The Sad Story of a Fisheries Brought to Collapse and Beyond

History of Commercial Fisheries

Fisheries drew the first Europeans to what is now Canada, and still sustain large coastal and inland regions. The industry is defined by cycles of “boom and bust”, with fishermen enjoying periods of plentiful harvest and financial gain, only to suffer through periods of hardship and unemployment. Despite these ups and downs, Canadian fisheries and the lifestyle associated with them are intrinsic to certain regional identities, in particular those of British Columbia and Atlantic Canada.

Dory Fishing

Dories from the schooner “Albert J. Lutz” are shown being towed astern prior to being dropped off, 1913 (courtesy Maritime Museum of the Atlantic).


“Bluenose” is the most famous ship in Canadian history, a working schooner and championship racer (courtesy Knickle’s Studio and Gallery).

Dory Fisherman with Catch

Fisherman hauling trawl into the dory. The rubber rings on his hands are for protection (Wilfred L. Eisnor/Knickle’s Studio).

Fisheries drew the first Europeans to what is now Canada, and still sustain large coastal and inland regions. The industry is defined by cycles of “boom and bust”, with fishermen enjoying periods of plentiful harvest and financial gain, only to suffer through periods of hardship and unemployment. Despite these ups and downs, Canadian fisheries and the lifestyle associated with them are intrinsic to certain regional identities, in particular those of British Columbia and Atlantic Canada.

Beginnings: 1500-1763

Europeans, including the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Basques, began fishing off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 16th century. The plentiful, easy-to-catch cod was the most valuable commodity: dried or salted, it could be transported long distances and would keep for several months. Fishermen arrived from Europe in the spring and stayed until early fall. They fished directly from the boats using hooks and lines. Some Europeans, particularly the Basques, also fished for whales, which soon became scarce. By the late 16th century, the English and French were in competition with each other. The fishery encouraged the growth of their empires, because fishing, shipbuilding, shipping, and trading economically reinforced one another. While the economic goal was the same for both, the English and the French had different methods of fishing and organizing the industry.

English Fisheries

At first, the English fishery was concentrated in semi-permanent fishing stations in protected harbours on Newfoundland’s southeast coast. The captain of the first ship to arrive at a harbour became the fishing admiral and governed the station. Fish were caught close to shore from small boats brought from England. The day’s catch was unloaded directly onto a “stage” (wharf), where the fish were cleaned, split, and lightly salted. They were then dried on “flakes” (open tables that allowed maximum circulation of air). This shore-based dry fishery produced a “hard-cure” cod suitable for trade to distant markets, and it became the basis for England’s territorial claims to Newfoundland.

In the 17th century, British fishing vessels began to bring passengers who fished from small boats in Newfoundland (see Bye-boat) and would either return to Britain or choose to settle in the new territory. Some British vessels took aboard fish cured by Newfoundland settlers, also known as planters. Over time, instead of carrying fishermen from Britain to Newfoundland, some ships only brought trade goods, returning to Britain with salt fish. The space required for flakes, combined with the natural distribution of fish would, over time, foster a string of settlements all along the Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, New England fishermen had increased their fishing in Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy. The British presence in these areas increased after about 1750, and spread elsewhere after 1763. Although salmon and other species drew increasing attention in Atlantic areas, cod still dominated. By the late 1700s, the walrus fishery in the Gulf of St Lawrence had practically disappeared under continued pressure from New England vessels.

French Fisheries

French fishermen from widely scattered ports fished not only along the shore but also, more commonly than the English, on the Grand Banks and other banks. They had access to more salt than the English, and most French fishermen processed the catch aboard their ships. This green fishery yielded a shorter-lived product more suited to home use than distant travel, but it allowed the French to get the fish to markets faster than the English, and to return to the banks more than once in a season. After the English dislodged the French from the Avalon Peninsula, Placentia, NL, served as French headquarters until 1713, when, by the Treaty of Utrecht, France gave up its territorial claims to Newfoundland and mainland Nova Scotia. The French fishery then became more dispersed, with fishermen making more use of Cape Breton and other areas. Cape Breton was lost through the fall of New France and the Treaty of Paris in 1763, but French fishermen were still allowed to use Newfoundland’s west and part of its northeast coast (see French Shore).

