The Cod Fishery.

THE CREDIT SYSTEM. (continued)

  275. Two aspects of the working of the credit system must here be noticed in amplification of the description given in the previous chapter. The first is the procedure adopted by the merchants in buying fish from the fisherman; the second, the penalisation of the good fisherman who is careful in the cure of his fish, in favour of those who are less careful.

  276. In the past, two methods have been in vogue in assessing the value of a fisherman's catch, the "correct" system and the "talqual"* system. Under the former system it was the practice for a fisherman to bring his fish, dried and cured, to the merchant; the latter then had them spread out and "culled" or valued by a culler, who separated the fish into piles according to his judgment of the quality, a different value being assessed for each quality. The culler was under oath to do justice in his assessment; instead, however, of being an independent man, he was an employee of the merchant buying the fish. Unless, therefore, he gave satisfaction to the merchant, he was in danger of losing his livelihood. It is obvious that in these circumstances the scales were heavily weighted against the fisherman.

  277. None the less this system was far preferable to that which developed from it as a result of the War, when prices were so high and local competition so keen that merchants were willing to take any fish they could get. During the War years, quantity rather than quality became the ruling consideration; the "cull" was therefore dispensed with and fish were brought on what is known as the "talqual" system, viz., an average price was fixed for the whole of a fisherman's catch without any exact regard to the varying qualities of the fish comprising the catch. It is claimed by those who sponsored the "talqual" system that it was not intended to disregard quality, the procedure being that the fish were first inspected by the culler who, without sorting the fish into piles according to quality, could quickly arrive at a fairly accurate estimate of the proportions of good and inferior fish which the catch contained. An average value per quintal was then struck and the amount payable to the fisherman calculated accordingly. It is urged that the system, so worked, preserved the principle of differentiation in quality, since the average value would vary with each individual case; while, at the same time, the system was expeditious, gave rise to less argument between buyer and seller, and generally operated in favour of the fisherman.

  278. This might have been the case when the system was first introduced, and it is possible that a few individual firms may have continued to operate the system in this way. In a short time it became the practice of merchants throughout the country to fix an average price of fish without regard to quality, i.e., they were so anxious to buy all the fish that could be produced that they were prepared to take the risk of the catch containing an undue proportion of inferior fish. Under this system, the man who cured his fish well received exactly the same price for the same quantity of fish as the man who cured his fish badly. Human nature asserted itself and there was a gradual deterioration in the average cure. The individual fisherman naturally asked himself why he should take trouble with his fish (and the making of a good cure calls for skill, patience and constant watchfulness) when his neighbour took none and received the same return. The good fisherman, anxious to do his best, was thus penalised by the system and tempted to lower his standards. In many cases, subjected to the jeers of his fellows, he found the temptation too strong to be resisted. This destructive system has continued almost up to the present day and is largely responsible for the loss of reputation suffered by Newfoundland products in the principal markets. Fortunately, it has now been prohibited by statutory regulation, and no fish can now be brought from fishermen except under a strict "cull." The culler, however, remains the employee of the merchant.

  279. In another way also has the good fisherman been penalised by the working of the credit system. When the fishermen approach the merchants for outfits on credit at the beginning of the season, the latter know that in a number of cases, formerly a minority now a majority, the advances made will not be fully recovered, partly from causes outside the fisherman's control, such as the low price of fish or the failure of the fishery in some localities, and partly because, as the results of the combined operation of the talqual and credit systems, the less energetic fisherman can no longer be trusted to make a good cure. The merchants therefore fix their credit prices at a level which will ensure them against possible loss on their supplies. This means that the good fisherman, who may be relied upon to do his best, is paying for the possible shortcomings of his fellows. The lower the price of fish, the greater the number of fishermen unlikely to balance their accounts, the greater the margin required to safeguard the merchants against loss, and the greater burden borne by the good fisherman. In times like these, when in most parts of the Island it is as much as any fisherman can do to come out on the right side, the good fisherman is being dragged down instead of encouraged; it will not be his fault if he is soon brought to the level of his less careful and less energetic fellows.

  280. We will not repeat here the description given in the earlier chapters of the effect of the credit system on the life and habits of the people. (This indeed should properly be called the "truck system" since it is virtually the same as that abolished by law in England a hundred years ago.) But we cannot refrain from emphasizing once again that the system is sapping the energy, initiative and moral sense of the people and, instead of building them up into an independent and self-reliant race, is reducing them to a state bordering on servitude. The responsibility for this condition of affairs rests with the merchants, many of whom appreciate its dangers and would wish to alter the system but see no way of escape from it. They, like the people, are caught in its toils. But altered the system must be, and Government action in this direction is urgently required.


  281. The fish, when culled or valued according to quality, are divided into the following grades:--
    (1) Shore Fish (including Bank Fish), dry salted.
      (a) Choice.
      (b) Merchantable.
      (c) Madeira.
      (d) West India.
    (2) Genuine Labrador (heavy salted, soft cured).
      (a) Quality No. 1.
      (b) Quality No. 2.
      (c) Cullage.

Shore-fish, including Bank fish, which are cured in "Labrador style," i.e., in the same way as Labrador fish, are described as "Heavy Salted, Soft Cured Newfoundland Codfish" and are divided into the same grades of quality as Labrador fish.

  282. The principal markets for Newfoundland shore fish are Spain, Portugal, Italy, North Brazil, Malta, Madeira, the British West Indies, Porto Rico and Cuba. The principal markets for Labrador fish are Spain, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, Greece and Porto Rico.

Mugford Tickle Mugford Tickle, Labrador, n.d.
Photographer unknown. 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.
Larger Version (39 kb)

  283. Shipments are made throughout the year but principally in the months of September to December. The fish are exported in a variety of containers, e.g.:--

    Drums of 128 pounds and 64 pounds for North Brazil, Madeira and Cuba;
    Drums of 112 pounds to Malta, and the West Indies;
    Boxes of 112 pounds and 56 pounds to Oporto;
    Casks of 560 pounds to Spain, Italy and Greece;
while shipments of shore-fish are also made in bulk to Portugal and of Labrador fish in bulk to all Mediterranean markets.

  * A corruption of the French "tel quel."

Image description updated May, 2004.

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