The Annual Voyage

The financial arrangements and the outfitting out of the fishing ship were completed between December and February. The crew was hired in January and February, and crammed on board. Most fishing ships carried an average of one man per ton of vessel, which meant that a typical vessel may have carried as many as 80 men. These men had to live and sleep wherever they found space, usually on deck, in all kinds of weather.

The fishing ships sailed in March or April, although earlier departures were not uncommon. For instance, the Marigold sailed from Plymouth in February of 1670. But to sail much later than the end of March was to take several chances. One was being beaten by others to the best fishing rooms. Another was arriving too late to build fishing facilities in time for the annual June spawning run of the capelin, which was used as bait for cod. Consequently, the master of a fishing ship aimed to arrive in Newfoundland no later than the beginning of May.

When the ship was not used for fishing, it was beached, or anchored and unrigged. Then the crew would build or repair the stages, tilts, and flakes needed to house the men and to cure the fish.

Fishing Territory

The West Country fishermen did not fish just anywhere in Newfoundland. For one thing, they were not alone on the island. The French had a large fishery along the south coast and north of Bonavista; in 1662 they even established a colony at Placentia (Plaisance). Furthermore, the English fishermen preferred to fish in familiar waters, returning to the same place year after year if they could, surrounded by other fishermen from the same part of the West Country as themselves. Then there was the English preference for a "dry" fishery. This meant that they needed to find fishing places that contained the right balance of wood, beaches, climate, and fishing grounds.

During the 17th century the English confined themselves to the east coast from Trepassey north to Bonavista. This became known as the "English Shore." Within this area there were distinct districts preferred by various parts of the West Country. Thus, men from Devonshire favoured a particular part of the English Shore, men from Dorset favoured another section, and so on. From south of Renews to Trepassey, the English shared the coast with the French; at Trepassey the fishing admiral was always a Frenchman. The area beyond St. Mary's was exclusively French territory. The French also dominated the offshore fishing banks. It really was not until the early 18th century that an English bank fishery developed.

The Fishing Process

In June, the fishing crews began to catch cod, using small boats and simple hand lines with baited hooks, working from before dawn until after dusk. A separate shore crew cleaned and split the fish on wharf-like stages, salted it, and later dried it on the flakes. This intensive activity continued through the summer months until preparations began late in August for the journey home.

Fish Hook
Fish Hook, ca. 1675
A good example of a small iron fish hook used in the hand line migratory fishery dating from ca. 1675. A distinctive characteristic of the pre-19th century cod hook was a flattened end instead of an eye to secure the line. Found at the Ferryland archaeology site.

Courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Lead Weight, ca. 1675
An excellent example of a lead weight used in the hand line migratory fishery dating from ca. 1675. Found at the Ferryland archaeology site.

Courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Much of the equipment was dismantled or abandoned. But since the cost of replacing fishing facilities was much higher than the cost of maintaining them, and as the competition for the more desirable fishing rooms became intense, the custom began of leaving a few men from each crew over the winter. By the 1670s, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were living in Newfoundland throughout the year, although just how "permanent" such settlements actually were, is difficult to determine.

Bringing the Catch Back Home

While the fishing ships returned to England with their crews, the sack ships carried the season's catch to market. The sack ships began to appear in July to begin the collection of fish for their September departure. To stay any longer would be very costly, because the best market prices invariably went to the first ship to arrive at a particular destination, be that Cadiz, Lisbon, Oporto, Bilbao, or any one of several southern European ports. The first ship to arrive might have received between 15 and 20 shillings per quintal, while later arrivals might have had to settle on only ten shillings or less depending upon the quality of the cure.

The difference in price was so significant that some sack ships sailed for Europe even before they were full, since the time taken to complete a cargo might prove to be more expensive than the cost of the extra fish. Once the cargo of fish was sold, the sack ship's master arranged for another cargo, either in the same port or elsewhere. Eventually the ship returned to England, but not necessarily directly. A merchant-venturer with interests in several trades may have instructed the master to carry cargoes to other destinations first. For instance, a sack ship might have taken on a mixed cargo of Iberian fruit, wines, ironwork, and silks to be sent to America and exchanged for a cargo that might take the ship back to Newfoundland, or on to the West Indies.

Fishing at Newfoundland was a "seasonal" activity, but this is not true of the fishing industry as a whole, or the even within the trade in fish. The merchant-venturer was involved in the fishery throughout the year: outfitting during the winter, making the voyage to Newfoundland in the spring, fishing through the summer, and finally bringing the fishing crews back to England and the salt fish to market in the fall. There may have been a pronounced rhythm to the fishery and trade, but it was never a simple business.

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Video: The Migratory Fishery at Ferryland