8.9 Canada’s Ocean Fisheries

Miriam Wright, Department of History, University of Windsor

Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coast fisheries changed dramatically in the years after Confederation. Marine creatures, including fish, shellfish and marine mammals had sustained Aboriginal peoples on those coasts for thousands of years, and these same resources later attracted European settlers. In the 20th century, however, new technologies enabled people to catch far more fish. Fishing enterprises expanded and consolidated, changing the structure of the fishing industry and greatly affecting the lives of men and women who earned their living from fishing. These changes also affected fish, and by the end of the 20th century, many fish populations, including Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon, were severely depleted.

Historically, Atlantic cod was the predominant fishery on the Atlantic Coast. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, merchants outfitted wooden ships and engaged crews to fish for cod off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. As well, families, supplied with credit from merchants, fished inshore with small boats — the men and boys catching the fish, and the women and girls curing the catch on shore. In the days before refrigeration, people salted the cod that went to markets in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America.

By the 1940s, advances in refrigeration and freezing technologies meant that fishing companies could sell fish fresh or quick-frozen to customers in North America. Soon, women who had previously cured fish on shore were working in fish plants owned by frozen fish companies. While many fishing people continued to use small boats (although now equipped with gas engines), the companies acquired large fishing trawlers that operated offshore. By the early 1970s, inshore fishing people, plant workers, and trawler crews in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia had unionized to secure fair wages and control over prices in an increasingly industrialized environment. Industrialization, however, also put pressure on the cod populations as Canadian trawlers were joined offshore by vessels from Europe. In 1992, after declining for decades, the cod populations were so weakened that the Canadian government declared a moratorium on fishing. Despite these protective measures, the Atlantic cod off the coast of Newfoundland have not recovered. Other fisheries including crab and shrimp have replaced cod as the most significant species in the region, but these new fisheries employ far fewer than the cod fishery once had.

Like the Atlantic coast fishery, Canada’s Pacific coast fishery was diverse, including salmon (the most important species by far), herring, and halibut. The rich salmon rivers of British Columbia, such as the Fraser and the Skeena, have provided sustenance for Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years. Thus, Aboriginal people were also among the first workers in the commercial fishery in the 19th century when non-Aboriginal people built canneries on the salmon rivers. Aboriginal families spent the summers at the canneries, with women on the canning lines and men fishing from small wooden boats. Before long, other groups of immigrant workers arrived, including Chinese men who worked inside the canneries, immigrants from Japan who fished, and people of European descent.

In the 20th century, new technologies and industrial consolidation brought opportunities and challenges for those involved in the British Columbia salmon fishery. Gas engines arrived in the 1920s, but the biggest changes came after World War II: vessels became larger with more powerful engines and more effective nets and gear. The salmon companies closed their older canneries, centralized their operations in Vancouver, and encouraged fishers to invest in larger craft. While some did, others were shut out. Aboriginal peoples in particular found it harder to stay in the fishery with the cannery closures and barriers to getting larger vessels. As well, a 1968 federal license limitation plan removed hundreds of small boat fishers from the industry.

A man wrangles a large netted fish onto a platform with several others
Figure 8.13 Halibut harvest, British Columbia, 1937.

Although fishing vessels had become larger and more efficient, catches, on the whole, declined in the decades after the Second World War. By the 1990s, the salmon fishery was in crisis as salmon populations fell to historic lows.[1] Years of intensified fishing was certainly an important factor, but so were environmental problems. Decades of mining, logging, and hydro-electric development along salmon rivers destroyed the fish habitats. As well, changing conditions in the ocean, where salmon spend part of their lives, may also have been a factor. The federal government was accused, by industry stakeholders and scientists, of not protecting the resource and supporting the technological expansion of the industry. Although people in the industry have noted strong salmon returns in 2010 and 2014 for the important Fraser River sockeye, the future is still unclear.

The 20th century brought many opportunities for expansion and growth in both the Pacific and Atlantic coast fisheries, but these opportunities came with a high price. Fishing people and plant workers found it increasingly difficult to remain in an industry that favoured centralization and capital intensity. The wild species that had been part of the rich ecosystems of both coasts were under pressure from humans fishing and destroying their habitat. The destruction of these important ecosystems and habitats from over-fishing has threatened the livelihoods of thousands, and whether or not Canada’s wild ocean fisheries survive into the current century remains uncertain.

Key Points

  • Changes in fishing technologies and techniques in the 20th century drove certain stocks to a crisis point.
  • The East Coast cod fishery was organized around offshore and inshore operations, both capitalized by local merchants.
  • The advance of refrigeration technologies shifted fisheries employment from villages to processing factories, which led to a greater organization of fisheries labour.
  • More aggressive fishing led to the closure of the cod fisheries in 1992, producing widespread unemployment in the Atlantic region.
  • Similar outcomes were reached on the West Coast in the context of the salmon fishery, which was mechanized with motor vessels and canneries.
  • Over fishing and environmental damage resulted in salmon depopulation and cyclical crises in the industry.

Additional Readings

Cadigan, Sean. Hope and Deception in Conception Bay: Merchant-Settler Relations in Newfoundland, 1785-1855. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Newell, Dianne. Tangled Webs of History: Indians and the Law in Canada’s Pacific Coast Fisheries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Newell, Dianne and Rosemary Ommer, eds. Fishing Places, Fishing People: Traditions and Issues in Canadian Small-Scale Fisheries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Wright, Miriam. A Fishery for Modern Times: The State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934-1968. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wright, Miriam. “‘Building the Great Lucrative Fishing Industry’: Aboriginal Gillnet Fishers and Protests over Salmon Fishery Regulations for the Nass and Skeena Rivers, 1950s-1960s.” Labour/Le Travail 61 (Spring 2008): 99-130.


Figure 8.13
CVA 260-656 – [Men unloading fish on the Vancouver Harbour Commission fish dock] by James Crookall / City of Vancouver Archives is in the public domain.

  1. Joseph Gough, Managing Canada’s Fisheries (Sillery, QC: Septentrion, 2007), 455.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by Miriam Wright, Department of History, University of Windsor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book