Lifelines: Canada's East Coast Fisheries

Key issues in Atlantic fishery management

by Joseph Gough, M.A.


I. The fishing industry

Historical importance

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 elsewhere.

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.

Catches landed

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 reverse.

Volumes 1989 1999
Cod and other groundfish (e.g. redfish, flounders, pollock, haddock) 685,000
Herring and other pelagics (e.g. capelin, mackerel, tuna) 359,000
Shellfish (e.g. scallops, lobster, shrimps, crab, clams) 228,000

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.

Values 1989 1999
Cod and other groundfish $359 million $188 million
Herring and other pelagics $85 million $74 million
Shellfish $503 million $1.3 billion

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 in 1999.

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 terms.

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 operators.

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 enterprises.

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 or provinces.

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.

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