GNB
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Archival Portfolio

Introduction | Table of Contents

New Brunswick's fisheries of the past

Introduction

The fisheries have always been topical in New Brunswick. Fishing is a way of life and part of our heritage, as well as an important economic sector for the province. This should come as no surprise given New Brunswick's extensive coastal zone as seen on a map.

New Brunswick has a long history of fishing in the ocean, bays, straits, rivers, and lakes. The variety of species fished underlines the abundant resources of our waters, whether in the southwest, southeast, or northeast. Fishing techniques and fish processing have varied over the centuries to suit personal tastes and market preferences. All of these factors have contributed to the fame of New Brunswick's fisheries.

History in a nutshell

The European merchants who settled here traded in cod, among other commodities. They included Englishmen George Walker and John Allen (Nipisiguit) and William Smith (Tracadie), and Scotsmen John Cort and William Davidson (Miramichi River). But the Robins, who arrived from the Isle of Jersey to settle in the Gaspé Peninsula, were the ones who created a veritable monopoly on cod fishing in Chaleur Bay. They made Caraquet their hub of operations on this side of the bay and had considerable success. Others, such as the Fruings in Shippagan, Lameque and Miscou islands, and along the Acadian coast; the Loggies in Miramichi Bay; and the O'Learys in Richibucto, also rose to prominence in the cod business.

Catches skyrocketed starting in 1875 and sealed the reputation of New Brunswick and the Atlantic region as producers of international standing. After a productive 19th century, market interest in dried cod dwindled, and the Robin and Fruing enterprises subsequently folded. The "lobster rush" that came on so strong in the 1800s also lulled, even before the turn of the 20th century and a sharp decline in the resource.

Meanwhile, there was an upswing in the marketing of sardines in Blacks Harbour because of the facilities of brothers Lewis and Patrick Connors. Today, Connors Brothers Limited runs the world's largest sardine company. That market was perhaps the least affected by the wars and the Depression of the 1930s. It did not reach a feverish pitch, but instead grew gradually starting in 1885.

Any number of factors accounted for the significance progress in New Brunswick's fisheries. The advent of the railway stimulated fish exports to the United States and Canada's central provinces via Saint John. The economy was further boosted when U.S. companies seeking supplies of fresh fish and interested in diversified fishery products set up business in New Brunswick. Those businesses attracted fishermen and plant workers since they paid in cash as opposed to coupons exchangeable for goods, as traditional businesses did.

Problems arose despite some diversification of the species fished over the space of 50 years. Catches fell off, the fishery sector was disorganized, and there were no marketing controls. What is more, the dried cod market collapsed at the turn of the 20th century. All in all, it s hard to turn a profit in the fisheries sector, after the boom times a short while before.

In 1927, the federal government set up the MacLean Commission inquiry into the crisis in the Maritime fishery. That led to preferential transportation rates and creation of United Maritime Fishermen (UMF).

Within that large association, Fr. Livain Chiasson of Shippagan and Martin J. Légère of Caraquet set up local fishermen's associations along New Brunswick's Acadian coast. Those associations were based on co op strategies consistent with the ideal of the movement spearheaded by Rev. Moses Coady and Fr. Jimmy Tompkins of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Those strategies sought to extricate the fishermen from their problems by helping them find efficient methods of acquiring fishing equipment at better cost and selling the fish they caught.

On the whole, fishermen did not achieve economic self-sufficiency. Both prices and catches continued to tumble. There was no let-up in one underlying problem: the continued use of traditional fishing methods.

The fishery modernization

During the post-war era, in the mid-1940s to be precise, John McNair's government, Fisheries Minister André Doucet and civil servant Hédard Robichaud worked with federal authorities to industrialize New Brunswick's fisheries.

Traditional fishermen were being squeezed out: it was time for fishermen to gain their share of fishery resources and supply the coastal processing plants. The provincial government set up the Fishermen's Loan Board of New Brunswick, which later became the New Brunswick Fisheries Development Board (1978). Through that board, the fishing fleet was rejuvenated and trawlers were added to it. Traditional fishermen were strongly critical of trawlers, which had been dubbed "sea scavengers" 25 years earlier. The Gloucester, Chaleur, and Charlotte type trawlers were built in Bas-Caraquet, Blacks Harbour, and Port Greville. Launched in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they performed as anticipated by taking in larger catches.

