The Outlook of the Fisheries.
J.W. Collins.
1886.
The Century
32 (6): 959-961


THE future of our fisheries is a subject which is now attracting a large share of public attention. An industry that in 1880 employed 131,426 men, an invested capital of $37,955,349, supported a population of more than half a million, and the annual product of which, at the prices paid to the fishermen, was $43,046,053, is certainly entitled to consideration as an important factor in our national growth and prosperity. Especially is this so when it is considered that the harvest thus reaped is taken from the sea — from fields that no man has sown — and the gathering of which trains a large body of hardy and enterprising men, who constitute a self-supporting militia of the sea, a force of inestimable value to any nation that aspires to naval or commercial greatness.

The question of the hour is, what ought to be done to foster and protect our fisheries, in order that they may be carried on with that reasonable assurance of success which alone will guarantee their continuance? Will success be best assured by some so-called reciprocal arrangement with the British provinces, similar to the Washington treaty recently expired? or will greater prosperity be attained under the treaty of 1818, which is now in force? The answer to this question has been most emphatically given by the entire fishing population of New England. The expiration of the fishery clauses of the Washington treaty was hailed with unfeigned satisfaction, and during the past winter they unanimously declared in memorials to Congress that the inshore British fishery was absolutely valueless to them. It was stated “that there was nothing in its use as a fishery that our fishermen desired the Government to procure for them at the price of any equivalent, whether in opening our market to Canadian fish, or in money; that when the treaty of Washington had, at the cost of $5,500,000 and other considerations, opened those waters as a fishery to us, the shore people prevented our taking bait by mobs and violence to our vessels and seines; that Great Britain, unwilling to restrain them, paid damages for the Fortune Bay outrages; that we did not use the cod fishery in the limit; that the mackerel was insignificant, and that the use of these waters as a fishing adjunct to our undoubted rights of common fishery in the ocean had no practical value for fishing under our flag and was not asked for by our fishermen."

A brief review of the New England fisheries will enable us to weigh the value of this declaration, in the light of well ascertained facts, and to arrive at an understanding of whether the reciprocity treaties which have been made, ostensibly in behalf of the fishermen, have been of value to them or otherwise. By so doing we shall be better able to judge of the future of our fisheries and of what is best calculated to insure their prosperity and continuance as an American industry.

First, what are the advantages to be gained by American fishermen from enjoying the so-called privilege of fishing within the three-mile limit, on certain parts of the provincial coast, from which, by the treaty of 1818, they are debarred? It may be stated at the start, in positive terms, that the cod and halibut fisheries are prosecuted by American fishermen entirely in the open sea, outside of British jurisdiction. According to the United States Fish Commission, the area of the offshore banks thus unrestrictedly frequented by the American vessels, and exclusive of the Greenland and Iceland halibut grounds, is 73,123 square geographical miles. This includes the range of elevated ocean plateaus that extend from Cape Cod to the Flemish Cap, off Newfoundland, and which constitute the great fishing banks in the western Atlantic.

The mackerel fishery, then, is the only one which, even under the privileges of the Washington treaty, was prosecuted to any extent at all by American fishermen in inshore British waters. The value of the privilege of fishing for mackerel within the three-mile limit on the Canadian coast may be judged from the following:
According to a report on the fishing grounds of North America, prepared by the United States Fish Commission, the total area of the mackerel fishing grounds off the eastern coast of the United States is 56,000 square geographical miles. Here, in our own waters, the most extensive and valuable mackerel fishery of the world is carried on. In addition to this, our fishermen have the right to fish in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence outside of the three-mile limit; and thus is opened to them an additional area of 15,200 square miles, making a total of more than 70,000 square miles over which they have an unquestioned right to prosecute their operations. Now, if we estimate the area of inshore waters frequented by our fishermen in pursuit of mackerel, we will able to get an idea of their relative importance, always supposing that the fishery can be prosecuted as well inshore as it can off, which is not the fact, as will be shown hereafter. The north shore of Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton are the localities in the inshore British waters which are now chiefly visited by American vessels in pursuit of mackerel. The total area of the inshore waters in these regions commonly resorted to by American fishermen does not much exceed 775 square miles (if we follow the coast line), or about one per cent. of the area of the mackerel fishing grounds to which they have an unquestioned right. Or, if we include the south shore of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, the east side of Cape Breton, and what is known as the ”West Shore“ —from Point Escumenac to Point Miscou — in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we shall have a total area of 2,064 square miles. But a simple statement of the area of these inshore waters over which alone England has any control can convey little idea of their value. The mackerel fishery is now exclusively prosecuted with the great purse seine instead of by hook and line, which were formerly used. Therefore, the larger portion of this inshore area of water being too shallow and the bottom too rough to permit of the successful manipulation of the fishing apparatus, it is comparatively seldom that any fish are caught near the land. On the southern coast of Nova Scotia few fish are taken by American vessels, and these only during their migratory period. Thus it will be seen that the available area inside the limit is exceedingly small.

Then, too, the change in the methods of fishing has, in recent years, led to the almost practical abandonment of the mackerel fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Occasionally a considerable fleet enters the Gulf; but, since the results have generally been unsatisfactory, there have been seasons when only a very few vessels went there. It is true, perhaps, that the mackerel being a remarkably erratic species, its movements cannot be predicted from year to year with any absolute certainty.

