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The Newfoundland Salt Fisheries: 450 Years of Making Fish
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The fishing was excellent along the province's exposed shores and out on the headlands of its bays. Good cases in point were Trinity and Bonavista Bays -- a stretch of the historic "English Shore" where the West Country fishing interests of England held sway from the late 1500s. Fish were abundant in the communities on the tips of the Bay de Verde and Bonavista Peninsulas, as well as other headlands and islands of the South and Northeast coasts and Labrador. It was off their coastlines that gigantic schools of offshore cod first migrated inshore in mid-June. Communities including Bonavista, Burin, Grates Cove, and Old Perlican were excellent fishing spots through the summer and fall of every year and it is no surprise that many have been settled for well over 300 years.
Similarly, the better cod-fishing stations in Labrador and on the South Coast of the island were generally located on the offer islands or at the tips of peninsulas. Both Francis Harbour on the south coast of Labrador and Branch in St. Mary's Bay, seen below, are good cases in point.
Up in the bays, communities with less dependable fishing and access to good lumber for ship-building began to specialize in ship fisheries for seal and cod in the 1700s. These larger vessels went each spring and summer to the fishing frontiers " down north" on the coasts of Labrador, and the Great Northern Peninsula, and offshore to the Grand Banks. (St.) Francis Harbour was one such fishing station through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wherever prosecuted, the product of the cod-fisheries was salted cod. "Choice Spanish," "Merchantable," "Madeira," and "West India" were just some of the up to twenty-three varieties of dried fish making their ways to markets in southern Europe, the West Indies and South America. Salt fish made the fortunes of many a European and Newfoundland merchant including the Garland family based in Trinity and in Poole in the West Country of England and the Ryans of Bonavista, Trinity and Kings Cove while the average fishing family made very little or no gain -- in the short or the long term. The "voyage" of fish (a season's catch) was brought to the merchant for "culling" (grading) and sold at that season's prices.
After settling up their accounts fishing families generally just broke even; money rarely changed hands in the what was known as the credit or truck system: the cod-fish was currency -- exchanged in the fall for fishing supplies, the necessities of life and the odd luxury -- salt meat, flour, "butter", and molasses were standard provisions.
The Newfoundland fishing enterprise was most famous for its "shore cure" -- light-salted fish dried by wind and sun -- and was typically an inshore, seasonal small-boat fishery: the tremendous storms and crushing pack ice of winter on the Northwest Atlantic saw to this. Families in fishing communities were intimate with the seasonal patterns of nature and of the creatures of the sea that they so successfully harvested. Up to the 1930s in many places families maintained winter houses or "camps" where they cut wood for fuel and for building their homes, fishing rooms and boats as well as summer fishing "rooms" out on the headlands. Each spring families made preparations for the fishing season: caulking and painting boats; "barking twine" (soaking fishing gear in boiling hot water and preservatives including "bark" made from conifer bark and buds, and coal tar);
"ganging hooks" (attaching hooks and weights to the fishing lines); re-erecting their fishing stages taken down the previous fall; "boughing" their open air, fish-drying flakes with spruce boughs; setting their vegetable gardens -- and many more tasks. Spring signalled renewal and bustle, a time of vigour and hope. Around the third week of June, people kept keen watch out for the massive schools of caplin that came to spawn on the beaches and in the coves, for right behind these smelt-like fish came schools of hungry cod. Wilson Hayward, 73, of Bonavista recalled the "caplin scull":
Then the fishery began in earnest -- it was "steady go" six days a week, eighteen and twenty hour days. P.K. Devine of King's Cove described in 1915 what those supremely busy times were like for fishing men and women in the 1860s:
Many older Newfoundlanders recall similar scenes this century -- working at the fish through to many a dawn, catching a quick nap, and then up again: the women to wash and dry (or "make") fish on the flakes, tend to the gardens and children, and the cooking, while the men went back on the water. This hectic pace could go on for days, even weeks at a time. As Jabez Ryder, 75, of Bonavista wryly summed it up: "Hard racket for a living boy." Besides remarkable stamina, catching and processing cod required many and various skills and complex traditional knowledge. Long before modern navigational gadgetry fishermen knew (and still know) within feet where to moor their boats on the water by lining up various "marks" on the shore so as to land on the prime fishing grounds. They are also superb handlers of their small open punts and skiffs. Before the coming of the "make and break" engines early this century they sailed and rowed the short distances from their fishing rooms to the numerous fishing grounds around their coves.
Returning with a catch, the men pronged this fish from their boats up onto the stages that were built out over the water. From there, crews of women and men worked quickly to clean the cod: it was headed, gutted, and "split" and the liver reserved for cod liver oil.
Fish were then salted for anywhere from 3 days to 3 months depending on the type being "made." After fish were taken from the salt, the women generally took over: each fish had to be washed and scrubbed and then lugged outside for drying on the flakes or on "shingle" beaches or "bawns" of loose stone. After what was frequently a complex drying process lasting many days, the fish was ready for shipping to the merchant where it was graded and then exchanged for goods.
The landscape and way of life of the outports has radically altered since the demise of the commercial salt fishery in the 1950s, just as it has since the collapse of the cod stocks in the early 1990s. Communities on the Northeast Coast once blanketed by the stages, flakes and stores of salt fishing rooms have few if any of these structures. The few remaining flakes scattered throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, the small boats -- punts and skiffs, and the Ryan Premises National Historic Site and the Battle Harbour Mercantile Premises site on the south coast of Labrador with their massive salt fish and provision stores are some of the few reminders of what was the way of life throughout Newfoundland and Labrador to the 1950s.
It was in that decade that a modern industrial, fresh-frozen fishery arose, quickly replacing the salt fishery and making a good many of the small, stable outports that thrived on it obsolete (though salt fishing lasted into the 1980s on the Labrador coast). As a result many of these communities were abandoned all over the island and on Labrador's coast in the late 1950s and early 1960s through a program known as resettlement. People moved to the fishing communities that survived or to mainland North America. With the fading of the salt fishery a four-century old sustainable and complex way of life changed drastically and forever. In four short decades since, the industrial fresh-frozen fishery has contributed to a dramatic altering of the ecosystem of the Northwest Atlantic and the collapse of the cod stocks. We can only hope that someday the teeming cod return to these waters and that with their return Newfoundland's and Labrador's vital fishing communities will be renewed.