three days and I had put $73,000 into fishing computers the year before. At one point, I said to my boyfriend, “It’s time to let go of me.” »
Being a fisherman and owning a boat requires big investments and causes a lot of uncertainty. From one day to the next, everything could change. “These are the hazards of the job,” says Camille, a philosopher.
Paradox: she now buys mackerel and herring from the United States and Spain for her bait…
This year again, Camille did not have it easy. Especially since the price of crab has dropped almost $7 to $2.25 for anglers compared to last year. “My quota has been cut. Normally, I’m allowed 50,000 pounds of crab, but I’m down to 9,000 pounds. It is profitable with zero and one bar. »
This is why the collaboration with the adult school of the Gesgapegiag reserve was more than welcome. This allows Camille to fish more, but also to pass on her passion to Jason, Tyson and Sullivan. You have to see Jason throw the harpoon and get angry when he doesn’t reach the rope of the buoy and, conversely, repatriate the rope with pride when he has it the first time. For the first time in his life, the 17-year-old knows what he wants to be: a fisherman.
But why has the price of crab in fishmongers dropped by around 40%? It was too expensive last year, so there are surpluses, summarizes Camille.
If the years go by and are not alike, a fisherman must always keep his cool. And at sea, he must keep control of his boat, despite the bad weather. Speaking with Camille, we understand that this metaphor also applies to her experience.
“You’ve had a lifetime,” he is told as Cap Barre returns to Newport harbor.
“I have a rough skin,” she agrees.
And a deep conviction remains. “I feel most at home on the water. »