The results obtained in the past ten years, since the universal employment of the purse seine, may serve, however, as a fair basis in judging of the future. It is an historical fact, now well established by the most accurate and careful investigation and inquiry, that the catch of mackerel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not to speak of the inshore waters under British control, has been of comparative insignificance during the last decade. And even under the most favorable conditions, when the catch there has been exceptionally large, as in 1885, the total product of the Gulf mackerel fishery did not amount to more than eight per cent. of the entire catch of the New England fleet. Of this, less than one-fourth was taken inside of the three-mile limit.

The influence of the reciprocity treaty of 1854 was not immediately felt, and the fleet employed in the food fisheries of New England seems to have reached its maximum in 1862. At this date, according to the returns of the Bureau of Statistics, there were 133,601 tons employed in cod fishing, and 80,596 tons engaged in the mackerel fishery, a total of 214,197 tons. Since 1862 there has been more or less fluctuation in the tonnage employed in the fisheries; but, since the conclusion of the Washington treaty, the decline has been very marked, so much so that in 1883, according to the authority above mentioned, the tonnage employed in the cod and mackerel fishery was only 95,038 tons new measurement, which would he equivalent to about 140,000 tons old measurement, which shows an actual decrease, since 1862, in these branches of the fisheries, of 74,197 tons.

In 1879 an excellent opportunity was presented to me to note the practical operation of the fishery clauses of the Washington treaty. In the summer of that year I was at Pubnico, Nova Scotia, and was told by residents of that place that its fishing fleet, under the influence of the free markets of the United States, had grown from four small vessels to a fleet of about sixty fine schooners, during the previous six or seven years. In the latter part of the summer I entered upon the work of investigating the fisheries of New England for the tenth census. In many places on the coast it was found that the treaty had exerted a very baneful influence. Towns which had formerly sent to sea fleets of fishing vessels, varying from twenty-five to upward of one hundred sail, had then barely a remnant left, and in some cases not a single schooner. Some of these outfitting stations were veritable pictures of desolation—merely reminders of a lost industry. One in particular, called “Rigg’s Cove,” at Georgetown, Maine, impressed me the most forcibly. From here had sailed, a few years previously, fifty fine schooners. But what a change! At the time of our visit nothing remained to indicate its former business importance but neglected and tumble-down store houses, and decaying wharves, against which lay a superannuated fish freighter, the tide flowing in and out of her open seams, and the broken cordage flapping monotonously against her bare spars, as if she had come here to die on the scene of her former usefulness.

It may not then be wondered at that, with such examples before them, American fishermen look with dread and distrust upon any proposition to renew similar relations with the British provinces. The evils they now have under the treaty of 1818, though they are many and onerous, are preferred instead.

Judging from the past, there can be no question that the result of another era of free fishing and “free fish’s would be the practical annihilation of our ocean fisheries. And there can be little doubt that fair success can be obtained, and our fisheries restored to prosperity, if they are accorded a reasonable amount of protection, so that, at least, they may be placed on an even footing with foreign competitors, who are fostered by bounties, and have none of the onerous duties to pay which are exacted from our fishermen.

The future of our fisheries, then, depends almost wholly on the action of our Government. Let the rights of citizens of the United States in provincial waters be only clearly and authoritatively defined by the United States, and the fishermen will soon adapt themselves to the existing conditions. If they have commercial rights, as has been claimed by the highest authorities in the Senate, it is proper that they should know what those rights are, at the earliest practicable moment. They do not care to fish in British waters which are only inside the three-mile limit, and do not include off-shore fishing grounds, as has been erroneously supposed by many. This right would be valueless, as has been shown; and it is worthy of remark that not one of the Canadian cruisers has had cause for interfering with American vessels on this head during the present season.

The rights which are ours by the convention of 1818 have also to a large degree been rendered valueless in consequence of the interpretation given to the treaty by Canada. Such, for illustration, is the right of shelter. Let me ask who has the best right to an opinion in regard to the need of shelter for a vessel? Is it her master, who, by long years of training and experience, is competent to judge of the dangers which he must encounter in leaving a harbor, or is it a lands-man, devoid of all experience of the sea, who, nevertheless, may be appointed as a custom officer, and, under the present arrangement, may have the power to order a vessel to sea under the penalty of seizure! On a coast where gales suddenly arise, accompanied by hard driving snows, rain and fog, frequently lasting for many days, where comes the right to order a vessel to sea under penalty of seizure if she lay in harbor beyond a prescribed limit? It is, perhaps, not too much to hope that questions of this kind, which have long been held in abeyance, may be soon settled, in accordance with the humane and enlightened spirit of the age.

Let our fishermen be once assured of protection in the enjoyments of their rights under the treaty of 1818, and there can be no reasonable doubt that, with the improved methods and appliances which have been recently adopted, together with the bravery and hardihood which have been their distinguishing characteristics, the industry in which they are engaged will recover its former prosperity. It will take time, to be sure, to shake off the effects which are a result of two reciprocity treaties. But this can be done if the conditions are favorable.

And will it not be a wiser policy to promote by all justifiable means an industry which adds to the country’s wealth, and at the same time trains a large body of efficient seamen, who must ever stand as a bulwark against its invasion by sea? If this is granted, then experience has proved that there is only one way to reach the desired result. While “free fish” will surely sound the death knell of the American fisheries, the assurance of American markets for American products will as certainly promote them.

J.W. Collins.

The Outlook of the Fisheries.
J.W. Collins.
1886.
The Century
32 (6): 959-961