Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Canadian Fisheries


[This text was written in the 1930's and was published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

Fisheries. Canada's fisheries are extensive and important. The Atlantic coast line from Grand Manan to Labrador is 5,000 miles in length, while the total area of coastal waters, including the bay of Fundy and the gulf of St. Lawrence, is not less than 200,000 square miles. The Pacific coast of Canada measures 7,180 miles in length and is exceptionally well sheltered. When it is remembered that the fishing grounds of the ocean are practically limited to the comparatively shallow inshore waters over the continental shelf, it is realized how large a proportion of the fishing grounds of the north Atlantic and north Pacific Canada possesses. In the matter of freshwater areas Canada stands unequalled in the number and size of the lakes within her borders. She possesses more than half of, the fresh water of the globe.


In the quality of her fisheries Canada also stands preëminent, since due to her northern situation the dominant fish are the salmon, trout, whitefish, cod; halibut, herring, bass and their relatives, which include the finest of the world's food and game fishes. The annual production of the commercial fisheries fluctuates around $50,000,000. In order of importance, the chief commercial fish are the various species of Pacific and Atlantic salmon, cod, halibut, herring, haddock, whitefish, pilchards, sardines, trout, yellow pickerel, smelts and . mackerel. The principal game species are the various bout; salmon and char, bass, maskinonge, pike and yellow pickerel.


Research aimed at the improvement of the fisheries is carried out by the Biological Board of Canada, which operates under the minister of fisheries. These researches are concerned not only with the conservation and improvement of the fisheries, but also with freezing, canning, and curing, and with their utilization in the manufacture of fish meal, oil, glue and other products. These studies are carried out at four stations, two on the Atlantic coast, at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, and two on the Pacific, at Nanaimo and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Some freshwater fisheries research is carried out by. the Biological Board, but the most outstanding studies in this field are carried out by the Fisheries Research Laboratory of the Department of Biology, University of Toronto. For further information the publications of these organizations should be consulted. There is no definitive work on the fishes of Canada or of any of the provinces. The federal government in 1913 published a check list of the fishes of the Dominion of Canada and Newfoundland by A. Halkett.


History of the fisheries.

It was Cabot's voyage of exploration in 1497 that first brought Europeans in touch with the abundant marine life of the Atlantic coast of North America. The coastal plain north-east of New York, which had been submerged to a depth of 1,200 feet, provided in its uplands the series of banks extending from New England to the Grand Bank of Newfoundland and the resistant geological areas of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the mainland. The prolific character of the cod, and its range from Labrador to New England, supported a rapid expansion of the fishing industry from Europe, particularly to meet the demands of Catholic countries with restricted agricultural development and limited supplies of protein foods and of shipping, including the navy, with its demands in long voyages for such compact foodstuffs as dried fish. In the sixteenth century, ships from the widely scattered ports of France prosecuted the fishery over an extended coast line in North America, and probably developed the bank fishery about 1550. The Portuguese, with closer concentration of ports, were concerned more directly with the favourable concentrated fishing area in Newfoundland along the southeast coast. The Spanish fishery began in the last decade of the first half of the century, but succumbed in the face of aggressive English activity, culminating in the Armada and the effect of high costs of production, which followed continued imports of treasure from the New World. Expansion of the English fishery implied cheap supplies of solar salt obtained in tropical areas and the opening of markets. Profitable markets in Spain and Portugal hastened development of the English dried fishery from the concentrated ports of the coast line of the west country to the favourable area of Newfoundland, and in turn to a weakening of the position of the Portuguese and extension of the scattered French fishery to more remote small areas for the prosecution of the dried fishery, as at Canso and Gaspé. Penetration of Europeans to the more distant coast lines, following importation of treasure and the rise in prices, led to a more pronounced development of the French fishery in Canadian waters and of the English fishery in New England after the turn of the century.