Innovation and Conflict: 1763-1867

New methods

Parallel with the small-boat fishery, a great schooner fleet developed in the northwest Atlantic, with the initial impetus coming from New England. Schooners (fore-and-aft rigged vessels such as the Bluenose) ranged the coast in search of cod, halibut, haddock, and mackerel. In the mid-1800s, schooners broadened their scope by carrying dories — small fishing boats — to launch fishermen at sea. They further boosted fishing power using longlines. A French innovation, longlines were anchored near the sea floor and had shorter lines and hooks attached to them, multiplying the number of hooks in the water. Fishermen would set out in their dories and bring fish back for splitting and salting on board the schooners.

In addition to longlines, another new fishing method affected the trade primarily for herring and mackerel. For centuries, fishermen had used beach seines, or nets, requiring points of land to help encircle fish. The new purse seine, developed by New England fishermen, operated in open water by surrounding surface-schooling fish with a net hanging down from a line of corks. The fishermen tightened a purse line at the bottom of the net to enclose the fish in what looked like a floating bowl.

Large fleets of schooners, particularly New England ones, fished the offshore banks and the Gulf of St Lawrence. New England, Maritime, and Québec vessels joined with a growing fleet of Newfoundland schooners fishing the Newfoundland and Labrador coast. In Labrador, “Liveyers” (“livers here”) were permanent residents, “floaters” moved along the coast, and “stationers” set up fishing stations where they could cure fish ashore. Beginning in the 1700s, Conception Bay schooners, followed by others, also developed a large seal fishery, which became important in Newfoundland’s growth.

Revolution and War

The American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars increased British dependence on British North American fish and lumber. The mutually reinforcing fishing industry, lumber industry, and trade market brought vigour to the Atlantic economy. Even today the period is considered a golden age, although most fishermen were probably poor. The majority of them operated small shore boats rather than schooners, and many, especially in the southern areas, alternated between the fishing and shipping trades. Southwestern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick‘s Bay of Fundy led British North America’s fishery. The region had a good lumber and trading base, lots of fish, a good mix of species, a long ice-free fishing season, proximity to American and West Indian markets, and nearby alternative employment in the US. In the era of the American Revolution, subsequent conflicts, and the War of 1812, there were arguments over the fishery between New England and British North American fisherman. These were only partly resolved by the Convention of 1818, under which New England fishermen could generally enter British North American waters within three miles from shore only for shelter, repair, and to purchase wood and water. They could, however, fish within three miles of the Îles de la Madeleine, along the southwestern and western shores of Newfoundland, and along the coast of Labrador east of about Natashquan. New England fisherman could also dry fish in the unsettled areas of Labrador and Newfoundland’s southwest coast. Between 1854 and 1866 a reciprocity treaty with the US allowed fishermen from each jurisdiction to fish within the other’s territorial waters and provided some measure of free trade for the general economy. The treaty aided the British North American economy, meaning that the end of the treaty coincided with some economic distress among coastal fishermen.

Confederation to First World War: 1867-1918

At Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the federal government was given authority over the fisheries, and set up the Department of Marine and Fisheries. Following the end of the reciprocity agreement, Canadian authorities confiscated several American vessels. The conflict was addressed in the 1871 Treaty of Washington, which restored free fishing and free trade for fisheries only and, in other provisions, solidified Canada’s status as an independent nation. In 1885, the United States revoked the fishery provisions of the treaty. Canada again boosted its patrol fleet, and the relationship between the two sides was at times adversarial until a preliminary agreement allowed limited American access to Canadian ports for fuel and other purposes, although not for fishing within three miles. On the Pacific, conflicts between Americans and Canadians sealing on the Bering Sea were settled by an international tribunal in 1893 and a subsequent international agreement (see Bering Sea Dispute). In Newfoundland, where foreign fishing vessels bought bait from local fishermen, colonial authorities enacted the Bait Acts in an attempt to control the trade. Through its stubborn and partly successful efforts to govern foreign fishing, Newfoundland won more respect from the United States and Canada, and more independence from Great Britain, (see Bond-Blaine Treaty).

