Fishing Industry in Atlantic Canada Research Paper


Traditionally fisheries were a constituent part of the life of peoples inhabiting Canada. In fact, it is a historical trend which may be traced from the experience of native tribes till the present moment but, it is worthy of note that basically, it is after the arrival of Europeans fisheries in Canada acquires the mass scale. In this respect, it is important to underline that the richest region for fisheries was and still is considered to be North Atlantic, territory which are characterized by rather severe climate, but, nonetheless, extremely rich in different species of fish.

At the same time, it should be said that fisheries in the Atlantic Canada have undergone several stages of their development. Basically they may be defined as follows: the first stage when the native tribes and first Europeans were occupied by fishing; than European influence grew and they eventually colonize the continent and organize their fisheries concessions that significant changes in traditional fisheries; after that the competition between European and colonial fisheries became so serious that it was even possible to speak about the fight for fishing grounds; and, finally, the 20th century, probably one of the most important and controversial periods in the development of fisheries in the Atlantic Canada which actually lasts till the present moment. In such a way, it is possible to estimate that fisheries in the Atlantic Canada developed evolutionary and was characterized by gradual growth from occasional rod fishing to mass fishing which is the characteristic of the today fisheries.

Traditional native fisheries and first Europeans

Speaking about the first stage of the development of fisheries in the Atlantic Canada, it should be pointed out that it was a part of the life of the native population inhabiting Eastern cost of Canada. In fact, fishing was a natural choice for the tribes inhabiting these territories of Canada because it was a source of food which could contribute to the well-being of the local communities in difficult years.

At the same time, the development of fisheries at that epoch was on a rather primitive level. Even compared with the first Europeans that arrived on the shores of Eastern Canada, local tribes were quite backwarded in their fishing methods compared to Europeans, which, though neither were too advanced in this field. Nevertheless, both local tribes and first Europeans that arrived in Canada could not fail to benefit from natural richness of the local oceanic waters.

However, it should be said that at the first stage of the development, namely in the period of the arrival of the Europeans on the continent, i.e. during late 15th-16th centuries, fisheries was on quite a low level of development. In fact, Europeans had really started fishing in Canada after the discovery of Newfoundland. They came to fish for cod on the banks off northeastern North America, where there was abundance of fish.

It is worthy of note that at that epoch there were two dominant types of fisheries. To put it more precisely, they were: the dry fishery on the coast and the green fishery at sea on Newfoundland’s Grand Bank.

Naturally, fishermen of those epochs faced a lot of difficulties since the technologies were quite primitive while natural conditions were quite severe. Consequently, it was very difficult to develop fisheries in the Atlantic Canada at that time. Nonetheless, despite many obstacles, Europeans developed fisheries and fishing techniques, fishing grew more important and European fishermen became really different from the native population since they really started the exploitation of the Atlantic Canada fisheries in order not simply to feed themselves but to earn some profit. Though such trends had appeared a few decades since the first European arrival on the continent and, in actuality, this process accompanied colonization of the continent and marked the beginning of the second stage of the evolution of the Atlantic Canada fisheries.

As for the first period, it should be said that at this stage fishing did not really produce any significant impact on the local nature, especially oceanic fauna, because basically people exploited the potential of the Atlantic Canada simply to feed themselves and survive in the region with quite a severe natural conditions.

Fisheries concessions and colonies

The situation had started two change dramatically when the colonization of the continent acquired larger scale and when European mass arrival brought to the New World new system of socio-economic relations, new culture, traditions, technologies, and, what is more, new set of values which put the profit, wealth and high social status above all.

Unlike the previous stage, this period was characterized by the growing role of Europeans who actually forced native tribes out of their traditional lands and pressed them away from the shores of Eastern Canada and increased fisheries scale. In fact, fisheries was not occasional anymore as it used to be in the past but in that epoch it became a source of income not only for fishermen but for merchants as well.

Basically, at this stage fishing expeditions became significant collective ventures. European coastal fishermen could hardly undertake them alone. This is why they were forced to organize themselves into communities and later concessions. It should be said that expeditions organized for a large scale exploitation of schools of fish on the edge of the new world were financed by rich merchants, and sometimes by several partners capable of outfitting ocean-going vessels. Actually, this was mainly for this type of ventures companies were organized.

