“Huh!” MacRae grunted.
It set him thinking. He had a sketchy knowledge of the salmon packer’s monopoly of cannery sites and pursing licenses and waters. He had heard more or less talk among fishermen of agreements in restraint of competition among the canneries. But he had never supposed it to be quite so effective as Manuel Ferrara believed.
Even if it were, a gentleman’s agreement of that sort, being a matter of profit rather than principle, was apt to be broken by any member of the combination who saw a chance to get ahead of the rest.
MacRae took passage for Vancouver the second week in January with a certain plan weaving itself to form in his mind,—a plan which promised action and money and other desirable results if he could carry it through.
With a basic knowledge to start from, any reasonably clever man can digest an enormous amount of information about any given industry in a very brief time. Jack MacRae spent three weeks in Vancouver as a one-man commission, self-appointed, to inquire into the fresh-salmon trade. He talked to men who caught salmon and to men who sold them, both wholesale and retail. He apprised himself of the ins and outs of salmon canning, and of the independent fish collector who owned his own boat, financed himself, and chanced the market much as a farmer plants his seed, trusts to the weather, and makes or loses according to the yield and market,—two matters over which he can have no control.
MacRae learned before long that old Manuel Ferrara was right when he said no man could profitably buy salmon unless he had a cast-iron agreement either with a cannery or a big wholesaler. MacRae soon saw that the wholesaler stood like a wall between the fishermen and those who ate fish. They could make or break a buyer. MacRae was not long running afoul of the rumor that the wholesale fish men controlled the retail price of fresh fish by the simple method of controlling the supply, which they managed by cooeperation instead of competition among themselves. He heard this stated. And more,—that behind the big dealers stood the shadowy figure of the canning colossus. This was told him casually by fishermen. Fish buyers repeated it, sometimes with a touch of indignation. That was one of their wails,—the fish combine. It was air-tight, they said. The packers had a strangle hold on the fishing waters, and the big local fish houses had the same unrelenting grip on the market.
Therefore the ultimate consumer—whose exploitation was the prize plum of commercial success—paid thirty cents per pound for spring salmon that a fisherman chivied about in the tumbling Gulf seas fifty miles up-coast had to take fourteen cents for. As for the salmon packers, the men who pack the good red fish in small round tins which go to all the ends of the earth to feed hungry folk,—well, no one knew their profits. Their pack was all exported. The back yards of Europe are strewn with empty salmon cans bearing a British Columbia label. But they made money enough to be a standing grievance to those unable to get in on this bonanza.