The Cod Fishery.


  284. Shipments are now made almost entirely by steamer. A few firms continue to ship fish by sailing vessels for Portugal, Brazil and the West Indies.
  Shipments to the Mediterranean are made as a rule by steamers sailing from St. John's, calling at Alicante, Malaga, Valencia, Naples and Greece, and carrying full cargoes direct to Portuguese ports, carrying fish only. Shipments to Mediterranean and Portuguese ports are also made by the Furness Line via Liverpool. Shipments to North Brazil are made either by steamers sailing direct from St. John's, carrying fish only, and calling at Capadello, Madeio, Pernambuco and Bahia, or by the Furness Red Cross Line via New York.

Narrows, St. John's, 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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  285. Apart from the ships of the Furness Line and the Furness Red Cross Line, of which surprisingly little use is made, the ships carrying Newfoundland's fish to the various markets are almost entirely Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian). Before sailing vessels were displaced by steam, St. John's was the centre of a flourishing shipbuilding industry. Hundreds of vessels locally manned, and many of them locally built, were employed in the carrying trade, and shipwrights, sail-makers, carpenters, ship's chandlers and fitters all conducted an active business in the capital, giving employment to some hundreds of men. The practice of chartering foreign steamers manned foreign crews has paralysed these industries and the men thus displaced cannot readily be absorbed in permanent employment. The country in general and St. John's in particular have thus suffered a serious loss which has been intensified by the annual drain abroad of the sums, estimated at $600,000-$7,000,000, paid for chartering vessels. In consequence of these developments St. John's is now but a shadow of her former self and has had for some years a surplus of population for which no regular employment has been found.

  286. It is said that the marketing of Newfoundland's fish, the bulk of which is lightly salted and therefore a valuable but a rapidly perishable product, is at best a speculative business. In support of this contention it is pointed out that every firm in Newfoundland which has sought to confine its business to the buying and selling of fish alone has sooner or later gone to the wall. It is claimed that in these circumstances it is necessary for an exporting merchant to safeguard himself against overwhelming losses in a business in which he may either make a fortune or become insolvent, by engaging in a diversity of interests, such as a general store, the advance of supplies to fishermen, the development of subsidiary products such as cod-liver oil, or the purchase and marketing of other fish such as salmon and lobster. It is contended that the more irons a merchant has in the fire, the more likely is he to smooth over the ups and downs of fortune and to extract from his business a regular, if not spectacular, profit. We cannot fully accept this contention. For, even if it be true that under the conditions hitherto existing the business has been shown to be too speculative to be conducted entirely by itself, the building up of a diversity of interests is only one method of overcoming this defect. An equally obvious and far more effective method would have been for the firms engaged in the business to weld themselves into one organisation, which could have instituted arrangements for the packing and grading both in size and quality of the fish bought, for the inspection and regularisation of shipments of fish to foreign markets, and for the sale of the fish in those markets. Few can doubt that, had steps of this kind been taken, the industry to-day would have been in a sufficiently strong position to weather a temporary period of depression without penalising the actual producer, viz., the fisherman, on whom, as ever, the main burden now falls.

  287. But to join in any large-scale co-operative effort is precisely what the merchants of St. John's have always failed to do. They have insisted on conducting their businesses on a basis of pure individualism without regard to the true interests of the country and without regard to the successes achieved by their foreign competitors. Intent only on outdoing their local rivals in a scramble for immediate profits, they have failed to realise that time does not stand still. While the industry in Newfoundland, with its haphazard and hand-to-mouth methods and an entire lack of organisation, has stagnated, if indeed it has not declined, the industries of Norway and Iceland, Newfoundland's chief competitors in the salt-fish markets, have been modernised on a rational and scientific basis and, in the case of Iceland, especially, have achieved a record of progress that is truly remarkable. In 1885, Iceland's exports of dried and wet salted fish were under 100,000 quintals against Newfoundland's average exports of 1,300,000 quintals. In 1932, Iceland's exports were over 1,500,000 quintals or 200,000 quintals more than Newfoundland's average exports and 450,000 quintals more than Newfoundland's actual exports. This year the Icelandic fishermen had a record catch, whereas it seems likely that the Newfoundland catch will be the lowest recorded for 25 years.

  288. It may thus be said that the writing has been on the wall for many years past. The absence of any "adequate steps to insist on uniform measures for curing, packing and inspecting salted cod" was the subject of comment by the Dominions Royal Commission which visited Newfoundland in 1914.* Steps were taken after the War by the then Minister of Marine and Fisheries to introduce regulations designed to improve the cure of fish, and governing alike the purchase of fish from the fishermen and the export of fish to foreign markets. These salutary measures, however, were unfortunately linked with an endeavour to fix prices in foreign markets. When this failed, the scheme was brought into disrepute and was finally abandoned. From that date until 1933, the old individualistic system continued unchecked. Attempts were made more than once to obtain a measure of agreement among the exporters but these invariably broke down through internal jealousies and a desire to steal a march on rival firms by bringing off a coup or making a quick profit, even at the risk of spoiling the market. That such actions would sooner or later recoil on the heads of the originators and take away the good name of the industry was never appreciated.

  289. Had Norway and Iceland been producers of light-salted fish, of the same type as Newfoundland's shore fish, the industry in Newfoundland would many years ago have been compelled, in the interest of self-preservation, to organise itself on a competitive basis. But Norway and Iceland produce only heavy-salted fish, of the "Labrador style," and, while these have gradually ousted Labrador fish from the first place in the European markets taking heavy-salted fish, they have not so far interfered with the markets for Newfoundland's shore-fish. Seeing that the Labrador fishery has been accustomed to produce annually about 320,000 quintals and supports a considerable proportion of the population, it could hardly have been supposed that the loss of first place in the markets would have been accepted by the Newfoundland exporters with indifference. Yet, instead of being alarmed at this development and exerting themselves to recover the lost ground, the exporters have been content to explain with pride that no country in the world can compete with Newfoundland's shore-fish, which is therefore in an impregnable position. The loss of the principal markets for Labrador fish, which has involved the selling of the fish to the poorer markets at low prices, is dismissed as a temporary phase of no great consequence so long as the markets for shore-fish are retained.

  * Fourth Interim Report of the Royal Commission on the Natural Resources, Trade and Legislation of certain Portions of His Majesty's Dominions, Cd. 7711, 1915, para. 23.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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