Now that the fleet had been upgraded, the impact of those increased catches was not long in coming. In 1968, the province reached a new peak in fish landings (upwards of 244,000 metric tonnes). Catches of herring and snow crab soared, offsetting low catches of cod and lobster. Those larger catches not only filled the needs of the processing plants; they also brought about the construction of refrigerated warehouses, an example being the Shippagan warehouse, in which the federal and provincial governments and Connors Brothers Limited invested. The Fishermen's Loan Board also took an interest in diversifying the species fished and in training for fishermen. So it was that the School of Fisheries opened in Caraquet in 1959.

It would appear that fishery prices and catches in New Brunswick cycle up and down. The types of activity and techniques involved a call for adaptability to sustain this complex, multifaceted industry.

The Regions

In the late 19th century, New Brunswick's traditional fishing regions could be identified by types of fishery and export products: the southwest bordering the Bay of Fundy, the southeast bordering Northumberland Strait, and the northeast along the coast of Chaleur Bay.

The Southwest

The export of live lobster was key to the economy of southwestern New Brunswick. The proximity of U.S. markets definitely favoured that export trade. Live lobster sold very well in New York and Boston, and at a better price than canned lobster, it should be added. In 1881, production of the one cannery in the area, located in Grand Manan, accounted for only 1% of provincial output, as compared to 50% and 49% for the other regions of New Brunswick.

Economically, smoked or canned herring also put the region on the map. From 1889 on, improvements in the techniques used made it possible to market sardines (juvenile herring), which became famous worldwide owing to the Connors brothers of Blacks Harbour. The southwest posted 80% of the province's Atlantic herring landings. The report of the 1927 MacLean Commission inquiry into the crisis in the Atlantic fishery proudly underscored the Connors' commercial success. The company was to be the first in New Brunswick to establish a fish meal plant in the 1970s.

There were large fishing locations in the southwest at West Isles, Campobello, and especially Grand Manan. There were only a hundred or so fishing boats, and no monopolies. In the heyday of the fisheries (1880s), 32.5% of the Fundy area population worked in the industry, compared with 23.5% in the southeast and 45% in the northeast. Fishing was a way of life in Fundy, as elsewhere along the coast. The region was to gain a shipyard in the 1960s, at Chamcook, to meet the strong demand for herring seiners.

Although lobster and herring were the most prized species, whiting, pollock, haddock made for some diversification of the species fished in the region. Haddock was also a coveted export product. The southwest accounted for 95% of all haddock landings, and U.S. market demand for the product was very strong.

Since there was virtually no seasonal factor involved in regional production, fishermen had access to the resource almost year-round, and the plants ran almost non stop.

The Southeast

In the 19th century, lobster fishing for canning and export was the primary and most lucrative activity in the southeast. There was lobster in abundance; fishing opportunities and the low cost of setting up canneries attracted processors from the outside. Lobster was canned at low cost, and exports to England and the United States were very competitively priced. Few of the canneries, also called "factries," shops, or plants, were owned by Acadians, who worked at the upstream end as fishermen and processing plant workers.

Canneries multiplied in New Brunswick starting in 1870, increasing from 24 to nearly 100 in 1880, including 65 and 72 in Kent and Westmorland counties respectively. About 1900, Cap-Pelé alone had a dozen such plants over a distance of 3.2 kilometres. In other words, canneries and their large smoke stacks dominated the coastal landscape of the Acadian region.

In fact, the period 1875-1890 witnessed a race to capitalize on the growing lobster trade. Kent County ranked first for landings. Richibucto was regarded as one of the largest lobster fishing ports, as well as the canning capital.

