History of Commercial Fisheries | The Canadian Encyclopedia


History of Commercial Fisheries

Fisheries drew the first Europeans to what is now Canada, and still sustain large coastal and inland regions.
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.

Boom and Depression: 1919-39

In the post-war Maritimes, salted groundfish still led the industry but the fresh-fish trade became more important than before. Scallops and swordfish had joined the herring, lobster, and other fisheries. The Great Depression started early in the Atlantic fisheries, sped by technological and trade factors. While Newfoundland and Gulf of St Lawrence fisheries were served largely by old fishing craft from Nova Scotia, European fleets used more reliable trawlers. In the 1920s, after losing some of its market to European suppliers, Newfoundland competed more strongly in the West Indian markets traditionally supplied by the Maritimes. This caused a price decline that forced many fishermen into other fisheries, only to see the price drop again in a ricochet effect. Meanwhile, American enterprises developed the filleting and quick-freezing processes, enabling them to sell packaged fresh or frozen fillets, instead of whole fish, to a wider market.

Increasing economic difficulties brought about a 1927 royal commission, whose findings had two main effects: first, the trawler fleet was reduced to only three or four vessels during the 1930s. This restriction, combined with decreased markets and investment capital, extended an existing technological lag and delayed development for many years. Although the Lunenburg fleet in particular was doing more winter fishing for the fresh-fish market, the trawler "ban" slowed the growth of the fresh, fresh-frozen, and year-round fisheries.

Second, the commission prompted the federal government to help set up fishermen's co-operatives (see Co-Operative Movement), leading to the creation of the United Maritimes Fishermen's Co-operative and the Québec United Fishermen. Meanwhile, in Newfoundland a remarkable fishermen's movement began before the First World War, when William Coaker built the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU) into a powerful industrial and political force. Coaker's attempts to reform fishery marketing failed, and the FPU faded away during the 1930s. Newfoundland exporters remained weak and prone to destructive over competition.

During the Depression, hardship was common in the Maritimes and Québec, and worse in Newfoundland. The "oldest colony," as it was often called, faced financial collapse in the early 1930s, and lost self-rule in 1934. British authorities appointed a Commission of Government, which ran affairs until after the Second World War, and took some steps to regulate the export trade. In the fisheries in the Prairie provinces , overfishing, overcrowding, lack of organization, and weak marketing created an unstable, low-income fishery. Governments tried various schemes of amelioration, including lake and boat quotas and fleet limitations, but without thorough and effective application.

In British Columbia after the First World War, the demand of veterans for employment ended "limited entry" (licence limitation) in the salmon fishery, at least for white people. Restrictions remained for some time on Aboriginal people and Japanese-Canadians; meanwhile, white fisherman gained clear dominance in the fishery. With gillnetting still strong, the purse-seine and troll fisheries grew. The salmon industry, with more than 70 plants at the beginning of the century, began to consolidate in the late 1920s (as it did again in the 1950s and the late 1970s). The 1923 Halibut Treaty between Canada and the US was Canada's first independently signed treaty. Under its auspices, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a pioneering venture in international management, regulated and improved the Pacific halibut fishery, partly through conservation quotas.

The pilchard (California sardine) fishery developed in the late 1920s and suited the purse seine and "reduction" fishery, which reduced fish flesh and bones into fertilizer or fish meal. It boomed in the 1930s but failed in the 1940s when the resource declined. Pacific coast fishermen continued to organize more than Atlantic fishermen, and their organizations had long-lasting influence. One, the Prince Rupert Fishermen's Co-operative Association, took hold in the 1930s and became one of the world's most successful fishermen co-operatives, dominating the northern BC fishery for several decades.

Though continuing to regulate extensively for conservation, federal fisheries management showed little vigour or innovation between the wars. In 1922 the federal government allowed Québec to manage its own fixed-gear fisheries, or that part of the industry using stationary equipment such as traps and longlines anchored to the bottom of the ocean. In 1928, following a court decision, it yielded control of processing plants to the provinces. In 1930 it allowed the Prairie provinces to manage their own fisheries and separated the Department of Fisheries from the Department of Marine.