Traditionally, the crews of the ships in the Newfoundland fishery consisted of sailors, fishermen, salters, shore workers, apprentices and boys, who labored under the command of a captain, or the orders of a pilot and a few petty officers. Depending on the size of the crew, royal ordinances sometimes required that there be a surgeon and a chaplain on board. The former looked after the bodies, while the latter after the souls. When the ship returned to port, one-fifth of the profits of the expedition was usually given to fishermen.

In such a way it is obvious that during this stage fisheries become quite a serious and rapidly growing industry which involved a large number of people, which were not only directly related to sea-oriented professions, but also merchants, surgeons and many others who did not get use to fishing at all.

In the course of time, as permanent settlements were established along the coast and the colonization of the continent progressed, mainly during 17th-18th centuries, English and French monarchs intervened by granting concessions to aristocratic entrepreneurs and companies, such as the London and Bristol Company. The fishing proprietors were expected to attract settlers to their colonies. One of them, Nicholas Denis was granted a monopoly on trade and resources, including the fishery, in an immense territory that extended beyond the borders of Arcadia.

Naturally, such a situation was not positively perceived by the local population but their dissatisfaction with such official policy had not provoked really strong opposition within Canadian territories though the tension had already started to grow. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs kept hiring fishermen, farm workers, and tradespersons, who became the first European settlers in coastal areas. By claiming the best bays, they challenged the seasonal occupation of beaches for drying cod and the principle of freedom for fish.

As a result, fishing became an important part of the socio-economic life of European colonies in Canada which attracted many Europeans to settle in the region, though the ordinary people of colonies were not admired by the dominance of the oversea appointees and the competition grew that actually created the basis for the further conflicts between states for fishing grounds in the Atlantic Canada.

Fighting for fishing grounds

Naturally, as the colonization of the continent progressed, the competition between countries for fishing grounds grew proportionally to the development of colonies. It should be said that in 17th-18th centuries there were two main states that struggled for the dominance not only Canada but in the Atlantic region at large, they were Great Britain and France. Obviously, fisheries became a part of this opposition which may be characterized as a competitive struggle for the dominance in the region, though the two countries were well known for their historic opposition to one another and they naturally could not just give up in their oversea fight for colonies in Canada at large and fishing grounds in particular.

In fact, from 1672 to 1763, France and Great Britain were at war intermittently, for a total of over45 years, or one year in two. In such a situation both English and French fishermen became victims of these conflicts and often they were caught in turmoil. They had no choice but to set off for the fishery and to confront the enemy at sea. During those troubled times, fishing vessels often traveled in convoys, or at least carried more weapons than usual. The fishermen were older and the boys were younger because they were replacing the men who had gone to war on Royal Navy ships. Many fishermen who were exempt from military service worked on privateers outfitted by private individuals, hoping to make a fortune from the booty taken from the enemy.

In such a way, at this stage when the struggle for fisheries and the permanent conflicts between Great Britain and France naturally made fishing rather problematic, especially compared to the relatively peaceful epoch in the past. At the same time, fishing kept progressing and fisheries kept growing. In this respect, the 19th century was particularly successful since at this period the fight for fisheries was practically over and France practically lost control over the Atlantic Canada fishing industry could progress without regard to political or military conflicts in Europe.

In fact, it is during the 19th century that the basis for the further progress of fishing industry was created and, in actuality, it became a significant, constituent element of the national economy. At the same time, fisheries were characterized by the enlargement and involvement of larger companies into this business.

Fisheries in the 20th century and in present days

However, fisheries became particularly profitable in the 20th century when fishing acquire the mass scale character and became one of the main industries of the national economy of Canada. On the other hand, despite the enlargement of fisheries and growth of fishing, or, to put it more precisely, because of them, the 20th century was characterized as an extremely controversial stage in the evolution of the Atlantic Canada fisheries. Moreover, the consequences of the rapid growth of fisheries and increase of fishing in the region may be observed nowadays and these consequences are quite negative.

