Industrialization in the Fishery, 1940 - 1969

The years between 1940 and 1969 saw dramatic changes in the Newfoundland fishery. A new product emerged, quick-frozen cod fillets and blocks, which quickly began to overtake saltfish production.

The Sandra Gage, after 1960
The Sandra Gage, after 1960
Seen here tied up in St. John's, the Sandra Gage is a typical Canadian offshore trawler operating on the Grand Banks.
Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive (Captain Harry Stone Collection, PF-001.1-M36a), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

The two branches of the industry were very different. First, frozen fish was produced in plants, rather than being cured by the fishing people themselves. The owners of the processing plants also owned the offshore fishing vessels, trawlers, which caught large quantities of fish for the plants to process, and hired men to work on them. As well, fish plant owners bought fresh fish directly from inshore fishers. Second, fishing people received cash from the companies for their fish, instead of credit as had traditionally been the case. Third, the markets for frozen fish were primarily North American, with the majority of Newfoundland's frozen fish going to the United States. Saltfish markets were in Europe, the Caribbean and South America.

Packaging Fish, 1991
Packaging Fish, 1991
Workers package fish at the Dorset Fisheries plant in Long Cove, Trinity Bay. This plant is similar to many smaller fish processing operations in Newfoundland.
Reproduced by permission of Scott Woodman, © 1991.

Technological and economic changes in the North American fishing and food industries in the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s paved the way for the growth of the Newfoundland frozen fish industry. The fishing industry had long been looking for a way to preserve fish without using salt. Although salted fish was a popular food item in some countries, such as Spain and Portugal, it did not appeal to most North Americans. So during the 1920s and 1930s, American scientists and entrepreneurs experimented with different methods of freezing fish. In the late 1930s, an eccentric entrepreneur, Clarence Birdseye, who had lived for a few years in Labrador, invented "quick-freezing," a method which froze the fish quickly between cooled metal plates. Although quick-frozen fish never matched the taste of fresh fish, it was close enough. North Americans began to buy the product.

At the same time, other developments made it much easier for people to buy and eat fish. In earlier times, only people who lived near the ocean could buy Atlantic fish. But as new methods of transporting perishable foods by train and later by truck developed, people living in the large interior regions of North America could buy fish.

The way that food was sold was changing as well. Before the 1940s, most people shopped in small, independent grocery stores, few of which had frozen food cases. Besides, few people owned home refrigerators, so they could not keep frozen food items at home for any length of time. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, however, the growth of large supermarket chains such as A & P, which featured rows of frozen food cases, made frozen fish more accessible. Home refrigerators also became more affordable, making it easier to buy and store frozen food, including fish. All of these developments increased the demand for frozen fish in the United States and Canada.

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