History of Fishing in Canada

Early Years of Fishing in Canada

Thousands of years ago, First Nations and Inuit were already fishing with nets, hooks, and longlines as well as spears and traps, to catch species ranging from shrimp to whales. Native people gained deep knowledge of fish growth and migrations.

From the early 1500s, European vessels fished northwest Atlantic waters using hooks and lines. In Newfoundland, many British vessels dried cod ashore on platforms as “flakes”. In time many fish harvesters settled there, fishing from small boats but larger merchant firms based in Britain dominated.

French vessels often salted down fish on the banks of Newfoundland, without short drying. They also fished the Maritime and Québec waters of “New France”. And in New England, ice-free waters allowed a year-round fishery that aided colonial growth.

The British took over mainland Nova Scotia in 1713 and the rest of New France in 1763. Over the following decades, more settlers poured into British North America. In the Maritime Provinces they fished mostly for cod and other groundfish including halibut, haddock, and Pollock.

In Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy, many enterprises of mixed size and strength worked the coastal waters and offshore banks. German settlers at Lunenburg developed a particularly strong fishery, often backing each other through joint-stock companies.

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, most Acadian and Québec fish harvesters fell for many decades under the domination of British-controlled merchant firms, such as the powerful Robin interests.

In the 1800s, many vessels switched to longlines that could use hundreds of hooks on groundlines set on the bottom. On offshore banks, New England-style schooner carried dories that were launched to tend the longlines. But almost everywhere along the coast, small or medium-sized boats far outnumbered the larger vessels.

Newfoundland by the 1800s was pursuing a major seal fishery, with steam vessel in use from the 1860s. Salt cod still provided the most revenues, and large merchant firms still dominated. Gradually Newfoundland ownership took over, and more small and medium sized enterprises appeared.

The Newfoundland fleet grew by the 1870s to about 18,000 small boats and 1,200 larger vessels. By the end of the century the cod trap, a cork-and-twine structure, was catching a large share of inshore fish.

The Maritimes built up their own large fleet, and ship-building, lumbering, and trading reinforced the coastal economy. After mid-century hundreds of lobster canneries sprang up, some very small. Herring weirs adapted from First Nation methods spread in the Bay of Fundy, where an important sardine-canning industry joined the trade in salted and smoked herring and in mackerel.

The end of the century saw the beginnings of a scallop fishery and a growing trade in fresh fish. For cod and other groundfish, steam-powered tralwers (or “draggers”) were becoming more common, towing conical nets along the sea floor.

By the early 1900s, in both Canada and Newfoundland, engines were bringing more mobility to independent fish harvesters using small or medium-sized boats. As fishing increased, some river, estuarial, and near-shore stocks got scarcer. Meanwhile, the Atlantic economy linked to fishing, ship-building, and trading began lagging behind the growing continental economy.

After Canada’s Confederation in 1867, early regulations enforced by Fishery Officers aimed mostly to protect salmon and inshore fisheries, where problems were most visible. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Royal Commissions set rules on gear types, size limits, and seasons for dozens of fisheries, a major one being lobster.

As settlement spread west, gillnetting became a popular fishing technique on the Great Lakes and prairie lakes. In the late 19th and early 20th century, British Columbia saw great fishery growth. Although First Nations and immigrating Japanese included expert fish harvesters, whites dominated. They influenced fishery regulations that would favour them for decades to come.

Above the important halibut and herring trades towered the Pacific salmon fishery. Dozens of industrial-scale canneries processed salmon taken by gillnetters, trollers, and seiners. Pacific fish harvesters established themselves not only in small settlements but also in centres such as Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, and Prince Rupert. They formed organizations more quickly than on the Atlantic, to influence prices or regulations.

Individual fish harvesters always varied greatly in their fortunes. But in general, fishery earnings in eastern Canada lagged behind those in British Columbia, and incomes in Newfoundland trailed those in the Maritimes.

