I. The fishing industry
The pull of the northwest Atlantic fishery first brought Europeans to
this continent in large numbers. The salt cod industry provided a basis
for Atlantic settlement. Its methods saw little change for hundreds of
years. Relatively small boats generally fished locally, and dried the
fish near the beach on wooden platforms (flakes). These factors favoured
a string of settlements all along the coast, as still reflected on
Atlantic road maps.
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more fisheries came into
operation, including other groundfish besides cod (groundfish are
white-fleshed species such as haddock, pollock, and flounders which live
near the bottom), herring, salmon, and seals. The lobster fishery underwent
a great development near the end of the nineteenth century.
In its nineteenth-century heyday, the east coast marine economy depended on
several related activities: fishing, lumbering in many places,
shipbuilding, and shipping and trading. The phrases "wood, wind, and
water" and "wooden ships and iron men" reflected a Canadian reality. But
by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the complementary
industries had declined in relative importance, leaving the fishery by
itself to support many settlements.
In the twentieth century, motor-powered boats with greater fishing power
were able to travel longer distances. Especially after the Second World
War, freezing plants for groundfish and some other species eliminated the
need for salting and outdoor drying near the beach. Technology offered the
possibility of more centralized fisheries with fewer people. (This was
especially true for finfish such as groundfish and herring, which schooled
up in large numbers; mobile vessels could track them down and transport
them over long distances.)
Larger fishing centres dominated by groundfish processing companies
developed in ports such as Lunenburg, Canso, Trepassey, and many more.
Working a longer season and delivering product more reliably, they often
claimed a higher efficiency.
But others argued that smaller boats were equally cost-effective. They
also had a social value, though poorly defined. Smaller ports clung to
their fisheries and their existence.
As competing countries moved to modern techniques, Canada's Atlantic
fishermen tended to lag behind in per capita productivity. In the twentieth
century, the average Atlantic fisherman never earned as much as the
average Canadian. The fishing life could be insecure, harsh, and dangerous,
with out-migration common.
But circumstances varied; some did relatively well. And other factors
could compensate, including the pleasures and challenges of working on
the water, and the supportive closeness of small-community life.
Today's industry: people and communities
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans counts about 12,000 Atlantic "core"
fishermen, who head enterprises, have an attachment to and dependence on
the fishery, and hold certain key licences for their area. (Fishermen can
hold more than one licence; total licences for different species and areas
in the Atlantic commercial fishery in 1997 numbered about 45,000.)
Non-core participants bring the total number of fishermen to about 43,000.
Relatively few women fish (and they usually prefer to be called
"fishermen" rather than fishers, fisherwomen, or fisherpersons). Women
are far more numerous in the processing industry.
Incomes vary widely. The 1993 federal Task Force on Employment and Incomes
in the Atlantic Fishery ("Cashin Report") said that "a few do very well,
a few more do moderately well, and some do rather poorly. ... [In 1990]
two-thirds of Atlantic fishermen made less than $20,000, and nearly
one-quarter of them made less than $10,000."
The same report pointed out that some marginal participants used the
fishery as a gateway to Unemployment Insurance, as it was then called.
UI was a major factor in the industry, and it remains so. (In 1990, for
example, self-employed fishermen in Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island
on average reported that they received more money from UI benefits than
from fishing and other employment.)
Low incomes and instability have marked most of the industry's history.
Yet today, in spite of the well-known groundfish crisis, those remaining
in the industry paradoxically seem to be doing about as well as they ever
did, and sometimes better.
More than a thousand coastal communities, from tiny settlements on up,
still depend partly or wholly on the fishery. Many of these communities
are both old and to a degree isolated, especially in Newfoundland and
Labrador. Over the last four decades, roads have reached practically
all ports on the island of Newfoundland, and television is everywhere.
But even today, while people in fishing communities tend to know one
another and their area very deeply, some may by the same token be
fiercely protective against outside interests.
Many Atlantic fishermen lack a high-school diploma (although this pattern
may be changing). Often they started fishing at a young age with their
father, with relatives, or with someone they know from the same area.
While this system can produce expert fishermen, it can also close off
other job options. This reinforces attachment to the fishery, even when
difficult circumstances might otherwise encourage them to find work
Boats and methods
The total fleet has dropped from about 29,000 in 1990 to about 20,300
today. It has a wide variety of types and sizes.
The commonly-used terms "inshore" and "offshore" used to have more validity
in differentiating small "day boats" fishing near the shore, and the
schooners which fished the distant banks for weeks at a time. Today
those terms mask the reality of the fleet. Relatively small boats can
fish well offshore, and large boats may fish within sight of land. Since
the Second World War, a medium-size or "midshore" class of vessel,
typically between 45 and 65 feet in length, has become highly important.
Vessels more than 100 feet in length generally belong to larger corporations
(both shareholder and family-owned), most of which have some involvement
in processing. Vessels of this size generally trawl (that is, tow conical
nets for such species as groundfish and shrimp). Never numerous even
before the groundfish decline, these vessels now number only about 80.