In fact, the unparalleled and rapid development of the industry and fisheries resulted in the numerous problems which did not really cause any military conflict, but, nonetheless, undermined the natural richness not only of the region but the whole planet since the similar trends were observed practically worldwide. What happened in the Atlantic Canada probably cannot be named an ecological disaster or catastrophe but, nonetheless, the effects of enlargement of fisheries were extremely serious.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that the 20th century was a logical result of the five centuries of the development of fisheries in the Atlantic Canada by Europeans and European colonists. As a result, over the past five centuries, the fishery resources that communities in the Atlantic Canada have depended on for thousand of years have dwindled rapidly. In some cases, over fishing, which was particularly strong in the 20th century, has caused them to disappear completely, and the competition for scarce resources has created a growing crisis between Native and non-Native fishermen in the Atlantic Canada the roots of which could be observed within previous stages of the evolution of the Atlantic Canada fisheries.

This situation came to a head following the Supreme Court of Canada’s Marshal decision in September 1999, which re-affirmed rights guaranteed in treaties signed between the Crown and the native tribes of Mi’kmaq in 1752 and 1760. These treaties, which recognized aboriginal fishing, hunting and trading rights within traditional Mi’kmaq territories, were re-affirmed on the condition that Native fishermen seek a ‘moderate living’ and do not endanger survival of the fish stock.

In actuality, this sounds quite hypocritically since, to a significant extent, or even only because of the activity of European fishermen and their Canadian descendants the Atlantic Canada fisheries were dramatically exhausted by the end of the 20th century and exactly at this time the native population of Canada eventually receives its natural rights back with serious limitations when traditional fisheries practically has nothing in common with that rich fisheries of five centuries ago.

However, in the Fall of 1999, non-Native fishermen appealed the Marshal’s decision, requesting that it be re-heard but the appeal was denied. Instead, the Supreme Court clarified its opinion, limiting aboriginal rights to fishing only, while imposing the same federal licensing regulations on both the Mi’kmaq and non-Native fishermen. However, the terms of the regulation, including seasonal rules and amounts to be caught, are still strongly contested. The long term social and economic implications of these decisions and the new arrangements they require remain to be seen.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that at the present moment fisheries are not only extremely exhausted but they also strongly contested and, symbolically, the opposing parts are practically the same: native population and non-native descendents of European colonizers. Naturally, it is necessary to agree that the very survival of Atlantic fishery extends well beyond these Canadian issues.

However, nowadays the situation is really difficult because the Atlantic Canada fisheries that have been feeding people for centuries cannot afford the same level of exploitation. This is why, nowadays, the future of an ancient tradition and a modern industry hangs in the balance, in the face of competing national and community-based regional interests.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the evolution of the Atlantic Canada fisheries has undergone several stages and in the process of the development fisheries became a subject of close attention and a particular concern from the part of the most powerful states. In fact, in the result of the colonization of Canadian territories, the native population which had been used the Atlantic Canada fisheries for centuries was forced to retreat and Europeans replaced them. Moreover, Europeans really developed fisheries and made fishing industry one of the basic elements of the national economy. However, the severe exploitation of the Atlantic Canada fisheries during five centuries led to the dramatic exhaustion of the natural resources of this region which used to be extremely rich. In this respect, the ‘contribution’ of the fast growth of fishing industry in the 20th century is hardly possible to underestimate. This is why, nowadays it is possible to observe a new struggle between community-based regional interests of native population, on one hand, and national interests of non-native population, on the other hand.


Harris, Leslie. 1993. Seeking Equilibrium: An Historical Glance et Aspects of the Newfoundland Fisheries. Pp. 1-8 in K. Stored ed., The Newfoundland Groundfish Fisheries: Defining the Reality; Conference Proceedings. St. John’s, NF: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Holling, C.S., ed. 1978. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Hutchings, J.A. and R.A. Myers.
Holling, C.S. 1986. Resilience of Ecosystem: Local Surprise and Global Change. Pp. 292-317 in E.C. Clark and R.E. Munn, eds., Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Neis, Barbara. 1992. Fishers’ Ecological Knowledge and Stock Assessment in Newfoundland. Newfoundland Studies 8(2): 155-178.
Parsons, L.S. 1993. Management of Marine Fisheries in Canada. Canadian Bulletin of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 225. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada and Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Sider, Gerald M. 1986. Culture and Class in Anthropology and History: A Newfoundland Illustration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.