Fisheries through the World Wars

In Newfoundland, though the First World War brought better prices, hard circumstances were common. William Coaker founded the renowned Fishermen’s Protective Union and became a cabinet minister in the government. But his attempts to reform salt-cod marketing ran afoul of merchant firms, and ultimately failed. Newfoundland sank early in to the Great Depression and by 1934 lost self-governing status.

In the early 20th century, sizeable companies in Nova Scotia were building up a fleet of large trawlers. Many independent fish harvesters blamed these larger vessels for the 1920s price drop in saltfish that ricocheted into other fisheries. A federal inquiry brought a virtual ban on trawlers in the 1930s.

But the Second World War brought another boom. Post-war, an evolving mentality took hold, particularly on the Atlantic.

Boat building subsidies and loans helped strengthen fleets. Radar, radio, sonar, nylon lines and nets, bigger hulls, better engines, hydraulics, and the growth of large trawlers and smaller draggers multiplied fishing power. Exploratory fishing found productive new areas.

Atlantic shrimp, scallops, crab and eventually offshore clams became more important. But the chief Atlantic growth took place in groundfish, the most widespread and highest-employing fishery. Frozen blocks and fillets, typically sold for further processing in the United States, became the leading product.

Independent Fish Harvesters Under Pressure (1960s - 2000)

By the 1960s and 1970s, large-trawler companies in the Maritimes and Newfoundland expanded to operate dozens of substantial plants, the larger ones each employed hundreds of people. In the groundfish fishery, the hundred trawlers (boats over 100 feet long) and draggers could match the catch of the many thousands of smaller crafts, which often fished other species as well. The large-trawler companies also held strong influence over many of the hundreds of smaller plants dotted around the coast.

The Fisheries Council of Canada (FCC) represented fish processors, whose plants came under provincial control but many processors controlled vessels, and the FCC exerted strong influence on the federal fisheries department.

Independent fish harvesters, the great majority of the fleet, lacked any such national organization. The strong local organizations common in British Columbia were scarce on the Atlantic, and fish harvesters there sometimes felt voiceless.

Fishing pressure kept rising: not only Canadian but foreign. Factory freezer trawlers congregating outside the three-mile limit brought on a national outcry for a 200 mile limit. Canada extended fisheries jurisdiction in 1977 and sharply curtailed foreign fishing.

Between 1968 and 1982, federal fisheries management became far more comprehensive. Before, regulations had concentrated mainly on gear, seasons, size limits, and to a degree on quality standards. Under Ministers Jack Davis and Roméo LeBlanc, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans limited the number of licences in almost every fishery. The idea was to help both conservation and average incomes, and dampen the boom-and-bust pattern that often saw attractive fisheries draw too much pressure.

The most powerful British Columbia harvester organization, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, had pushed the government towards the licence-limitation rules that eventually spread across Canada. Despite “limited entry,” the Pacific fleet rose rapidly in fishing power.

A major Salmonid Enhancement Program commencing in the 1970s brought in new hatcheries and other techniques to increase abundance. But new boats built in boom years raised costs and would put more pressure on salmon and other species.

Still, in the 1970s Canada’s coastal fisheries looked progressive, with better boats and closer management. Scientific research and statistical analysis of catches increased. Vessel size limits and fishing zones became common.

So did conservation quotas, especially for groundfish and herring. Quotas often got subdivided by area and fleet, to give fish harvesters a more secure share. By the early 1980s individual boat quotas, followed by individual transferable quotas, were spreading into many fisheries.

Meanwhile, under LeBlanc, scores of fishery advisory committees gave fish harvesters a bigger voice in management. On the Atlantic, his policies prevented larger companies from taking over licences for boats less than 65 feet long.

LeBlanc also encouraged Atlantic fishermen’s organizations. In Newfoundland, the Fishermen Food and Allied Workers led by Richard Cashin became the most powerful organization since Coaker’s time. Other groups such as the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, The P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, and dozens more represented groups of all types and sizes.