Production peaked in 1887, then the lobster fishery began declining because the resource became scarcer and fishing methods were too traditional. In addition, canned lobster fell out of favour as fresh lobster became more popular. Although the advent of the train and refrigerated railcars spelled a momentary pick up in activity thanks to new export opportunities and better product quality, revenue plummeted during the Depression and World War II: a pound of lobster went from eight cents in 1920 and to five cents in 1940. The price bounced back to 23 cents in the post-war era. It was time to move on to a new stage - the industrial fishery - involving different equipment.

The Northeast

Cod fishing dominated the fishery in northeastern New Brunswick. The period 1875-1900 was known as the golden age in this sector. The Acadian Peninsula enjoyed a flourishing market for dried cod, which was exported to Europe. Thanks to Jerseyans Fruing and Robin, Shippagan and Caraquet became large administrative and export centres at the time, as well as key fishing centres. Gloucester County posted 72.4% of all cod landings in New Brunswick from 1875 to 1900. Caraquet accounted for half of that total.

The year 1889 was the best year for cod fishing. The increased production can be attributed to a combination of factors. The bait, also known as chum, consisted of herring, mackerel, or capelin, all of which were plentiful, and the trajectory of the cod banks was good. There were also fishing bounties, a kind of national assistance that the federal government granted to inshore and offshore fishermen. The bounties consisted of money given to the fishermen according to the size of their catch and the type of boat they used, which was usually a sailing schooner or a schooner.

Things changed in the dried cod business early in the 20th century. The Robins began losing their monopoly hold on the export market for Chaleur Bay dried cod. The Fruings had to give up their facilities in Lameque, Shippagan, Tracadie, New Bandon, and Grande-Anse in 1917. The Jerseyans suffered the blows of competition from the fresh-fish market and new types of production. Refrigerated and frozen fish became popular, and the Loggies, O'Learys, and others were quick to seize that new market.

During the 19th century and early 20th century, cod fishing and processing provided substantial income for the Jerseys, as well as jobs for fishermen and fish processors. Still, it did not mean widespread prosperity for them in the northeast.

A look at fishing techniques

Cod

Boats - Inshore fishing required only a very basic boat, a dugout canoe for instance. But that type of vessel was replaced by the sailing schooner at the start of the 19th century. Also called a fishing barge, it had a 7.3-metre to 8.5-metre keel but no deck. It was an expensive boat for fishermen in those days. The pinky schooner was introduced a little later and was a 10 to 15 tonne decked vessel with one or two sails.

The pinky schooner went out for a few days to a week and could haul larger loads than the sailing schooner. For example, during a full fishing season extending from June to October, the average catch with a pinky schooner might total 200 CWT, compared with 150 CWT with a sailing schooner (one CWT = 112 pounds). After 1885, the pinky schooner was the more common of the two and allowed fishermen to reach cod banks further out to sea.

Fishing - Fishermen line-fished for cod and tossed their catch in the bottom of the sailing schooner or on the deck of the pinky schooner. First, however, they had fitted their lines with bait, a valuable item that was sometimes hard to find and keep fresh for the cod fishing season. Fisherman on a sailing schooner butchered their catch in late afternoon back on dry land and set the fish out to dry. In the case of pinky schooners, the cod was immediately cleaned on board ship and stored in salt in the fish hold. Later, back on dry land, the load of cod was ready for drying.

Drying - Acadian Peninsula cod was described as hard-dried and commanded the best prices. The fish was first placed in salt, but not too long, then stacked in a drying plant to "sweat." When the surface was moist, the cod was spread on fish flakes, or trellises, outdoors in the sun to finish drying. It took know-how to evaluate the exposure time so that the fish would not be scorched before turning it over on the flakes. That was to ensure a high-quality commercial product. The process was known as "Gaspé drying." Next came the operation known as toubage in which the cod was placed in hogshead barrels for export.

Lobster

Fishing - Lobster was fished with a square net (carrelet), which consisted of a ring fitted with a net and bait. When the lobster business began booming as of the 1870s, the square net was replaced by the basket trap, or pot - despite resistance owing to the higher cost of buying or making those traps. Tradition has it that Freeman Kimball, a Cap-Pele businessman, introduced the basket trap to New Brunswick.