Later in the 1930s, the fisheries department set up a Salt Fish Board to regulate and subsidize exporters, a move overtaken by the events of the Second World War. The war hiked prices and incomes, and the board vanished into the general wartime system of controls. The fisheries department ended the purse-seine ban in the 1930s, and began to remove restrictions on trawlers, as the war sparked a new emphasis on productivity and development.

The Age of Development: 1945-68

During and after the Second World War, fishing fleets adopted new technology including radios, radars, sonar, nylon nets, and hydraulically powered gear. Increasingly powerful vessels could track down and catch more fish, and transport them over longer distances. Governments encouraged technological and other development. The federal government extended subsidies to help many fishermen build new vessels. It also set up the Fisheries Prices Support Board (1947), and in the 1950s extended unemployment insurance to self-employed fishermen and set up loan and vessel-insurance programs for fishermen.

Governments encouraged the exploitation of new commercial species, including redfish, flounders and other flatfish, crab, shrimp, and offshore scallops. Atlantic provincial loan boards offered advantageous interest rates to fishermen, allowing them to modernize their fleets, and helped support processing-plant expansion. In Newfoundland in the 1950s and 60s, Premier Joey Smallwood sponsored resettlement of small communities into "growth centres" such as Trepassey.

Development of fisheries increased as rising prosperity and refrigeration in homes, stores, and transportation and storage facilities led to increased demand for frozen fish, fundamentally changing the groundfish industry. A number of vertically integrated companies (combining fishing, processing, and marketing activities) operated large processing and freezing plants, each of which could employ hundreds of people in reliable jobs, often year-round. These larger companies built up a fleet of about 150 trawlers, which came to take nearly as much groundfish as the thousands of smaller boats, and dominated production and marketing. The major firms, consolidating to about half a dozen over time, operated large groundfish plants in more than 20 ports such as Lunenburg, Canso, Grand Bank, and Marystown, and also expanded into the lobster, scallop and herring fisheries.

But the development push resulted in crises stemming from overfishing and overcapacity. Overcapacity was the term used when fishermen’s ability to catch fish, using whatever technology was available to them, meant too many fish were being caught from a conservation perspective. In the 1960s, federal and provincial governments further encouraged purse-seining on the Atlantic, despite the example of overfished herring stocks on the Pacific coast, where fishing was banned from 1967 to 1972. Not just the large trawlers but boats in all sectors were multiplying their fishing power. Overexpansion in some areas, as fishermen raced to get the fish before their competitors, began depleting stocks and amplifying the industry's chronic problems of low incomes and instability. Few voices in government warned of the consequences of overfishing until the late 1960s. The International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF) made modest attempts to manage the international fishery, which took chiefly groundfish. ICNAF gathered comprehensive data on fish abundance and location and established mild controls such as mesh-size restrictions. But its goal was maximum sustainable yield (i.e. to harvest the most fish possible without endangering the species’ capacity to regenerate), and it lacked the power of enforcement and the political will to take effective conservation measures.

In BC, federal fisheries officials developed a superb corps of salmon managers after the war who kept stocks fairly stable, despite increasing pressure from the fishing fleet and from the encroachment of an urban-industrial society on fish habitats. The department led public opinion in a struggle that held back potential damage to salmon stocks from hydroelectric dams. BC fishermen's organizations such as the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU) and processor organizations actively influenced fishery management. The UFAWU pushed for licence controls to improve prospects for conservation and incomes; this came about in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, vessel ownership by processors decreased. The BC fleet became more independent and the salmon-canning industry increasingly consolidated. Still concentrated on salmon, herring, and halibut, the BC fishery had fewer resources and a far smaller fleet than did the Atlantic’s. But its fishermen tended to be better educated, and made more money. On both coasts and inland, many part-time fishermen supplemented their income with other work.

