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The overview of Atlantic fisheries history:

From the early days of its history Canada has had abundant marine fish resources. Since the arrival of European settlers however, many of Canada's marine fisheries have been plagued with recurrent crises. The crises were rooted partly in the inherent natural variability of the fish resources, but primarily in their common property nature frequently resulting in over exploitation (Parsons 1993). 

Prior to the arrival of European settlers fishing provided sustenance to Canada's aboriginal peoples. Indians and Inuit used a variety of fishing methods. They speared, netted, trapped, trolled and longlined fish. They would dry or freeze fish for storage. Community sharing and religious ceremonies seem to have typified native fisheries. When the Europeans came, the waters were rich with fish. Although the Indians had large weirs and the ability to destroy salmon runs, they never did (Parsons & Lear 1993).

Early colonial fishery in the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland began in the early 16th century. Initially it took the form of distant-water fisheries by the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Basques fishing using hook and lines targeting particularly the easy to catch Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)Long line hook arrangement transporting it back to their native ports of Europe dried and salted. In parallel New England settlers built their own fishing empire. In 1800s first canning operations of salmon appeared (Lyons 1969) and Maritimers had established pickled and smoked herring industry. The techniques spread rapidly in early 1800s throughout Maritimes and Canadian weirs began feeding new American sardine factories. The fishing industry became more 'industrial'. Soon thereafter industrial economy brought changes to Atlantic coast fishery as steel and steam vessels began displacing the wooden trading vessels. In the second half of the 18th century a great schooner fleet developed in the Atlantic fishery with New England leading the growth and searching for cod, halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus). From the 1850's Americans began using the longline method featuring a long groundlines anchored on the bottom with many short sections of hook and line fastened onto them (see figure above). Now fishermen could use hundreds of hooks fastened to one single ground line. 

By the 1870s with increasing fluctuations in inshore fishery, attention was being turned towards offshore (bank) fishing. In Newfoundland, there was little bank fishing and schooners and open boats worked the shore starting what we now call "over-the-side-sales" where raw fish would be transferred at sea from a local catcher vessel to foreign vessels. Americans would then buy frozen herring in the winter taking it back to New England for both food and bait. In addition to shore based beach seine, the development of steam engine in the 19th century allowed the fishermen to use large offshore purse seines to target surface schooling fish. In 1908  first steam powered otter trawlers were introduced to Nova Scotia. Inshore fishermen opposed this development however, fearing the increasing number of large trawlers would hurt their sector by the destruction of ocean floor. This led to government restriction on trawler fleet in the 1930s (Parsons 1993). 

The Labrador fishery developed bank fishery only gradually. Newfoundlanders turned to longlines and cod traps and there was almost no development of otter trawling. Cod fishery was always dominant. Newfoundlanders caught far smaller quantities of lobster, herring, haddock or Atlantic pollock (saithe) (Gough 1991).

The Maritime and Quebec fishing industry boomed during the World War I. The war interrupted fish supplies to Europe and made manpower scarce. With fewer people fishing demand for fish was high. This brought unprecedented prosperity to Atlantic fishery. In the 1920s Americans and Europeans using draggers (trawlers) began to outcompete Maritimers and Newfoundlanders in fishing methods. Furthermore, the New England fishing industry developed the filleting and quick-freezing processes allowing them selling packaged fresh or frozen fillets to a wider market. The first plate freezing began to be used producing retail packs of frozen fish. Canada and Newfoundland still relying on saltfish lost its European markets to resurgent overseas fleets. Newfoundland was even slower in adopting new technologies. With prices for saltcod dropping Newfoundland and Maritime fishing industry slipped into the Great Depression early (Parsons & Lear 1993)..

The World War II was marked with the growth in applied science. This brought new technology into the fisheries. Fishing vessels began to be fitted with navigation and fish finding technology such as radio, radar and sonar. In addition, with it came better engines, better ropes, better nets, hydraulic haulers and winches, and of course, bigger steel boats and later fiberglass vessels. The war also brought prosperity. Emphasis was placed on development. Atlantic groundfish sector went through revolution facilitated by refrigeration in transportation, storage facilities, stores and homes. All boosted demand for frozen fish. The industry made more use of offshore species such as flatfish, redfish, scallop, lobster and snow crab. The groundfish industry developed a powerful fleet of 150 or more large trawlers. One such vessel, the Fairtry conceived and built in the United Kingdom in early 1950s combined the concepts of stern trawling with on-board filleting machinery, freezing capability and fish-meal reduction plant (Scott & Scott 1988, Parsons & Lear 1993). 

Canada did not begin utilizing the factory-freezer trawlers till 1986 when Canadian factory-freezer Cape North joined the Canadian Atlantic fleet to exploit cod resources off the more distant reaches of the Labrador coast. (Sadly, this also was the time when nortern cod stocks began showing the first signs of trouble. At the same time troublesome revelation of inaccuracies in stock biomass assessments performed by fisheries management was presented in CAFSAC (Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Advisory Committee) report Dec. 86/25). Canada was quicker to adopt midwater trawling technology however, in order to exploit rockfish fishery in the early 1970s. The Canadian purse seine fleet was greatly expanded in 1965-67 to support the development of a herring reduction industry (Scott & Scott 1988). 

