Impacts of New Harvesting Technology on NL Fishery

As fishing technology became more complex and efficient during the second half of the twentieth century, it not only changed Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry but also significantly altered the lifestyles of its fishing people. Workers increasingly left the family-based saltfishery to find jobs in the industrial frozen fishery, fishers earned cash instead of credit, processors worked in factories instead of on flakes, and the United States replaced Europe, South America, and the Caribbean as the principal importer of Newfoundland and Labrador seafood products.

Workers at a St. John's Fish Plant, 1978
Workers at a St. John's Fish Plant, 1978
Following Confederation, Newfoundland and Labrador shifted away from the preparation of saltfish on community flakes and towards the production of fresh/frozen groundfish products in company-owned plants.
Reproduced by permission of the Department of Trade and Technology, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. From Newfoundland Dept. of Fisheries, Fish is the future: the development program for the Newfoundland and Labrador fishing industry to 1985. (St. John's, ©1978) 13.

Advances in technology also allowed local and foreign fishers to harvest unprecedented amounts of cod and other fish from Newfoundland and Labrador inshore and offshore waters. However, regulations safeguarding the Northern cod stocks did not evolve alongside the world’s ability to harvest them. After a decade of mounting catch rates in the 1960s, the cod fishery fell into sharp decline in the 1970s. Despite efforts from Canadian and international fishery officials to preserve the stocks, they did not recover.

From Saltfishery to Frozen Fishery

The Newfoundland and Labrador saltfishery was a seasonal, family-based industry with roots dating back to the sixteenth century. Traditionally, men caught fish in small open boats, while women and children salted and spread the catch to dry on flakes lining the coast. During the process, older generations passed their skills and knowledge on to younger relatives and neighbours. At the end of each season, fishers gave their salt cod to merchants in return for supplies or credit.

Fish Flakes, n.d.
Fish Flakes, n.d.
Women drying fish on flakes at the Battery. The saltfishery was a seasonal, family-based industry with roots dating back to the 16th century.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 03.07.006), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.

The shift towards the frozen fishery dramatically changed that way of life. Fishing people began working on company-owned trawlers and in company-owned processing plants. Inshore fishers who used their own vessels could also sell their catch to frozen fish companies for cash instead of trading it to merchants. As cash became increasingly widespread, it helped eliminate the truck system. Plant and trawler workers acquired skills from state-administered training programs instead of from more experienced fishers. When the College of Fisheries, Navigation, Marine Engineering and Electronics opened at St. John’s in 1964 it offered classes in shipbuilding, fish processing, and in the training of trawler crews.

Despite attempts from government and industry to attract fishers to work on trawlers, many were initially discouraged by the demanding work and uncomfortable onboard living conditions. Trawler crews remained at sea for up to 10 days at a time and had to share cramped living quarters with one another. Stormy and unpredictable weather could create dangerous working conditions, especially for those onboard older and less stable side trawlers. When the vessels finally did return to port, it was often only for a night or two to unload the catch before shipping out to sea again. As a result, crewmembers spent much of their time away from home, which placed tremendous stress on family relations. Husbands and wives could not work together on trawlers because fish companies hired exclusively male crews. As historian Miriam Wright points out, company owners wanted technologically-trained, physically strong, male workers to man trawlers.

Excluded from working offshore, many women found jobs at processing plants. Most, however, worked in lower-paid unskilled positions on assembly lines. Unlike work on the flakes, which was often outside, near the home, and allowed workers time to care for children or tend to other household duties, work in processing plants was closely supervised, frequently involved shift work, and presented numerous health risks. Workers often had to stand in a single spot for hours while repeatedly performing the same task; those who used sharp knives risked cutting themselves and developing infections or allergic reactions (a toxin in crab shells, for example, has caused some plant workers to develop ‘crab asthma’). The workplace was also filled with a number of stressors, including cold temperatures, drafts, noise, and hazardous chemicals. However, working in fish plants provided many women with higher wages than ever before. This gave them a new financial independence and meant they had to rely less on male relatives for support. Previously, many women from fishing communities would have worked on fish flakes or in the domestic sphere for little to no pay.

Declining Cod Stocks

By changing the way workers harvested and processed fish, the frozen fish industry not only altered the workplace, but also decreased the sustainability of the Northern cod fishery. The advent of trawlers – particularly factory freezer trawlers – allowed Canadian and foreign fishers to harvest cod with unprecedented ease and efficiency. Before Canada extended its 200-mile limit in 1977, fishers from the Soviet Union, Japan, Spain, Portugal, France and other countries regularly exploited the Grand Banks. By the end of the 1960s, the Northern cod stock had fallen into severe decline.

A Soviet Trawler at St. John's, n.d.
A Soviet Trawler at St. John's, n.d.
The advent of trawlers allowed Canadian and foreign fishers to harvest cod with unprecedented ease and efficiency.
Photo by Harry Stone. Reproduced by the permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-001.1-M17a), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Overexploitation of cod in offshore waters also negatively impacted Newfoundland and Labrador’s inshore fishery. Fishers began to complain of reduced catches in the 1960s and the overall inshore catches of Northern cod dropped by two-thirds between 1954 and 1977. To compensate, many fishers began setting gillnets in offshore waters during the 1980s.

Even after Canada enforced its 200-mile limit in 1977 it failed to manage a sustainable fishery. Catch rates continued to exceed the Northern cod stock’s ability to replenish itself and the development of various fish-finding devices allowed fishers to track and harvest any remaining concentrations of cod. The stock finally collapsed in the 1990s and Canada imposed a moratorium in the commercial Northern cod fishery in 1992, ending five centuries of fishing activity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

With more than 30,000 people suddenly out of work, the social and economic impacts were devastating. Although the growth of shellfish and other fisheries in the wake of the moratorium provided employment for some displaced workers, many others had to leave the province to find jobs elsewhere or accept income support from government-funded programs.

Crab Nets at St. John's Harbour, 2007
Crab Nets at St. John's Harbour, 2007
The growth of shellfish and other fisheries in the wake of the 1992 cod moratorium provided employment for some displaced workers.
Photo by Jenny Higgins, ©2007.

As of 2007, uncertainty still surrounds the future of the Northern cod fishery. Although the federal government has allowed occasional restricted fisheries since 1992 – such as the five-week food fishery and two-week commercial fishery in 2007 – the moratorium remains in place and many scientists are unsure when or if the stock will rebound from decades of overexploitation.

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