Comprehensive Management Begins: 1968-84

In this period, major fisheries on both coasts went through booms and crises, the latter usually stemming from overexpansion in an industry of fluctuating resources and markets. Key measures included limits on the number and size of vessels, and, especially on the Atlantic, use of fishing quotas and zones, encouragement of fishermen's organizations, and the establishment of many industry-government advisory committees. In 1979, the government created the stand-alone Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), responsible for fisheries management and research, oceanography, hydrography, and small craft harbours.

Recognition had spread that open fisheries tended to attract more fishermen and fishing power than they could support. To conserve supply and ensure incomes, licence limitation began in 1967-68 and encompassed all fisheries by the end of the 1970s. People had to acquire a licence, and the number of licenses was limited, though a single fisherman could hold licences for several fisheries. Although licences remained a government privilege and property, fishermen could in effect buy and sell them and there was no direct control on the number of fishermen fishing. Licensing policy restricted foreign ownership and, on the Atlantic, protected independent fishermen by an owner-operator rule and prohibition of corporate takeovers of licences (called the separate fleet rule).

Especially on the Atlantic, the federal fisheries department made increasing use of conservation quotas and fishing zones to limit and divide up the catch. Fishermen's organizations gained new strength, with Newfoundland leading the way. Fishermen and processors now took part in government-chaired advisory committees for every major fishery, and helped divide the quotas between fleet sectors.

While regulatory changes took place, challenges continued. The dwindling and problem-prone saltfish trade gained stability in Newfoundland and on Québec's North Shore after a federal crown corporation, the Canadian Saltfish Trade, took over marketing. In the mid-1970s foreign fishing became a national issue. Canada extended its fishing limits to 200 nautical miles from the coast (about 370 km) on 1 January 1977 (on 31 January 1997 the area became an Exclusive Economic Zone, see Law of the Sea). Canada influenced fishing provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which received international approval in 1982, and came into force in 1994.

As most foreign vessels left the Atlantic zone, federal fisheries authorities increased enforcement and doubled research. Strict quotas allowed groundfish stocks to start rebuilding. Scientists predicted strong growth especially for the northern cod stock off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. The thinking was that holding the fleet stable and increasing the abundance of fish would benefit all. In the late 1970s and early 80s there was growth and relative prosperity in Atlantic fisheries. The federal fisheries department called for caution, while cutting back its industrial development work in fishing and processing. But Atlantic provincial governments, and at times the federal side as well, encouraged expansion.

Fishing power kept increasing. Although limited entry controlled the number and size of boats, the regulations often let vessel owners combine licences onto bigger, frequently subsidized craft. Bulkier vessels became more common, with modern electronics providing greater fish-finding ability. Despite rising catches, cost and market factors in the early 1980s drove the four largest groundfish processors, who controlled the offshore trawler fleet and influenced many other fisheries, close to bankruptcy. In spite of efforts to close or consolidate some large plants, communities successfully fought closures, and almost all the plants stayed in operation for the time being.

Overall, landings in the Atlantic — in other words, the part of the catch brought ashore — dropped largely due to the herring decline after the 1960s boom, but value rose to well above the inflation rate. Groundfish landings had increased significantly after the 200-mile limit was instituted, and were still on the upswing. With the groundfish crisis seemingly resolved and no major problems elsewhere, government and industry again looked forward to clear sailing.

Inland, the fishery in the prairie provinces, which was more prone to problems than the Great Lakes, gained stability in 1969 when the federal government set up the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a crown corporation marketing Prairie and northwest Ontario fish. On the Pacific, licence limitation for salmon began in 1968, and spread to other fisheries. Prosperity sped a move to more costly and powerful boats, made possible by licensing regulations, and the huge Salmonid Enhancement Program — started by the federal and provincial governments in 1977 — promised a doubling of salmon abundance.

During the early 1980s, little change took place, and industry fortunes improved. Despite frequent conflicts among fishing interests and growing rivalry with the Aboriginal and recreational fisheries, the Pacific commercial fishery was again faring well by 1984.