A monopoly granted to the Marquis de la Roche on the mainland, with an establishment at Sable island, broke down in the fishing industry, but survived with financial support from interests in the channel ports concerned with the green and dry fisheries and the furtrade in the St. Lawrence gulf and river. The continental character of France and the large number of ports and markets ranging from the channel to Marseilles in the Mediterranean involved reliance on domestic consumption and emphasis on the green fishery, produced largely on the banks. The French fishery extended from the Canadian Labrador to Gaspé, Cape Breton, and the Nova Scotia coast. Advantages in the bank fishery's dependence on domestic consumption, scattered character of sites suited to the dry fishery, attempts to enforce company control, and difficulties of settlement as a result of limitations on agriculture weakened the French fishery and contributed to the withdrawal from Nova Scotia in 1713. New England fishermen, with the advantages of settlement and the development of shipping, lumbering, and agriculture were in a position to send small vessels to the banks off the coast of Nova Scotia to take fish, which were dried on the Nova Scotia shore even in the French régime, and after the treaty of Utrecht developed an important trade at Canso. French attempts to develop an extensive dry fishery in Cape Breton with Louisbourg as a centre failed because of the necessity of dependence on the agricultural development of the basins of the bay of Fundy and on the English colonies for adequate supplies of foodstuffs. The capture of Louisbourg, chiefly by the aggressiveness of New England from 1745 to 1748, weakened the French in foreign markets for dry fish, and the establishment of Halifax in 1749, the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, and the Seven Years' War led to the downfall of the French régime in the Atlantic maritimes.


Retreat of the French was followed by migration of pre-Loyalists from New England to Nova Scotia, by penetration of New England fishermen to the gulf of St. Lawrence, and by participation in the fishery of Gaspé and Cape Breton of fishermen from the Channel islands of Guernsey and Jersey. The outbreak of the American revolution involved serious disturbance to the fishery and the treaty of Versailles introduced restrictions on the New England fishery. Attempts of British policy to substitute Nova Scotia as a base of supplies of fish and other products to the West Indies for New England were destined to failure, but the fishery continued to expand in Nova Scotia and the gulf of St. Lawrence until disturbed by the outbreak of the War of 1812. The convention of 1818 rigidly narrowed the rights of New England fishermen in the waters of British North America to "the purpose of shelter and of repairing damages, of purchasing wood, and obtaining water, and for no other purpose whatsoever", and established the basis for later negotiations.


The demands for the narrow terms of the convention and for rigid interpretation of its clauses were supported by trading interests, particularly in Halifax, anxious to check smuggling as an inevitable part of the fishery carried on by New England vessels in inshore waters. Enforcement of the regulations in the seizure of vessels within the threemile limit led to numerous conflicts between officials of Nova Scotia and the United States, particularly with the use of purse-seines in the development of the mackerel fishery. These difficulties disappeared with the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 to 1866, by which American schooners were permitted again to fish in Canadian waters. Abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty and imposition of licences brought renewed conflict, which was again eliminated with the Treaty of Washington from 1873 to 1885. The treaty provided `for an arbitration to estimate the advantages obtained by American fishermen in Canadian waters in contrast with those obtained by Canadians in American waters. The arbitration gave the Halifax award of $4,500,000 to Canada, a sum which was invested to support bounties to the extent of $150,000 to the fishery beginning in 1882. With the end of the treaty, modus vivendi licences were issued to American fishermen, allowing them to fish in Canadian waters on payment of annual fees. In 1918 these were superseded by a reciprocal arrangement between Canada and the United States, which lasted until 1921 in so far as the United States was concerned, and to 1923 so far as Canada was concerned. In 1924 modus vivendi privileges were discontinued, but were revived in a modified form in 1933. Exclusion of American vessels from Canadian waters became more effective with increasing efficiency in enforcement of the treaty, with the spread of settlement particularly along the Labrador shore, and with the results of the North Atlantic fisheries arbitration, which ruled that American vessels were not allowed to fish within three miles of a line drawn from headland to headland of bays less than ten miles wide.


Restrictions on American vessels were accompanied by attempts to encourage the Canadian fishery. Bounties were paid throughout the nineteenth century at various intervals and with varying degrees of success. Jurisdiction of the fisheries, partly because of the international character of the industry and of its close relationship with problems of the tariff and smuggling, was given to the Dominion in the British North America Act in 1867. A department of marine and fisheries was established, and in 1884 a department of fisheries. This department was merged with that of the marine in 1892; but in 1927 a fisheries branch was re-established, and in 1930 provision was made for the appointment of a minister of fisheries. Administration has tended to become decentralized, as it was transferred to Ontario in the nineties and to Quebec in 1922. A decision of the Privy Council in 1898, permitting both provinces and Dominion to impose licence duties, was followed by the creation of a provincial department in British Columbia in 1901. A decision in 1928 ( Somerville case) limited rights of the Dominion to fishing operations only, or until the fish were landed.


