It was 1988. Calgary was basking in the afterglow of being an Olympic City and in an attempt to be on the cutting edge of fashion, people wore their acid wash jeans while watching “A Fish Called Wanda” in theatres. And for Fitz Lee, it was the beginning of a new chapter not only in his life but in the fledgling aquaculture industry as well.
“I was working for McMillan Fisheries in Vancouver, designing and building tanks for crabs and lobsters that were sold in restaurants. Then they asked me to get involved with the building of what was then called Big Tree Creek hatchery.” said Fitz recently from his home on Saltspring Island.
Following this successful project, Fitz became interested in the ocean rearing stage of raising fish.
“Don Sinclair and I jumped into a boat at Kesley Bay and hunted down the site. We wanted something that had good flushing and water flow and also some protection from the weather.” he said. McMillan Fisheries was already involved in aquaculture by then and Fitz knew from their experiences on the Sunshine Coast that good currents were key to a successful site.
“I dove the site more than once after it was established and didn’t see evidence of any farming activity. There were no traces of feed.” said Fitz.
Don and Fitz found what they were looking for on West Thurlow Island, near the bottom of Wellbore Channel. Fitz would spend “the best years of my life” on the site he chose to bear his family name.
Approval of the paperwork took roughly a year and a half. They dealt with the provincial lands branch for the lease, Fisheries and Oceans for the aquaculture permit, and the Coast Guard, who gave them the okay to locate in the channel.
When it came time to put fish into the water in May 1988, coho were chosen. “It was a bit of an experiment.”explained Fitz. The first year they had about 200,000 fish. The fish were processed at Brown’s Bay, which McMillan then partially owned.
Fitz’s family, including a one year old and a four year old, lived on-site in a float house that was brought on site from Cortez Island. He also built the crew quarters for the two shifts of four employees he hired.
Not only were the accommodations built by hand but so were the first pens. “The wooden pens were built on the beach as we needed them. We had about 18 of them.” said Fitz.
“I remember the weather got pretty wild during the winter. The winds from Loughborough Inlet stretched the chains anchoring the site taut. Nothing got broken but the pens were moved 60 feet.” recalls Fitz.
Fitz and his family left Lee’s Bay in June 1992. “We were doing okay but not making any money and it was time try something different.” McMillan bought the site back from Fitz and through a series of company merges, it eventually became part of the Marine Harvest family of sites.
By Gina Forsyth