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Fishing for Knowledge: A Brief History of Fisheries in the Canadian North Atlantic

The act of fishing has existed long before recorded history and is practiced worldwide making seafood the major source of food for many cultures. Over hundreds of years, as humans evolved and created societies the need for this food source continued to grow and in response commercial fishing began, creating the vital fishing and aquaculture sectors we know today. While fishing is important the world over, this article will focus on the origins of European fisheries in the Canadian North Atlantic that were essential for the development of North America and western society.


The earliest fishermen came to Canada in the 1500’s and began fishing from spring to fall mostly off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, returning to their respective European countries with their bounty. “The plentiful, easy-to-catch cod was the most valuable commodity: dried or salted, it could be transported long distances and would keep for several months.”, but also fished for other fish species and whales, resulting in the latter’s population being heavily impacted in a relatively short amount of time (Gough & James-abra, 2015). Soon fishing became vital for the growth of these European powers and with what appeared to be endless resources competition between the French and English rose creating two different approaches to the fishing industry.

English fisheries focused on their “semi-permanent fishing stations in protected harbours on Newfoundland’s southeast coast.” With the first captain to reach a harbour governing that harbour (Gough & James-abra, 2015). Most of the fishing was done close to the shore in small boats that would unload their catch onto a “stage” (wharf) to be cleaned and salted, then left to dry on tables that encourages circulation of air called “flakes”, making the easily transportable dried cod that was very popular. Fishermen from New England also came to Nova Scotia in the 18th century to fish the shores and the Bay of Fundy for not only the popular cod but also the Atlantic salmon. As this fishing industry grew and news of the bounty the new world offered, more and more people came to fish in Canada, resulting in many of the coastal communities that exist today.

Taking a ‘green fishery’ approach to fishing, the French had ports that were scattered along the shores of eastern Canada, as well as on many banks including the Grand Banks. Having more access to salt than the English, and choosing to process the catches directly aboard their ships allowed for the French to be quicker than the English in their fishing methods, although the product did not last as long as the English’s product. This accelerated process allowed for the French ships to return to their fishing stations in Canada more than once in a year. Due to conflicts between the English and French, the French method of fishing was not as widely used as the English approach moving forward.

Schooners, such as the Bluenose built in Lunenburg, Nova scotia, were being built along the shores of the Western Atlantic that allowed for the fishing of halibut, haddock, and mackerel in addition to cod. Schooners also began transporting small boats known as ‘dories’ that allowed fishermen to fish closer to shore where the larger schooner could not reach and using longline fishing techniques developed by the French that allowed for multiple hooks to be in the water at once, attached to an anchored main line, increasing their yields. Another French innovation, the purse seine (net) allowed for an easier catch of herring and mackerel by using nets in the water to catch fish near the surface. “The fishermen tightened a purse line at the bottom of the net to enclose the fish in what looked like a floating bowl.” Allowing for a drastic increase in the amounts of these fish caught (Gough & James-abra, 2015). Also during the 16th century a large seal fishery “which became important in Newfoundland’s growth.” began to develop due to the Conception Bay schooners there and the higher concentration of seal in that area (Gough & James-abra, 2015).


By 1800 the seal industry in Newfoundland was mostly operated by Newfoundlanders rather than seasonal fishermen from Europe and allowed for Newfoundland to amass a fleet of “about 18,000 small boats and 1,200 larger vessels.”, aiding in its economic growth (History of Fishing in Canada 2020).

