The Decline of the Migratory Fishery

Toward the end of the 18th century, Newfoundland's migratory fishery began to lose importance at a time the resident population was experiencing a sudden increase. It cannot be denied that the two patterns were related, and indeed the traditional view holds the increase in the resident population accountable for the demise of the migratory fishery. However, some historians claim that other factors may have played a role.

A Thriving Enterprise

Even as late as the 1780s, the migratory fishery was thriving. In 1783, there were more British ships fishing at Newfoundland than ever before, and in 1788, a record 950 000 quintals of fish were caught. One of the reasons for England's good fortune was the state of her competitors' fisheries.

Fishing Stage Used in the Newfoundland Migratory Fishery
Fishing Stage Used in the Newfoundland Migratory Fishery
A French woodcut of unknown origins. In 1710, a similar scene appeared on the Herman Moll map of North America.
Reproduced by permission of Shane O'Dea. ©2015.

The American fishery had been severely weakened by the Revolution and its position was further affected by Britain's decision in 1783 not to trade with the United States. Meanwhile, the French now concentrated primarily on their domestic and French West Indies' markets and left the traditional southern European markets to the British. Finally, post-war fish prices remained high, allowing the British fishery to experience a period of expansion in terms of shipping and productivity. The combination of these factors lead some researchers to believe that the migratory fishery was, after 1783, a healthy one. For other historians, this expansion was not necessarily the sign of a healthy industry. In fact, it would perhaps eventually spell the end of the migratory fishery.

Wartime Inflation

The American Revolution had interrupted the circulation of goods across the Atlantic, and those who attempted to make such crossings discovered that it had become rather dangerous. However, out of this danger came an opportunity to make money, and some merchants seized it: aware of the general increase in prices in Newfoundland, which itself was a result of wartime inflation and a greater demand for supplies, they lessened their direct involvement in the fishery and opted to dabble in the carrying and supply trade.

With more and more people moving into the supply trade and a labour shortage emerging in the fishery, merchants traded increasingly for fish caught by independent boatkeepers. Resident boatkeepers began to outnumber bye boatmen, who now remained in England because of the risk of crossing the Atlantic. Indeed it was the migratory inshore bye boat fishery that suffered the most from the war. Bye boatmen, following the war, found it difficult to reclaim their fishing rooms in Newfoundland and to meet the high post-war wages. Even the bank fishery soon began to suffer from the loss of money normally earned by transporting bye boatmen and their servants across the Atlantic.

Figures relating to the number of vessels involved in the Newfoundland bank fishery cannot be wholly trusted. In 1775, England had introduced bounties in order to resuscitate the bank fishery. It is possible that ships involved in the carrying trade, seeking lower fees, claimed to be engaged in the fishery. The bank fishery began to dwindle just as the bye boat fishery had, and between 1783 and 1790, the resident fishery's percentage of production climbed steadily, even if it had not yet surpassed the migratory fishery.

Problems Arise with the Migratory Fishery

The catch of 950 000 quintals in 1788 was in reality more of a curse than a blessing. European markets were not able to absorb the quantity, and, as a result, much fish was left over. The end result was a drop in the value of fish. Nearly everybody involved in the fishery, from the servants, planters and bye boatmen to the merchants and creditors, was affected and many declared bankruptcy. However, veteran investors, such as Lester and Company, delved into shipbuilding, the salmon fishery, the seal hunt and the supply trade, while seeking alternative markets in the Caribbean or West Indies.

Lester and Company premises at Trinity in the 1800's
Lester Premisies at Trinity, ca. 1800
A depiction of the Lester and Company premises at Trinity in the 1800's.
Reproduced by permission of Gordon Handcock ©1983. From Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's, 1983).

In spite of the migratory fishery's repeated downscaling during the 18th century, it had always managed to bounce back. But a series of wars between England and France from 1793 to 1815 had an irreversible effect. The period prior to the lengthy Napoleonic wars had been the worst the migratory fishery had ever known, making it all the more difficult to rebound. When the wars began, the navy drained the fishery of a sizeable portion of its men, expanding in 1810 to more than seven times its pre-war size. Many skilled fishermen and outfitters turned to the resident fishery.

The fish trade had its problems too. Raids, such as the one carried out by France's Admiral de Richery in 1796, weakened the fishery at Newfoundland. While England had to contend with unreliable trade conditions in Portugal and the West Indies, the Scandinavians and the Americans began exporting competitive amounts of fish.

The war also drew merchants from the migratory fishery to other investment opportunities. Because of rising insurance rates, wages and shipbuilding costs, merchants recognized the opportunity to make greater profit freighting the goods of others at inflated rates than shipping their own fish. The number of migratory bank fishing ships dropped off considerably as merchants, ignoring the hazards of wartime maritime activity, invested in hauling others' freight. Whereas in 1793 there were 82 vessels in the offshore fleet, by 1807 there were a mere 33.

Some historians, then, contend that the fishing industry had not so much ended as it had evolved and adapted to new times and economic conditions — here was a shift of investment from the fishing industry to the fish trade. In fact, it can be argued that the fishery was not in trouble at all, since for the first time the resident fishery was there to pick up the slack in the event of a bad season in the migratory fishery.

However, activity in the inshore fishery was not always a direct result of inactivity in the migratory fishery. A credit system developed, and as a result merchants were further removed from fishing matters. Different classes of merchants evolved, as outport monopolists, independent resident retailers, wholesalers, migratory merchants and brokers placed themselves between the fishermen and the traditional merchants. Many merchants continued to prosper by concentrating on shipping and by lessening their direct involvement in the fishery.

St. John's Harbour below Fort William, n.d.
St. John's Harbour below Fort William, late 18th Century
In the foreground is a vessel and a fish flake. The migratory fishery used St. John's throughout the 18th century.
Watercolour possibly by Nicholas Pocock. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1996-381.

When cut off from traditional fish markets, merchants had two main options. The first was to find a third party to do the shipping on their behalf. Poole merchants, for example, often chose to place their fish aboard American shipping, either at ports in Newfoundland or in the West Country. The other option was simply to abandon traditional markets for newer ones. Thus, in times of turmoil, the West Indies often served as an alternative market. Such was the case when the Napoleonic wars began in 1803.

Trade Impediments

In 1806, Napoleon implemented what he called his "Continental System". Its purpose was to sever England from European markets. England, in turn, set up a naval blockade on French ports. The United States saw this as an obstruction to their right to trade, and on this account imposed an embargo of their own in 1807.

Ironically, all these trade impediments had a boosting effect on the British trade in Newfoundland fish. Southern European markets needed this fish and began to ignore Napoleon's orders. The United States' refusal to trade with Great Britain allowed for direct trade between Newfoundland and the West Indies, while the War of 1812 totally eliminated the United States as a contender for fish markets. European and West Indies markets had all of Newfoundland's attention, and such was the demand for fish that production more than doubled and prices reached record levels.

Newfoundland was experiencing a boom that had nothing to do with the migratory fishery: for the first time nearly all of the success in the fishery had been generated locally. By 1810, 90% of people in Newfoundland were likely permanent residents. However, the migratory fishery's demise had little to do with failure; merchants abandoned the migratory fishery simply because it had been profitable to do so. Finally, both Newfoundland's fishery and the people who ran it were based in Newfoundland.

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