The character of administration has changed, partly as a result of changes in the technique of the fishery and in the increasing importance of the fresh fish industry, with its reliance on a number of varieties. The West Indies continued as an important market for the dried fish of the Canadian Atlantic after 1818, but abolition of slavery in 1833 had serious effects on the industry. Competition from fish taken by the French with support of a heavy bounty and development of the trawl line fishery on the banks in the forties added further difficulties. The Reciprocity Treaty and the Civil War brought improvement. The fisheries began to spread from Gaspé across the gulf to the Labrador shore, and settlement weakened the position of Nova Scotia schooners accustomed to carrying on the fishery in that region. Consequently Lunenburg vessels began to adopt the technique of trawl-line fishing and to carry on the fishery on the Grand Banks. The first vessel went to the banks in 1873. Production of dried cod increased in Nova Scotia to a peak of 791,044 cwt. in a five-year average from 1884 to 1888. After the peak in 1886, decline followed the increasing importance of the steamship and the disappearance of the wooden sailing-vessels with its .disastrous results to numerous ports, weakening of the market as a result of competition from beet sugar with cane sugar, increase in tariffs, competition from meat products and development of fresh fish industries. Demand for ships during the war and competition from Norway, with the introduction of motor-boats, and from Iceland with the steam trawler in the post-war period, which forced Newfoundland out of the European markets into the Brazil and West Indies market, had serious effects on the position of Lunenburg with its production of heavy salted fish specially suited for the Porto Rico market. Production of dried fish in Nova Scotia declined to 123,885 cwt. in 1931. The number of Lunenburg vessels declined from 149 in 1920 to 26 in 1933.


Increase in urban population, development of the railway and fast transportation, and development of refrigeration led to a rapid expansion of the fresh-fish industry, with emphasis on haddock and halibut to offset the decline of the dried-fish industry, with its emphasis on cod. Mechanization was extended in the increasing use of the trawler, especially after 1911, in the development of refrigeration express service from the Atlantic coast to Montreal and the interior (with government support from 1909 to 1919), and with a shift in demand from frozen to fresh fish. The tendency of the trawler fishery to concentrate on Halifax has been accompanied by protests from out ports and by increasing restrictions on the number of trawlers. The gasoline engine and proximity to the Banks have strengthened the position of points along the Atlantic shore. The number of nations concerned and the highly competitive character of the industry, as prosecuted on the Banks, has made general conservation measures extremely difficult.


The inshore fishery has been particularly dependent on the fresh-fish industry, and has become highly specialized in relation to the geographic background. The herring fishery has developed along the shores of Charlotte county, New Brunswick, and the smelt fishery along the Northumberland shore. Fish that spawn in the rivers have been subject to rapid exploitation, and production has declined. Depletion of the shad fishery is an illustration of the effects of rapid exploitation. Conservation measures have been worked out in great detail in the lobster fishery and the oyster fishery. The salmon fishery is controlled by leases in Quebec and New Brunswick and by licences in Nova Scotia. Expansion of this fishery has been directly dependent on improvement in transportation to the interior, particularly from New Brunswick rivers and from Gaspé and the Canadian Labrador. The high-quality dried cod produced by established firms of Channel Island origin, especially at Percé and Paspebiac, has continued to hold the Naples and Brazil markets, although these firms have tended to withdraw from the north shore as a result of competition, following improved steamship navigation.


Mechanization, with its demands for refrigeration facilities, trawlers, and plant for the utilization of by-products, has involved demands for large-scale capital organization. Fluctuations in prices as a result of changes in technique, in economic conditions, and in markets, have contributed to serious difficulties for the fishermen and to demands for governmental assistance and for extension of co-operation, particularly through the efforts of the St. Francis Xavier University. In 1930 subsidized fast vessels improved the position of fishermen in eastern Nova Scotia. Improved methods of grading, of handling; and of marketing the product have been the object of extensive interest on the part of the governments concerned.