Another 75 or so vessels, between 65 and 100 feet, belong to a mix of
independent fishermen and integrated corporations.
Vessels of 45 to 65 feet, including groundfish draggers (trawlers by another
name), herring seiners (which use floating nets to encircle schools of
fish), and other types, have developed very high fishing power. These
number about 900. Most belong to "independents" (individuals or families),
although corporate control or influence has increased in some areas.
More than 19,000 of the 20,300 boats in the fleet are less than 45 feet in
length; 13,000 of these are below 35 feet. Boats below 35' most often use
passive gear, such as longlines (strings of baited hooks, also called
"trawls"), gillnets, or traps as for lobster. Larger vessels use the whole
range of methods.
Although most methods are old in origin, post-war technology has
transformed them and massively increased their fishing power. Stronger
and bulkier boats, better engines, nylon ropes and nets, and hydraulic
motors all boosted fishing power. Radio put scattered fishermen in touch
with one another and with markets; radar made the coast and other boats
visible through the fog; sonar made fish visible under the water; electronic
navigation showed fishermen precisely where they got the best results,
and how to get back there.
Shellfish now clearly dominate the Atlantic fishery. This represents a
historic shift over the last decade. Groundfish, historically the biggest
catch, went from the highest volume to the lowest, and shellfish from the
lowest volume to the highest. It is unclear if and when the trend will
|Cod and other groundfish (e.g. redfish, flounders, pollock, haddock)
|Herring and other pelagics (e.g. capelin, mackerel, tuna)
|Shellfish (e.g. scallops, lobster, shrimps, crab, clams)
Shellfish are usually worth more per pound than other species. In 1989
they accounted for more than half of landed value; by 1999, for four-fifths
of landed value.
|Cod and other groundfish
|Herring and other pelagics
Despite the calamitous decline of cod stocks and other groundfish in the
1990s, shellfish growth increased the Atlantic coast's overall landed
value. Exports also increased, from $1.5 billion in 1989 to $2.7 billion
Economic and social importance
The fishing industry retains great economic importance, especially in
exports, and remains the foundation of many communities. It is however
less dominant than it was once, in economic, social, and even cultural
The recent increases in landed value masked a decline in jobs related to
groundfish, which had employed many thousands in fishing and processing.
Following the northern cod moratorium of 1992 and groundfish closures in
other areas, some 40,000 persons lost work in boats or plants. From the
late 1980s on, with the onset of the groundfish decline, the federal
government dispensed more than $4 billion in groundfish-related assistance.
For Newfoundland in particular, although the fishery remains important
after the cod collapse, it has lost what used to be almost a cultural
dominance. The combination of the cod moratorium and the growth of other
industries, including offshore oil, has changed the province's economic
landscape and its psychological attachment to the fishery.
Ownership and common property
Although most fishermen are independent operators, corporate sector
companies have always exerted strong influence: by their strength as
buyers and exporters in the marketplace, by the power of large boats
that they often own, by their frequent financial backing of "independents,"
and by their organized representations.
The fishery is the common property of the people of Canada and, until
recent decades, access to most Atlantic fishing activity remained open to
anyone who could afford a vessel. After the advent of strict
"limited-entry" licensing some 30 years ago, both licences and quotas
held by owner-operators took on a monetary value.
Now an owner-operator or someone wanting to become one often faces high
costs for modern vessels and for licences that permit access to the
fishery. The costs sometimes strain the resources of independent
A government regulation says that vessels less than 65 feet in length
shall be operated by the owner. But in some areas, processors have
nevertheless acquired effective control of some midshore operations.
This remains a touchy subject in many communities, where concentration
of ownership conflicts with long traditions of individual or family-owned
Variety, competition, and rivalry
When one counts all the different species, areas, and types of gear, the
Atlantic fishery comprises hundreds of different fisheries. This creates
fierce rivalries, especially over access to the fish. Tuna, mackerel, or
herring, for example, can migrate to many areas during a year; however,
people in each area may think of them as "our fish."
In the groundfish fishery, within a single small community, the longliners,
gillnetters, and draggers may compete fiercely with one another. Those
interests have often however united against "offshore" trawlers owned by
larger corporations, even those based nearby. And all of these disparate
groups together might join forces against the interests of other regions
Conflicts over resource allocations (which represent money) exist in
practically every major fishery. They have on occasion gone all the
way to the Prime Minister for resolution. To people in the fishing fleets
and communities, allocations often seem a matter of survival, decided by
others. Local people experience great frustration and heartache, sometimes
feeling they have no influence over what they see as mysterious decisions
behind closed doors.
Conflicts over competing gear types, licensing, and harvesting allocations
constitute a chief challenge and burden of fishery management. It is the
responsibility of resource managers to find a balance between competing
demands -- and to find an even more fundamental balance between the demands
of fishermen and the ecological needs of the living resource.