Groping for Stability: 1984- Present

By the mid-1980s, Canada was leading the world in fish exports. Catches and values were setting all-time records. On the Atlantic, scientists expected abundant cod and other groundfish, while fearing possible declines in lobster. Overall, the Atlantic industry seemed to be entering a golden age of prosperity and self-supporting stability. The Pacific, too, was heading toward record salmon catches.


In the 1980s the federal government phased out various development and assistance programs. First on the Atlantic and later on the Pacific, government and industry in many fisheries turned to a new form of quota management, which seemed to promise stability and efficiency. From the 1950s on, fishery experts had bemoaned the common-property nature of the industry, with its tendency towards overexpansion and crisis. Licence limitation didn’t reduce a vessel’s ability to efficiently harvest fish; in fact, ships seemed to be making their catch with increasing effectiveness. From the late 1970s, after a pioneering venture in the Bay of Fundy purse-seine fishery, the idea of individual quotas (IQs) spread widely. IQs offered the potential to end the destructive "race for the fish." Instead of building bigger, more expensive boats to compete for the best share of an overall quota, fishermen could pace their fishing to their own needs and the market's requirements. A greater sense of ownership through these quasi-property rights was expected to encourage fishermen to conserve stocks better. Soon after, individual transferable quotas (ITQs) were developed, which could be bought and sold, letting a smaller number of enterprises consolidate quotas, typically under guidelines preventing excessive concentration.

Quasi-property rights, especially ITQs, caused a continuing dispute, most pronounced in the Atlantic region. Proponents held that if a smaller number of participants could gradually buy up fishing privileges, the industry would become more stable and businesslike. Some also criticized the smaller-boat fishery as a seasonal, less-efficient social operation highly dependent on unemployment insurance, and pushed for an end to the owner-operator and separate-fleet rules restricting corporate operations. Opponents charged that IQs and ITQs amounted to a privatization of the fishery, with the richest parties getting the benefits. They feared that larger interests would gather up licences and quotas and leave whole communities at the mercy of private-company decisions, leading to a subversion of the 1970s policy that aimed to keep smaller boats in the hands of independent operators, bringing a net economic loss while profiting a few. In the opinion of the independent and smaller operators, smaller boats and plants could be just as efficient as the crisis-prone larger companies and could spread the money among more people and communities, imparting a social value. They championed smaller boats fishing various species throughout the season, against the larger, specialized craft often favoured by ITQ advocates.

As time went by, many independents also blamed IQs and ITQs for conservation problems, particularly in the Atlantic trawler fleet operating under "enterprise allocations." They charged that Department of Fisheries and Oceans couldn't enforce so many different quotas, and that IQ or ITQ-holders tended to overfish, dump fish, and misreport, all in order to weed out lower-value fish from their quota. In response, the federal government forced licence-holders in many fisheries to set up privately funded dockside-monitoring systems to inspect catches.

Although they still cause great disagreement, ITQs or other "quasi-property rights" seem destined to remain and perhaps spread. On the Atlantic they prevail in such fisheries as offshore groundfish, some midshore groundfish, Gulf crab, herring, and the offshore fisheries for lobster, clams and northern shrimp. On the Pacific, ITQs or related schemes spread into herring, halibut, and other fisheries, with some proposing them for salmon. ITQ schemes have drawn charges not only of harming fish stocks and benefiting only larger interests, but also of hiking the capital value of licences and quotas beyond the reach of independent fishermen. But in some instances, IQ and ITQ regimes appear to have brought undeniable benefits to both conservation and incomes. Often they have given industry a stronger voice in management of the stocks, although the beneficiaries may be vessel-owning companies rather than independent fishermen. Such arrangements have tended to work best where operators are relatively few in number and have a lot in common. For Canada as a whole, quota licences accounted for more than half of landed value in the late 1990s.

