Fisheries and the Fishing Industry

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The fishing industry was one of the more important components of the American economy of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, there was significant regional variation in the type and quantity of fish caught, the nature of the market for those fish, and the importance of the industry to the regional economy.

new england

The New England cod fishery was the first, the largest, and the economically most important of the fisheries in what became the United States. In the 1600s, fishing vessels from New England towns such as Gloucester and Marblehead joined ships from Portugal, Spain, France, and England in the cod-rich waters along the shores of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Labrador. In the first half of the eighteenth century, ships from France, Britain, and New England also began to fish for cod on the Grand Banks, a forty-thousand-square-mile portion of the North Atlantic off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. The fish taken by these fishermen were salted, dried, and shipped across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean in quantities known as quintals—112 pounds of dried, salted cod. These quintals of cod formed one leg of the so-called Golden Triangle, in which fish from the northwestern Atlantic were sent to Europe, loads of slaves were transported from Africa to the Caribbean, and commodities such as sugar, molasses (a key ingredient in rum), and indigo were shipped from the Caribbean to New England and Canada. All the nations involved in the cod fisheries viewed them as not only a source of commerce, but also as "nurseries" for their navies, in which men would learn the craft of sailing. During wartime, harvests declined as men were taken from the fishing fleets to serve on men-of-war.

When the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended the Seven Years' War, severely restricted French access to the Canadian fisheries, the New England fishermen and the British resident and cross-Atlantic fishermen, or "bankers," became the primary competitors for the cod. For the next sixty years, the fishermen from New England struggled to maintain their rights to catch and export cod while Parliament sought to prevent them from doing so through parliamentary acts (the Restraining Act and Palliser's Act, both of 1775) and treaty stipulations. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 maintained the access of American fishermen to the Grand Banks and to portions of the shore fishery in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, while restricting their access to onshore areas on which to dry their catch. This resulted in shorter fishing trips, or "fares," as the New Englanders had to return home to preserve their fish for export. A British act of that same year prohibited the sale of American fish in the British West Indies, which forced the New Englanders to turn to the French West Indies as the primary market for their fish.

The War of Independence devastated the American fishery, as annual exports declined by nearly 30 percent, a reduction from the prewar level of 350,000 quintals per annum to 250,650 per annum after the war. The postwar recovery was slow, and exports did not return to their prewar average until 1790. In an effort to stimulate the industry, Congress in 1792 instituted a bounty system under which shipowners and operators would receive a certain amount according to the tonnage of their vessel, so long as they were engaged in cod fishing for at least four months in a given year. This system was altered several times to increase the bounty and include pickled cod. In 1807 the bounties were repealed, and this—in concert with the War of 1812 (1812–1815)—again decimated the fishery. The 1816 export of 220,000 quintals was the lowest since before the Revolution. In 1813 the bounties were reestablished, pending the end of the war.

When the War of 1812 came to a close, the rights of Americans to the British North American fisheries were again in dispute. The New Englanders maintained that the rights guaranteed in the 1783 treaty remained in operation, while the British asserted that the recent hostilities had annulled those privileges. The question was not settled until the Convention of 1818, which allowed New Englanders to catch and preserve fish on the southern and western shores of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. Elsewhere in British Canadian waters, American vessels could fish no closer than three marine miles from shore. Thereafter, the New Englanders' struggle for markets in which to sell their fish was part of a larger trade struggle with England in which each nation imposed tonnage and import duties and closed their ports to each other's ships.

the chesapeake

The earliest explorers and settlers of the Chesapeake Bay area discovered abundant and diverse marine resources. Herring, shad, alewives, mullet, sturgeon, and many other species filled the rivers, estuaries, and bays. However, in spite of the rich fish resources, the fishing industry was relatively slow to develop in these waters. This delay was caused mainly by a lack of salt with which to preserve the fish caught in this warm climate. Locally produced salt was inferior and superior salt from the Mediterranean was unavailable in adequate quantities because of a prohibition by Parliament (in the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts) against the importation of salt directly to the Chesapeake colonies. This lack of salt and the resulting danger of fish spoilage resulted in a fishing industry that was primarily local. What fish was exported went primarily to the West Indies, where—like merchants from New England—those from the Chesapeake picked up molasses, coffee, sugar, and oranges.

the great lakes

Commercial fishing in the Great Lakes developed somewhat later than in New England or the Chesapeake, due in large measure to the relative lateness of the region's settlement. Low population levels and lack of markets for fish impeded the industry's growth. It was not until the 1820s and 1830s that new markets opened up and the industry could expand.

Of the Great Lakes fisheries, the Atlantic salmon fishery of Lake Ontario was the first to be exploited commercially. By the 1790s, large numbers of these anadromous species (fish that grow to maturity in the lake's waters and swim upstream to reproduce) were being taken commercially in the Lake Ontario watershed. The fish's need to migrate to reproduce made them vulnerable to extensive harvesting as they made their annual spawning run upstream. Beginning in 1801, the New York legislature enacted a series of laws intended to extend some protection to the salmon, especially during the spawning season. By 1848 the state had enacted a total of twenty-four laws regulating salmon fishing in the state's waters.

The fishing industry on the other Great Lakes developed even later than that of Lake Ontario. In these waters, other species formed the base of the fishery: whitefish, sturgeon, lake trout, bass, pickerel, and herring, primary of these being the whitefish. Around 1812 these fish were being harvested commercially in the Saint Clair River and by 1815 in the Maumee River and Bay. In the early days of this commercial fishery, the catches were minuscule compared to those of New England's fishery. In 1817 approximately three thousand barrels of fish were taken from the lakes, only 2.7 percent of New England's prior year exports, which was a relatively small number for an industry still feeling the negative effects of the War of 1812.

By 1830, the Great Lakes fishery was about to experience its first period of substantial growth. The population around the lakes had grown, creating new markets close at hand, while the advent of lake steamers and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 created access to markets further afield.

See alsoTreaty of Paris .


Bogue, Margaret Beattie. Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783–1933. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Innis, Harold A. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1940.

Jefferson, Thomas. "Report on the American Fisheries by the Secretary of State." In The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Julian P. Boyd. Vol. 19. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Lear, W. H. "History of Fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic: The 500-Year Perspective." Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science 23 (1998): 41–73.

Wharton, James. The Bounty of the Chesapeake: Fishing in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corp., 1957.

Kevin L. Gooding