The 1960s also brought in the realization that fisheries resources are finite. In late 60s several vessels from the closed down B.C. herring fishery arrived to the Atlantic and the overcapacity led to overfishing in the Atlantic as well leading to a 1970s crisis (Parsons & Lear 1993). The first great crisis came with overexpansion by foreign fleets which decimated certain Atlantic stocks. Canadians in the 1960s and early 1970s raced to keep up with the foreigners and themselves overexpanded on sea and shore. ICNAF (International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries) in the late 1960s and early 1970s began setting overall TAC (Total Allowable Catch) quotas for certain stocks. While TAC controls were intended to reduce exploitation rates below then current levels they were still set too high and did not reduce declining rates in stock sizes. There was an increasingly precipitous decline in catches in mid-1970s. The development of factory-freezer stern trawlers, the expansion of distant- water fleets to massive tonnages together with overexpansion of Maritime fishery led to much damage (Scott & Scott 1988). The contribution of foreign fleets to overfishing raised the issue of fisheries sovereignty. From 1975 Canada negotiated several bilateral agreements with a number of foreign fishing nations advancing their cause for an 

Snow crab (Chionocetes opilio) fishing in Gulf of St. Lawrence

extension of 200-mile fisheries jurisdiction limit, which finally became implemented as of 1 January 1977. 

Some rebuilding of finfish stocks took place in the first decade following the 200-mile limit. For a while both the catches and markets grew stronger. Not for long however. In the early 1990s problem became evident with the northern cod stock. There was a sudden unexpected decline in the stock abundance. The biomass of spawning cod dropped very low. Apparently this was brought about partly by the fisheries mismanagement and political forces operating at the time and partly due to fisheries management decisions being based on inadequate understanding of biology of many species of groundfish, atlantic cod being one of them. In 1993 other groundfish stocks suffered quota cuts as well, but it was too late for many groundfish stocks. The demise of groundfish led to invertebrate fisheries starting to do better however. Lobster landings tripled in the 1980s (Parsons & Lear 1993).

Country % of Total Catch
Portugal 19.5
Spain 16.7
Canada 15.7
USSR 15.0
France 10.4
Poland 8.9
West Germany 6.1
United Kingdom 4.2
Others 3.5
Total 100
Atlantic cod catches in 1988 (Parsons & Lear 1993)

In 1988, the groundfish fishery dominated the landings with 55.5% by volume, followed by 15% share of shellfish fisheries (lobster, snow crab, scallop and shrimp). Pelagic fisheries mainly for herring and capelin with minor contribution of other species such as mackerel accounted for 29.5% (Parsons 1993).
Georges Bank Haddock Deck fish sorting

Atlantic haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) catch at Georges Bank

The technological advances coupled with overexpansion resulted in steady increase of catches since 1950 from about 1.5 million tonnes to a peak of 4.5 million tonnes in 1968-69 (see graph below). As groundfish catches declined from the mid-1960s, herring catches increased however. After 1968-69 herring catches also declined but the international fleet directed its attention to other pelagic species with emphasis on mackerel then on caplin maintaining catches of pelagics in the Nominal Catch Progression from 1960-2017range of 1.0 - 1.2 million tonnes until 1975 after which there was a rapid collapse of catches to little more than 200000 tonnes (Scott & Scott 1988).

Northern Cod Demise

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), also known as "the livestock of the seas" was the marvel of early explorers and faithfully supported the pre-industrial fishery for centuries. Its occurrence at the northern edge of most species distribution limit predisposed it to become the keystone predator. By the same token however, in order to deal with harsh environmental conditions it had to evolve behavioural characteristics, which eventually led to its vulnerability to massive fishing pressure. As Wilfred Templemen in 1966 put it:

"In the winter and early spring the inshore waters of the adjacent Newfoundland Area and those of the banks, are so cold that groundfish, chiefly cod, must retreat offshore and to deeper water. Also at this time they gather in prespawning and spawning concentrations. These dense schools are thus concentrated in the restricted areas of warmer water on the deeper slopes of the bank and shelf areas, where they are readily caught by trawlers. It is thus likely, as apparently occurred with the southern Grand Bank haddock, that as these schools decline under the effects of heavy fishing, the spawning group and the immatures of commercial size of a particular stock or for a particular coastal area will continue to concentrate. This concentration may thus form a school in a smaller and smaller area, and the school will be vulnerable to heavy fishing when it is found. In this case, there would be good deep water trawling in winter and spring until the stock has been greatly reduced" (in Cabot Martin 1995).

Remarkably, Templemen's accurate observations published in 1966 have never been considered in resolving northern cod biomass trends until stock collapsed in 1993. Cod's tendency of concentrating in large density aggregates together with the use of suboptimal statistics in survey data analyses by the fisheries managers resulted in an inevitable loss of once the world's largest cod stock (McGrath 1911 in Hutchings 1996). A number of clear indicators suggesting declining cod biomass as early as 1986 were available from falling inshore fixed gear catches and from careful spatial density structure analyses, but never considered (Hutchings 1996).


Cabot, M. 1995. The Collapse of the Northern Cod Stocks: Whatever Happened to 86/25? Fisheries 20:6-8.

CAFSAC, 1986. Advice on the status and management of the cod stock in NAFO Divisions 2J, 3K and 3L. CAFSAC Advisory Dec. 86/25.

Gough, J. 1991. Fisheries management in Canada, 1880-1910. Can. Manuscr. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 2105: iv + 96 p.

Hutchings, J.A. 1996. Spatial and temporal variation in the density of northern cod and a review of hypotheses for the stock's collapse. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 53:943-962.

Lyons, C. 1969. Salmon-Our heritage. Mitchell Press, Vancouver, B.C.

McGrath, P.T. 1911. Newfoundland in 1911. Whitehead, Morris, and Co., London

Parsons, L.S. and Lear, W.H., 1993. Perspectives on Canadian marine fisheries management. Can. Bull.Fish. Aquat. Sci. 226: 446 p.

Parsons, L.S., 1993. Management of marine fisheries in Canada. Can. Bul. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 225: 763 p.

Scott, W.B. and Scott M.G. 1988. Atlantic Fishes of Canada. Can. Bull. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 219: 731 p

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