Codfish Moratorium

Atlantic landings reached a record of more than 1.4 million tonnes in 1988, with groundfish well in the lead. The total landed value was over a billion dollars. In Newfoundland, however, inshore fishermen complained that northern cod were getting scarce. By 1989, federal scientists called for a drastic reduction in northern cod catches. Federal cabinet ministers of the day kept quotas higher than recommended. In 1992, 15 years after the introduction of the 200-mile zone, Fisheries and Oceans Minister John Crosbie imposed a moratorium on the now-decimated northern cod fishery. Closures followed for other major stocks of cod, haddock, and other groundfish. Total groundfish catches sank from 734,000 tonnes in 1988 to 96,000 tonnes in 1995, and the total value dropped from $373 to $102 million. Some 40,000 persons, mostly plant employees, lost work in the Atlantic provinces and Québec. Richard Cashin, leader of the Newfoundland-based Fishermen Food and Allied Workers Union, called it "a famine of Biblical scale - a great destruction." Though some groundfish stocks reopened at lower levels in the 1990s, the fishery continues to be troubled.

Environmental changes, foreign fishing at the edge of the 200-mile zone (which only Canadian fishermen can fish within), and predation by growing herds of harp seals may all have had an impact on groundfish stocks, but no one has weighed the factors definitively. Many observers blamed Canadian overfishing and a management system that, though sound on paper, in hindsight had grave weaknesses, and not only in groundfish. In the young and difficult science of population dynamics, scientists had apparently overestimated both fish stocks and their own expertise. In the early 1980s, they predicted grave problems for Atlantic lobster and huge increases of groundfish. A decade later, lobster catches had more than doubled and groundfish had collapsed. Fishing power kept growing, especially for finfish. Despite limits on the length and number of boats, fishermen got broader, deeper, better ones, with improved electronics. Never easy, enforcement became more complex with the spread of hundreds of group and individual quotas. Fishermen evading quotas skewed catch statistics and weakened scientific stock assessments. Provinces made little attempt to control the rapid growth of processing capacity, in fact, most encouraged it.

"Limited entry" had controlled only the number of fishing licences. The number of registered fishermen increased from about 35,000 in the mid-1970s to about 60,000 by the 1990s. Many of these were fishermen’s helpers, using the fishery as a gateway to unemployment insurance benefits. Overcrowding, overinvestment, and overdependence continued to limit average incomes. Meanwhile, lack of communication and of shared information caused friction and fragmentation. Inshore fishermen opposed offshore, small opposed large, and different gear types opposed one another. Many fishermen mistrusted DFO science and management, and withheld cooperation on catch reports and other matters. Fishermen often felt powerless, seeing government as the enemy, and resisting attempts at regulation or co-ordination. Government rarely made systematic attempts to collect fishermen's knowledge.

The two largest, "restructured" groundfish companies, National Sea and Fishery Products International, survived the 1990s closures, but divested themselves of most of their large trawlers and many plants. They depended more on independently owned boats, other species and products, and on imported fish for processing and trading. In 1999 National Sea Products changed its name to High Liner Foods Inc. Many smaller groundfish plants closed, particularly in Newfoundland.

Moving Forward

In 1993 DFO set up the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC), bringing together government scientists and officials, industry representatives, and academics. The FRCC makes recommendations on groundfish quotas, which are generally followed by government officials. Foreign fishing, although tightly restricted within the 200-mile zone, drew some blame for depleting stocks at the outskirts of the zone. In 1995, under Minister Brian Tobin, Canada arrested the Spanish trawler Estai outside the 200-mile zone, precipitating an international dispute, but also initiating better behaviour by European fleets. Meanwhile, Canada spearheaded pursuit of the United Nations Fish Agreement, which came into force in 2001, to improve control of fishing outside national zones. Under the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS) and related programs, the federal government provided more than $4 billion in assistance to reduce economic dependence on the fisheries.

Licence reduction programs, other licensing changes, and the misfortunes of the industry further reduced participation. Although Atlantic fishing power remained high, the number of boats and the number of registered fishermen dropped by about one-third by 2000.