The new Atlantic organizations faced new complexities. Costs of boats and licences would keep rising, while markets fluctuated. A groundfish resource and market crisis in the early 1970s brought federal aid.

Despite rising groundfish abundance after the 200-mile limit, a cost-price squeeze in the early 1980s forced several large-trawler companies into near-bankruptcy. Again federal aid helped them survive, in somewhat consolidated form. Federal and industry initiatives brought some improvements in quality and marketing.

Individual transferable quotas (ITQs) held by individuals or companies not only protected fish shares but allowed some consolidation. In various fisheries on both coasts, they seemed to add stability and value. But ITQs could also bring new problems such as “high-grading” and misreporting catches. Meanwhile, electronic fish-finding and other technical improvements put more strain on fishery resources.

Atlantic groundfish stocks that were growing in the early 1980s crashed in the early 1990s, apparently from overfishing and environmental factors. A new round of assistance programs totaling more than $4 billion accompanied fleet-reduction schemes.

Fishing From 2000 To Present

The number of fishing craft on the Atlantic dropped from 29,000 in 1990 to 20,000 in 2000 and 17,200 in 2010. The once-dominant large-trawler companies closed down most of their fleets, and tended to shrink or disappear.

With fewer groundfish around, lobster catches increased remarkably. Crab, shrimp, and scallops helped shellfish to displace groundfish as the dominant industry. Atlantic landed value overall nearly doubled in the 1990s, with fluctuations since.

1990 $956 million
1995 $1.4 billion
2000 $1.77 billion
2005 $1.75 billion
2010 $1.3 billion

Despite the suffering and dislocation of the groundfish decline, the Atlantic fishery in following years – though rarely without troublesome issues – seemed in some ways a better occupation. The lesser numbers of boats and fishermen reduced an unhealthy overdependence on the fishery. Government policies now favoured “core fishers,” those most dedicated to the fishery. Many fish harvester organizations took on new responsibilities in co-research and co-management.

In earlier times, despite the required skills to be a fish harvester it was often considered a poorer-than average occupation. By the early 2000s, fish harvesters tended to enjoy better incomes and more influence on management.

In central Canada, the smaller Great Lakes fishery through the 20th century had gone through major changes in species composition. It too appeared more stable by the early 2000s. Fish harvesters and companies had generally adopted individual quotas, gaining a strong voice in provincially-controlled management.

Marketing had traditionally posed a problem for prairie province fishery, especially for Native and other fishermen on the northern lakes. In 1969, the Freshwater Fish marketing Corporation, a federal crown corporation, provided more stability.

In British Columbia, the strong fleet that boomed in the 1970s saw both crises and good years in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s, a none-too-clear combination of factors including fishing pressure, oceanic changes, and habitat degradation brought a drastic drop in salmon catches. The decline dragged down the overall landed value for Pacific species.

1990 $476 million
1995 $419 million
2000 $369 million
2005 $330 million
2010 $294 million

Government programs and policies, often contentious, reduced the pacific fleet from 5,900 vessels in 1990 to 3,200 in 2004. Most of the major salmon canneries closed. The more dependent communities suffered greatly.

On the Atlantic, the fleet became better suited to the resource. Shellfish became more important and the fishery as a whole became more diversified – less industrial and more entrepreneurial. Pacific fishermen have traditionally shown high levels of organization and engagement in management which continues in their challenging but rewarding occupation.

Overall, Canada’s fishery in the early 2000s seemed to be shaking down into a smaller but potentially more stable sector. Fish harvesters were powering a major modern industry generating well over $3 billion in export value in 2010, and supporting communities across the country.

Though more mechanized and technological than ever before, the fish harvester’s occupation retains its traditional elements of adventure and self-reliance. Independent fish harvesters continue to gain ground in co-research and management.

The Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters, a federation of fish harvesters’ organizations that came together in the 1990s, reflects a higher-than-ever degree of information, organization, and self-management in most parts of the country.