In 1857 the first Superintendent of Fisheries in what was then Lower Canada, now known as Quebec, created “the first detailed records of planned aquaculture activity in Canada…” (Government of Canada, 2015). This came after they observed and studied brook trout and Atlantic salmon eggs hatching in an incubated and controlled setting, and by 1865 Prince Edward Island began producing oysters. Throughout this century the fleets of Maritime and Newfoundland ships grew quite large and “[a]t Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the federal government was given authority over the fisheries, and set up the Department of Marine and Fisheries.”, which by this time included hundred of lobster canneries, and a crucial sardine-canning industry (Gough & James-abra, 2015). This appointment gave rise to regulations that “aimed mostly to protect salmon and inshore fisheries, where problems were most visible “, with other “set rules on gear types, size limits, and seasons for dozens of fisheries…” coming near the end of the century and early into the 19th century. Also “[n]ear the end of the century, an effort to increase the depleted cod population off the coast of Newfoundland began with a cod hatchery established in 1889 on Dildo Island and “released over a billion cod fry into the waters of coastal Newfoundland”, (Government of Canada, 2015). It was during this post-confederation era that the fisheries industry began to seek to conserve fishing and seek more sustainable practices, developing rules and restrictions “of fishing times and seasons, fish size, and fishing gear” while “The Fisheries Act also outlawed putting substances that would be harmful to fish into the water.” (Gough & James-abra, 2015). “In 1898 the federal government established the first of several biological and technical research stations under the Biological Board of Canada (later the Fisheries Research Board).” to monitor fishing practices and seek to innovate the industry to be more sustainable. These rules and restrictions were the base of the laws we have today, with many of the original rules and restriction still being enforced.


With Confederation giving rise to more regulations and rules regarding fishing and fisheries in the North Atlantic waters, the final decisions on what was acceptable was left to each province. This allowed the North Pacific (British Columbia) to also experience a growing economy thanks to the income from their fishing industries, with the Pacific salmon industry becoming the leading fish to be traded at beginning of the 20th century, dwarfing even the highly important halibut and herring trades. Although salted groundfish was still the main trading seafood, scallops and swordfish began to have their own fisheries developed at the beginning of the 19th century.

The World Wars and The Great Depression hit the Maritime and North Atlantic fishing industries hard prompting the Royal Commission of 1927 resulting in “the trawler fleet [being] reduced to only three or four vessels during the 1930s.” (Gough & James-abra, 2015). “Although the Lunenburg fleet in particular was doing more winter fishing for the fresh-fish market, the trawler “ban” slowed the growth of the fresh, fresh-frozen, and year-round fisheries.” further damaging the economic status of the fishing industry in the Canadian North Atlantic. This combined with the failing economy, a decreased demand, and other financial issues created a perfect storm that delayed the technological advancement of the industry for several decades.

After the wars many innovations to the fishing industry occurred such as; the American development of the “filleting and quick-freezing processes, enabling them to sell packaged fresh or frozen fillets, instead of whole fish, to a wider market.”, and the use of military technology like radars, sonar, radios, nylon nets and hydraulic gear. Governments began to once again encourage these advancements and began to put supports in place to help struggling fishermen and encourage the industry to grow again. These measures also saw the government encourage the fishing of redfish, flounder, flatfish, crab, shrimp, and offshore scallops, and to allow trawler fleets to grow, with some companies having 150 trawlers in their fleets. This push for growth in the industry did have negative consequences in the North Atlantic in the forms of overfishing and overcapacity, “the term used when fishermen’s ability to catch fish, using whatever technology was available to them, meant too many fish were being caught from a conservation perspective.” (Gough & James-abra, 2015).


During the 1960’s and 1970’s pressure began to be put on the fishing industries to be better managed. While fishing on the Pacific coast was banned from 1967-1972 due to the overfishing of herring, fishing on the Atlantic coast was encouraged and still thriving, at dangerous levels that depleted stocks at accelerated rates and damaged ocean ecosystems and wildlife populations. Fishing licences were soon required by all fisheries and fishermen, however “fishermen could in effect buy and sell them and there was no direct control on the number of fishermen fishing.” (Gough & James-abra, 2015). Many other regulatory changes occurred over this time, however the economic, environmental, and social issues that arose from the fishing industry continued to grow. British Columbia was one of the first provinces to develop superb fishery and aquaculture management even with a smaller fleet of ships, due to the increased levels of education, oversight and regulations that controlled their fishery industry due to their “strong local organizations” while the Atlantic fishing industry did not provide as much support for their local and independent fishermen.