The problem of conservation with more limited supplies and greater ease of exploitation was more acute in the interior: The fisheries of the lakes and rivers of continental Canada, particularly the lakes extending along the edge of the Precambrian formation from the Great lakes to Bear lake and in the Precambrian formation, were exploited by the Indians, and in turn by Europeans in support of extension of the fur-trade and later of settlement. The fishery of the St. Lawrence provided an important supply of food for settlement. Salmon in lake Ontario were rapidly exhausted with increase in population: White fish on the upper lakes, particularly at Sault Ste. Marie, and in smaller lakes in northern Ontario and northern Manitoba, were exploited during the period of the fur-trade, and later of settlement, and decline in production followed. Railways extending to the north contributed to depletion and to problems of conservation. Sturgeon rapidly disappeared. Supplies of whitefish in James bay, of Arctic trout along the coast of the Arctic regions, and of the inconnu in the Mackenzie, support fur-trading posts through providing food -for men and (more important) for dogs.


On the Pacific coast drainage-basin, salmon occupied an important place in the support of trading posts established near the headwaters of the rivers and lames near the mouths of the important rivers and along the coasts. Indian culture was profoundly influenced by the Pacific salmon, and the fur-trade expanded in areas suited to the capture of large quantities of fish. The Hudson's Bay Company began to export salted salmon to the Hawaiian islands after the establishment of Fort Langley on the Eraser river in 1827. After the decline of the gold rush, many persons attempted to develop various industries in British Columbia, and became engaged in the salmon fishery. The first canning of salmon was apparently carried out by Captain Edward Stamp at Alberni in 1860, but it was not until the technique of production had been elaborated and markets provided that the industry was in a position to expand. Drift nets were introduced about 1864, and canning was added to the salt fishery in the seventies. Individuals such as Hapgood in the United States and Ewen and Loggie in Canada, with experience acquired in the lobster-canning industry of the Atlantic coast, made important contributions. Completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway widened the market for the finished product, and provided larger quantities of lower-cost raw materials; but problems of capital forced large numbers of plants into bankruptcy prior to 1890. A rapid increase from 29 in 1890 to 72 in 1901 brought further difficulties and led to the formation of the British Columbia Packers Association in 1902, which acquired 41 canneries and closed 19.


Mechanization became increasingly important with the turn of the century. The gill net was improved with the substitution of hand-laid sturgeon twine for linen twine, as a result of the suggestion of G. Robertson, a fisherman from Labrador, about 1900, and with the introduction of gasoline engines. Large power-boats and purse-seines were followed by rapid increase in production and by more efficient technique in manufacture. The iron chink invented by E. A. Smith in 1901 was introduced into British Columbia plants in 1906, each machine displacing possi bly 20 men. Disappearance of double cooking after 1898, introduction of the rotary cutter, and improvements in the manufacture and handling of cans, facilitated expansion of the industry. Traps were prohibited in the regulations of 1889, but a limited number were permitted off Vancouver island in 1904. In 1892 licences were restricted to British subjects, and fishermen coming from the Columbia or the Fraser river were excluded.


The sockeye, as the highest quality and most uniform size of fish, spawns in the tributaries of lakes in the interior; the fry remain in fresh water at least a year and go out to sea to return in the fourth or fifth year to the same stream to spawn and to die. Cohoes , pinks, chums, and spring salmon spawn in running streams. In 1902, 85 per cent. of the catch was made up of sockeye, but with the outbreak of the Japanese-Russian war the lower-quality species of pinks and chums increased in importance. The problem of conservation became acute following a slide on the Fraser river as a result of construction work on the Canadian Northern Railway and the inability of large numbers of salmon to reach the spawning ground in 1913, a year of the "big run" (the year after leap year). The war and post-war period increased the demand for lower-quality varieties, and by 1933 the percentage of sockeye declined to 20.4 per cent., whereas chums had increased to 23 per cent. and pinks to 42 per cent. Attempts of the Dominion to control canneries, by requiring licences in an Act passed in 1908, were declared ultra vires. The province introduced legislation in 1910 limiting the number of boats in each area. In 1930 the provincial government granted five-year leases to canneries and compelled enforcement of conditions of operation The problem of restricting American fishermen in taking fish going to the Fraser river has proved insuperable, and treaties have been invariably defeated by the Senate In 1935. however, traps were forbidden in American waters leading to the Fraser. Competition from the salmon fishery of Siberia and Japan since the war has increased the burden of conservation on Canadian industry, and as a partial relief Canadians were allowed to use purse-seines in 1932. Scientific research has been actively prosecuted in the interests of conservation and hatcheries have , been established on an important scale.


