The Cod Fishery. (continued)


  269. This is strictly a "Bank Fishery" since it is prosecuted on the small banks off the western portion on the South coast, which is free from ice all the year around. The fishery is not, however, included in the Bank Fishery, since the vessels engaged in it are not true "Bankers"; they are more nearly akin to the Labrador schooners. The fishery is of small proportions, but it is a great asset to the inhabitants of the Burgeo district where a lack of suitable soil on the immediate littoral makes cultivation of the land impossible. The disadvantages suffered by the people in this part of the Island, in being unable, in near proximity to their homes, to raise garden produce for winter consumption, are offset by the advantages of being able to catch fish throughout the year.


  270. We have explained in the previous Chapter,* that the fishery has never been conducted on a cash basis. Emerging from the old feudal practice under which the merchant, who was at once a store-keeper and an exporter of fish, employed a number of fishermen to catch fish for him and provided them in return with sufficient necessaries to maintain themselves and their families throughout the year, the fishery in all its branches--Bank, Labrador, and Shore--has been conducted during the last century on what is known as the credit system. This system, and the effect which it has had both on the welfare of the industry and on the character of the people, have already been fully described.† It is sufficient to note here that for many years it has been the almost universal practice for each fisherman in the spring to approach either a local merchant or one of the large mercantile houses in St. John's with a view to obtaining, on credit, sufficient supplies of gear, salt and provisions to enable him to conduct his fishery operations and to maintain himself and his family during the fishing season. Having obtained these "supplies", or "outfit" as it is called, he is then in a position to start fishing. At the conclusion of the season, he takes his fish, dried and cured, to the merchant as a set off against his account. In theory, it is said that the fisherman is under no obligation to take his fish to the merchant who outfitted him and that the latter is quite content so long as he receives the cash equivalent. In practice, however, the fisherman has found that it pays him to deal throughout with the same merchant, since the advantage of any more favourable price which he may succeed in obtaining elsewhere is apt to be discounted by the difficulty likely to be experienced in obtaining, except at almost prohibitive rates, an outfit for the ensuing season. Should any balance be left to him, after accounts have been squared with the merchant, it is paid to him in cash, or he is given a voucher enabling him to take up, at the merchant's store, goods to the value of the surplus. From this he has to provide himself with winter supplies. Should either the quality or quantity of his fish be such that he is unable to discharge his obligations to the merchant, he remains in debt, is prevented from obtaining winter supplies and, unless he should be fortunate enough to obtain winter employment, has no alternative but to claim public relief. This is a system so vicious in theory and so damaging in practice that a determined attempt must be made to alter it. The habit is now so deeply engrained, both among the merchants and among the fishermen, that the alteration can only be effected gradually. Even so, difficulty may be experienced. The problem must, however, be squarely faced and tackled. The credit system has been criticised by every impartial observer for the last 50 years, its weaknesses exposed and its subtly destructive influences pointed out. It is not too much to say that the fishery can never prosper, or indeed be fully developed by Newfoundlanders, while the present system lasts.

Rencontre, n.d.
Photo by Holloway. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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  271. The cost of outfits varies in accordance with the type of fishing in view. The cost of outfitting a banking vessel would be about $3,000 exclusive of gear, bait and allowances to the families of the crew. For these items, $500, $600 and $4,000 respectively would be required, thus making the total cost about $8,000. Many of these vessels are now operated by companies, the captain and crew receiving in lieu of wages a bonus proportionate to the total catch. In cases where the vessel is owned and operated by an individual fisherman, the latter is responsible for obtaining the necessary outfit from the merchant, including salt for the entire catch and provisions for the crew. The value of the catch is then divided into two, one half being allotted to the vessel (i.e., to the captain, or owner), the other half, one share goes to the captain. Thus, in the case of a vessel carrying 20 men, exclusive of the captain, the latter receives 1/2 + 1/42 of the total value of the catch, out of which he must square accounts with the merchant, while each of the men receives 1/41 of the value of the catch.

  272. The same procedure, mutatis mutandis, is adopted in the case of Labrador schooners; these seldom carry more than 10 men, the season is shorter and the catch and cost of outfitting are proportionately less. A Labrador schooner could probably be outfitted for the season at a cost of about $1,100 to $1,200. The men engaging on a banker or a Labrador schooner on this basis are known as "sharemen."

  273. The cost of outfitting a shore-fisherman depends largely on the type of gear required. Trap nets complete with moorings cost from $400 to $2,000 each according to size, a hook and line outfit about $70. Bultows are priced at $10 each. Salt and gasoline are heavy items in a fisherman's costs. In addition, he requires rubber boats and suitable clothing, and provisions for himself and his family. The annual outfit of a shore-fisherman working alone would probably amount to $100. With three of four men working together the cost might be reduced to about $75 a head.

  274. A good catch for a shore fisherman would be about 30 quintals. The average price last year for shore fish was less than $3.00 a quintal, or less than $90.00 for 30 quintals. It will thus be seen that no margin was left to the average fisherman, who was indeed fortunate if he was able to balance accounts with the merchant: in most cases, as a result of three successive seasons of low prices, the end of the 1932 season found him hopelessly in debt to the merchant. The price of shore fish has risen during the last few months and it is thought that the average price paid to the fishermen in 1933 may reach $4 a quintal. This advantage is, however, to a large extent discounted so far as the Island generally is concerned, first, by the virtual failure of the fall fishery all over the Island through lack of bait. Now that the season has closed, it may be said that only in a few localities has the shore-fishing been remunerative; over large stretches of the Island men have sunk deeper in debt and hundreds of men who have made a stubborn fight again[st] odds to maintain themselves and their families without public relief will be forced on to the dole during the winter. The Bank fishery alone has done well. Better prices have been received for Labrador fish but these, while giving the fisherman a margin, are not likely to yield him a sufficient return to enable him to maintain himself and his family for the eight months until the season opens again.

  * Paragraphs 213-216.
  † Chapter III, para. 89; Chapter V, 213-218.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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