Throughout the 1970’s many provinces followed B.C.’s lead and strived to better manage their own fishery operations. This era saw both prosperous times and times of struggle, with the end of the 70’s seeing licensing becoming required for all fishing and the government establishing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as its own department in 1979. The Fisheries Council of Canada also played a part in representing fish processors “whose plants came under provincial control but many processors-controlled vessels, and the FCC exerted strong influence on the federal fisheries department.” (History of Fishing in Canada 2020). These newly established institutions helped to develop salmon and trout aquaculture, helped promote wide-scale commercial activity, and oversaw the management of many fishing institutions.

In the 1980’s commercial scale marine finfish aquaculture began in Canada, and BC began to import and farm Atlantic salmon, helping the province to take the lead in the fishing industry. By 1988 the value of aquaculture production in Canada is calculated to be an “impressive $433 million” (Government of Canada, 2015). In 1989 a major problem was discovered when inshore fishermen in Newfoundland discovered that the once abundant cod fish were becoming fewer and fewer in their numbers, prompting the government to examine why this was occurring (spoiler, it was from over fishing).

The 1990’s saw a move in the industry from small independent fisheries to larger consolidated companies, while a high number of escaped salmon is discovered in BC fisheries prompting another change in the way fisheries are managed, aiming to “achieve “zero escape” of fish from net-pen facilities.” (Government of Canada, 2015). During this decade, the aquaculture industry value rose to $558 million. In 1992 after years of research and studies, the Fisheries and Oceans Minister John Crosbie instituted a moratorium on cod fishing in the North Atlantic, to allow the decimated population to ‘bounce back’. Once believed to be able to feed the world until the end of time, cod hauls had dropped by over 600,000 tonnes between 1988 and 1995, resulting in the leader of the Newfoundland Fishermen and Allied Workers Union leader Richard Cashin to call the situation “a famine of biblical proportions.” (Marsh & Tattrie, 2016). This discovery also helped to push for the creation of the Fisheries Resource and Conservation Council that was made up of academics, scientists and government officials, and those within the industry to help make the regulations, rules and laws surrounding fisheries and aquaculture in Canada. By 2000 the entirety of Canada’s seafood industry was valued at $1.77 billion.


After the push for sustainable and accountable fishery and aquaculture management and practices in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the 2000’s continued to build upon theses beliefs and further researched better ways to create a healthier, environmentally conscious and sustainable aquaculture and fishing industry, that now existed across Canada. There are now “45 species of finfish, shellfish and marine plants…raised commercially in Canada.”, with the majority being salmon from British Columbia and New Brunswick Oysters and mussels from Prince Edward Island and trout from Central and Western Canada. Shellfish had also overtaken groundfish during the late 90’s as the dominant industry in the aquaculture and fisheries sector and continues to rise. These changes, regulations, practices, and policies also helped to create a safer environment for fishermen as well as increased compensation. In 2010 the seafood industry in Canada was valued at $1.3 billion dollars, demonstrating how vital the industry continues to be for our society and economy.

Fishing is in all our histories and the aquaculture and fishery industry in the Canadian North Atlantic has helped shape the industry across the globe and helped make our country what it is today. The fishing and aquaculture industries provide work to thousands of people across the globe and, as a result, provides food for millions. Noting that most innovations in the industry and its management have only occurred over the last 50 years, the future of the seafood industry is bright and always changing. Be sure to keep an eye out for our follow up blog about the future of the fishery and aquaculture industries.

*For more information on the history of fisheries and aquaculture in Canada please visit the sources below*


  1. (2020). History of Fishing in Canada. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from

Cook, R. (2019, February 14). Atlantic Cod: The good, the bad, and the rebuilding – Part 1. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from

Finley, C. (2013, November 27). The role of fish in the World War II war effort. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from

Gough, J., & James-abra, E. (2015, July 23). History of Commercial Fisheries. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from

Government of Canada, F. (2015, March 03). Farming the seas – A timeline. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from

Holmyard, N. (2019, July 17). New study maps out how the world’s fisheries are interconnected. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from

Marsh, J. H., & Tattrie, J. (2016, March 1). Bluenose. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from

National Museum of Natural History, S. (2019). On the Water. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from

Perspective. (2018, August 09). Canada’s Aquaculture contributes $3.1 billion to Economy. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from

Stokstad, E. (2019, May 27). Fishing fleets have doubled since 1950-but they’re having a harder time catching fish. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from

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