Pressure toward the formation of large organizations of canneries has been persistent, and the tendency toward amalgamation has been pronounced. Peak-load costs incidental to short seasons, long-run fluctuations, and attempts to reduce the number of Orientals engaged in the industry (Japanese in fishing and Chinese in canning) and to improve labour conditions, have tended to raise costs. The independent fishermen in the vicinity of the Fraser river and the gulf of Georgia have been able to dispose of their product more advantageously than the majority in other regions, who are forced to rely on the canneries for advances of credit and equipment. In addition to utilization by canning, salmon are sold as fresh or frozen (cohoe and spring), or as mild cured and kippered (spring), or as dry salted (chum) for the Japanese market.


Refrigeration has been more important in the development of other types of fishery, notably halibut. Two chief zones, banks from cape Scott to cape Spencer, and banks between Middleton island and Shumagin islands off the Alaskan coast, have been exploited following completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to Prince Rupert in 1913, the building of cold-storage plants along the Pacific coast, and the use of the Diesel engine, especially after 1923. Depletion of the banks led to the creation of an International Fisheries Commission under the Halibut Treaty of 1923 between Canada and the United States, and to the introduction of conservation measures.


In 1917 large numbers of pilchards were discovered off Vancouver island, and a canning industry emerged. But it was not until an order-in-council of March, 1924, permitted use of pilchards for reduction purposes that the industry began to expand to its present size. In 1928-33 reduction plants were in operation, producing 3,997,656 gallons of oil and 14,502 tons of meal. In 1930 over three million dollars were invested in the industry, and 700 fishermen were employed. A herring fishery has been developed to an important scale in Barkley sound.


The significance of the fishery in the recent economic development of Canada has been enhanced with development of the tourist trade. Road construction to less accessible areas has been responsible for rapid depletion, for increasing attention to problems of conservation, and for the introduction of extensive regulations on the part of departments concerned with fisheries.


In contrast with the fur-trade and its emphasis on continental development and centralization, the fishing industry was essentially a maritime development with emphasis on decentralization. Fish were taken over a wide area by relatively small units of capital equipment (the fishing vessel) through the efforts of individuals employed on a profit-sharing basis. It was essentially an industry based on relatively inexhaustible supplies and European labour in contrast with a trade based on exhausting supplies and an Indian population. Whereas the fur-trade tended toward monopoly and centralization, the fishing industry stressed individual initiative and decentralization. Monopolies flourished in the fur-trade on the continent and persistently disappeared in the fishery in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England. The fishery and the individualism which it fostered stressed development of trade and shipping, and served as a spearhead to break the control of European monopoly in North America. New England influence flourished in Nova Scotia and with its contributions to the solution of the problem of responsible government checked the tendency of the second Empire to follow the path of the first. The influence of the Maritimes in the development of continental Canada following Confederation was evident in the insistence on lower tariffs of finance ministers chosen as a guarantee of protection for the Maritimes. The movement toward independent status gained momentum under a Maritime prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, and in relation to extraterritorial matters primarily concerned with the fishery, as in the Halibut Treaty, the first to be signed between Canada and another Power without the intervention of Great Britain. The increasing .importance of machine industry in the fishery has been, evident in a tendency toward centralization, particularly in British Columbia ; but the tradition of freedom in the industry survives in the Atlantic Maritimes, as the effective protests of fishermen and the development of cooperation attest.


See O, W. Freeman, Salmon fishery of the Pacific coast (Economic geography, April, 1935), J. Q. Adams, The Pacific coast halibut fishery (Economic geography, July, 1935), R. F. Grant, The Canadian Atlantic fishery (Toronto, 1934), G.G. Strong, The salmon canning industry in British, Columbia, (University of British Columbia, 1934), Report of the Royal Commission investigating, the fisheries of the Maritime provinces and the Magdalen islands (Ottawa, 1928), C. E Cayley, The North Atlantic fisheries in United States-Canadian relations (Doctoral thesis, University of Chicago, 1931), Annual reports of the departments of the provinces and of the Dominion concerned with fisheries; Report on the marketing of Canadian fish and fish products (Cockfield, Brown and Company), Canadian Fisherman, Pacific Fisherman, W. S. Fox, The literature of salmo solar in lake Ontario and tributary streams (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can. , 130), N. Denys, The description and natural history of the coasts of North America ( Acadia ) (Toronto, 1908), Sea-fisheries of eastern Canada, (Ottawa, 1912), Commission of Conservation reports.

Source  : H. A. INNIS, "Fisheries", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed. The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 341-348. 


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College