Pre-Confederation legislation in the Province of Canada included a system of restrictive licensing partly designed to protect private ownership of salmon-fishing stands. Reflected in the Fisheries Act of 1868, this power offered the potential to balance fishing efforts with resource abundance. But in the late 19th century, decisions by Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council weakened federal authority in freshwater fisheries relative to provincial authority. One consequence was a relaxation in the award procedures for freshwater fishing licences. In the sea fisheries, federal authorities generally ignored licensing and let people fish freely, except in the BC salmon fishery.

The fisheries service sought conservation through other means. Various royal commissions provided the rationale for regulatory action, usually resulting in restrictions of fishing times and seasons, fish size, and fishing gear (for example, the purse seine was banned for many years from the Atlantic fishery). The Fisheries Act also outlawed putting substances that would be harmful to fish into the water. The licensing, pollution, and other powers of this strong act remain the pillars of Canadian fishery management.

In the half century following Confederation, the fisheries service developed an extensive hatchery program (see Aquaculture). Although fishery authorities claimed excellent results, by the mid-1930s the program’s success was minimal and most hatcheries were closed, especially in BC. A number of them remained on the East Coast, largely to stock rivers for sport fisheries. In 1898 the federal government established the first of several biological and technical research stations under the Biological Board of Canada (later the Fisheries Research Board).

Immediately after Confederation, Maritime leaders tried to take advantage of new continental opportunities in railways and manufacturing, and made little effort to promote the self-reinforcing lumbering-fishing-exporting marine economy. As related industries declined, by the First World War only fishing remained a major employer. More than a thousand scattered communities depended on the fishery and often found it difficult to make a decent living. Meanwhile, the growing urban, industrial, and continental economy was changing coastal ways. Steel vessels with greater reliability, safety, and size began to displace wooden trading vessels. In Newfoundland’s seal fishery, steamers started to replace sail ships in the 1860s, leading to unemployment. Improved canning technology created the Bay of Fundy sardine industry, and a huge expansion of the lobster industry, with hundreds of small plants. By the First World War, trawlers — powerful motor vessels towing large conical nets along the bottom — were becoming significant in the groundfish fishery (groundfish are literally those fish that dwell near the ocean floor, such as cod). Federal authorities made these trawlers fish at least twelve nautical miles offshore.

Elsewhere in Canada, Ontario fisheries in the 19th century had fresh-fish markets nearby and depended less on salting and canning. Persistent fishing trends in the Great Lakes led to the depletion of desirable species, which allowed less valuable ones to take over. As well, environmental changes resulting from increased population caused the disappearance of Atlantic salmon from Lake Ontario. In the Prairies, the early lake fishery was dominated by companies that rented small boats to fishermen, who were often Aboriginal. A strong winter fishery, in which nets were set below the ice, developed as well.

On the Pacific coast, salted and dried fish were used by Aboriginal people,, fur traders, and miners. From about 1870 on, entrepreneurs built many salmon canneries. Canning technology and settlement patterns gave the BC industry a more concentrated character than that of the Atlantic. Even in isolated places, the industry depended on bringing together many plant workers and many boats to take advantage of the seasonal migrations of Pacific salmon. Railways provided transport to larger markets for salmon and for the halibut fishery, which in its early years used schooners and then steamers. The First World War interrupted fish supplies to Europe, bringing a huge boom to Canada’s fishery. As prices and incomes rose, diesel engines became common on larger vessels in the 1920s. The federal government abandoned the national system, established before the war, of transport subsidies for fish. It seemed the fishery could do well on its own.


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