While the groundfish industry collapsed, fishing for species in open seas as well as fishing for lobster, crab and shrimp posed no problems during the same period. Shellfish displaced groundfish as the dominant fishery and, although it produced fewer processing jobs, the shellfish boom brought a record-breaking increase in Atlantic landed value, from $954 million in 1990 to $1.8 billion in 2002. In the wake of the groundfish collapse, the federal fisheries department faced budget cuts in the mid-1990s. In a government reorganization, the DFO merged with the Canadian Coast Guard and fish inspection responsibilities moved to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The DFO began to re-emphasize its core mandate of conservation, together with self-supporting viability in the industry. Some industry groups, typically from more homogeneous and better-off fisheries, began to contribute funds for research and enforcement and to run certain aspects of management. Especially in Newfoundland and Québec, federal and provincial governments and industry were moving towards higher professional standards and training of fishermen. Licensing rules seemed to have improved stability, even though high costs for licences, boats, and quotas were in some cases discouraging new independent entrants and fostering more corporate control. Though never calm, the Atlantic fishery at century's end seemed less turbulent than in the recent past.

Aboriginal peoples, who had a well-established fishery in pre-European times, played a small role in Atlantic commercial fisheries. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada's Sparrow decision opened the way for more Aboriginal participation in food, social, and ceremonial fisheries. The DFO put in place a national Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy, to foster Aboriginal participation in research, management, and the commercial fishery. In 1999, a Supreme Court decision — called the Marshall decision — recognized treaty rights in the commercial fishery for 34 bands on the Atlantic. The DFO negotiated agreements with most of these bands, providing access to boats, licences, and quotas. Millions of dollars were paid out to commercial fishermen who voluntarily retired their licences in favour of giving them to Aboriginal people.

British Columbia has traditionally had better-educated, better-organized, and more highly urbanized fishermen. Salmon landings and overall fishery values were high in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even so, BC fishermen felt they were losing influence to the recreational and the small but growing Aboriginal fishery, and were being robbed by America’s failure to fully comply with the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty. The latter issue was addressed by a new agreement in 1999. Meanwhile, salmon landings took a drastic decline in the mid-1990s. Half a century earlier, regulations had let most boats fish nearly every day of the season, but by 1997, controls brought on by the strong fleet and weak stocks kept many boats tied up for 10 or 11 months of the year, with chinook and coho salmon showing serious signs of decline. Besides fishing pressure and habitat loss, oceanic changes affecting survival seemed to be a key cause.

Other BC fisheries such as herring, halibut, other groundfish including sablefish, and shellfish proceeded well enough for the most part. Many were gaining in value, helped in some instances by ITQs. But the salmon fishery had struck not only a resource but a market disaster. Prices plunged as aquaculture poured more supplies into the world market. Though still small compared to leading countries, Canadian aquaculture was growing fast. By 2002, production value reached $639 million, mostly from farmed Atlantic salmon, which even Pacific fish farmers had taken up. BC provided more than half of Canada's aquaculture value.

In BC's wild-salmon fishery, strict conservation policies in the late 1990s including fishing cutbacks and gear modifications helped reduce pressure on chinook, coho, and salmon in general. Starting in 1996, federal programs and industry conditions reduced participation in the BC fishery. The number of licensed fishermen and fishing craft in the industry dropped. Although major corporations remained, some even taking a stronger ownership position in the salmon fleet, the number of large, industrial salmon canneries declined to a handful. The processing and marketing sectors became less industrial and more entrepreneurial.

At century's end, despite discouraging short-term prospects for salmon and herring and some uncertainty in coastal communities, the resilient BC fishery had hopes of continuing as a dynamic industry. The freshwater fisheries also seemed at least halfway stable, with many participants using IQs or ITQs, and with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation still strong on the Prairies.

At the beginning of the new century, co-operation and co-management seemed to be increasing, and incomes were reasonable in many areas. As modern technology strengthened fish-catching skills, other factors loomed larger in fishermen's fates, namely their abilities in business, in representation and in acquiring the right licences. On both coasts, the fishery, despite its complex, contentious, and crisis-filled history, retained a special pull. Even in bad times, many fishermen not only had no way but also no desire to get out of the occupation that had shaped their families, communities and culture. Despite all the troubles, many still find it a satisfying business. Working alone on the water, the fisherman lives with challenges and perceptions largely unknown to the rest of us.

Further Reading

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