The basket trap had a big advantage in that once inside, the lobster could not escape. In those days, the traps were made of untarred wood and lasted for only one fishing season. Fishermen set their traps five to eight kilometres from shore and anchored them to a trawl buoyed for easy locating. They visited the traps twice a day.

Here are a few facts and figures about the size of catches in the 19th century. When lobster stocks began to decline, the fisherman could set as many as 300 traps, compared to 80 or 90 in the 1870s and 1880s when stocks were abundant. Small fishing boats returned with 700 and 800 lobsters; the biggest ones brought back a load of 3,000 lobsters.

Canneries - The lobster fishery stocked the canning plants and led to the opening of more plants. The first ones opened in Petit-Rocher, on Portage Island (Miramichi), and at the mouth of the Kouchibougouac River about 1840, then in Shediac and Grand Harbour a few years later. Americans, Scots, and British familiar with canning techniques arrived to set up business in New Brunswick.

An ordinary lobster cannery was inexpensive to set up and produced 275 to 400 cases of 48 one-pound tins. The equipment consisted of boilers, a furnace or stove, large vats, one or two tables, a large supply of tin cans, and implements such as a cleaver, soldering irons, and a can seamer.

The one-storey building made of plain boards had a chimney and shelves inside. An operator in the 19th century could set up a canning plant for under $1,000.

The work - Canning work involved many operations: boiling the lobster and transferring them to vats, then placing them on tables to pick out the meat from the claws and tails. The meat was placed in cans lined with parchment paper. The cans were sent to the packing machine and the sealer, then put on shelves to cool. They were inspected several times for quality, then sealed for good,labelled, and lacquered to prevent rust.

Great pains were taken with the labels, sometimes more than with the contents! Labels in those days were like little works of art. They were intended to attract the consumer's attention, and the designers tried to come up with the best possible product name and description to put on the label. Here are some examples: Carigwam, Crown, fresh canned, fresh northern, and fresh rock.

Upgrading fishing equipment

Modernization of the equipment for the commercial export fishery played a vital economic role for New Brunswick fishery.

Boats - The fishery was revolutionized in the early 20th century when sails were superseded by the Fairbanks motor. About the same time, the big operators introduced the trawler, a boat that could venture further out to sea and haul back larger loads of fish. This type of vessel helped to industrialize the fisheries about 25 years later.

After World War II, the federal and provincial governments set up a large-scale project to modernize the fishing fleet. They encouraged the building of wooden or iron boats over 22.9 metres long and the use of trawlers suited to the New Brunswick fishery. That project also bolstered the shipyards in the province.

The new fleet of vessels had a major impact. The 1960s are regarded as a time of growth for the province's overall fishing industry. Catches soared from 65,500 to 244,000 metric tonnes during the period 1951-1968.

The herring fishery grew by leaps and bounds in the 1960s. The introduction of seiners and new food requirements for fast-food restaurants were strong contributing factors. It was also the time when fish meal was first produced.

Big-business owners in New Brunswick opened large processing plants to meet the growing demand for fish. Those plants were equipped with filleting production lines, refrigerated warehouses, and ice-making equipment.

Conclusion

Line fishing, drying, and salting methods have been replaced to meet market needs more effectively. We now have great capacity for fish harvesting, processing, and handling. This calls for sound management geared to preserving fishery resources.

Bibliography

BEAUDIN, Maurice and Donald J. SAVOIE. Les défis de l'industrie des pêches au Nouveau- Brunswick, Moncton, Éditions d'Acadie, 1992.

BRUN, Régis La ruée vers le homard des Maritimes, Moncton, Michel Henry, éd., 1988.

LANDRY, Nicolas. Les pêches dans la Péninsule acadienne 1850-1900, Moncton, Éditions d'Acadie, 1994.

ROBICHAUD, Hédard. "Un politicien acadien au service des pêcheries", La Revue d'histoire de la Société historique Nicolas-Denys, volume XlX, numéro 2-3 (May-December 1991).

Looking back at our beginnings, Blacks Harbour.

top