Maritime fishermen are using the break the war gave them to shed their barnacles, update their ships and keep their place on the world’s menu

JOHN MACLURE January 15 1948


Maritime fishermen are using the break the war gave them to shed their barnacles, update their ships and keep their place on the world’s menu

JOHN MACLURE January 15 1948

THE SKIPPER and the wheelsman were two cigarettes in the dark.

I was with them in the wheelhouse of the trawler Cape LaHave, out of the Nova Scotia port of Lunenburg, but all I could see was the glowing ends of their smokes. Nothing is blacker than a stormy December night on the North Atlantic.

Breezing up some,” Captain Elbum Demone said quietly. That should have won him a prize for understatement.

Spray pounded over the bridge, the wind screamed in fury, the temperature was sinking toward zero. The vessel, pitching and rolling crazily, was turning into a mass of ice. But the methodical business of catching cod went, on as usual.

At midnight Captain Demone gave the order, “'Time to haul.” The wheelsman tugged the whistle cord and a doleful toot signaled the hands to action.

Floodlights blazed on with blinding brightness and the crew tumbled out of the forecastle, leaving unfinished cribbage games behind and fastening their oilskins as they struggled to their posts.

I wondered how they managed to stay on their feet, with the LaHave bouncing around so violently. The floodlights flashed against ice that was thicker than when we had last hauled. It caked the decks, the rails, the rigging. The ropes were so thick with it that they looked like tree trunks and the scene had a strange and frightening beauty.

In the white glare the men were black silhouettes — silhouettes often blurred by flying sheets of salt water.

The captain rang the engine room. In response, you could feel the ship’s speed slowing suddenly, then the vibration as the huge winch drums reeled in thousands of feet of steel cable—the cable that tows the trawl.

Presently the “gates” came up. Two massive oblongs of wood and metal, weighing more than a ton each, they hold the net on the bottom and keep its wide mouth stretched open.

Finally the net appeared—a gigantic sock of twine mesh. As it writhed, serpentlike, on the churning surface in the lee of the LaHave, it reminded you of the Loch Ness monster’s grandfather.

Yard by yard, it was pulled aboard.

“Not enough fish for breakfast,” grumbled Captain Demone, when its contents were emptied on the foredeck — another vast understatement.

The foredeck is called the “checkerboard” because it is divided into an arrangement of square bins. Into these bins tumbled enough cod to provide Friday dinners for a town of 10,000 to 15,000.

Knee-deep in flapping fish, the crew went to work with long razor-sharp knives, splitting their victims, cleaning them, and pitchforking them through the hatches to the storage ice in the holds with incredible speed. It was not a pretty sight.

Livers went into tubs to be saved for their oil. The rest of the offal was sloshed through the scuppers with hoses—a treat for the white gulls that swirl around fishing boats like snowflakes.

Affer the slaughter the men turned the hoses on themselves to scour off the gore and entrails that stuck to their oilskins.

Meanwhile, the net had been put out again and trawling speed had been resumed.

You soon realize, on a trawler, that besides being a ship it is a well-organized factory that produces fish 24 hours a day, in fair weather and foul, winter and summer.

Out on the banks, at two- or three-hour intervals, the captain or the mate gives the order, “Time to haul.” And the net is brought up from the depths with another ton of fish—or two tons or five tons or even 10 tons. It is never empty.

A fair annual catch for the LaHave is eight million pounds, worth from $200,000 to $250,000.

She has never equalled the Halifax trawler Lemberg’s fabulous 10-day catch of one million pounds back in the twenties. The Lemberg eventually piled up on Sable Island, but even had she escaped disaster, the old coal-burner would now be obsolete. She was too big, too heavy, too expensive. Current fishing history is being written by trim compact Diesel-powered trawlers like the 132-foot, 245-ton Cape LaHave, built in 1945.

The LaHave’s captain can pin-point her position on the chart from radio beams. An electronic instrument registers the depth under her keel. Radiotelephone keeps her in touch with the shore and with other ships at sea.

Ton for ton, she’s the most efficient machine yet devised for harvesting food from the Atlantic. Nova Scotia’s hopes of retaining a foremost place in today’s highly competitive deep-sea fishing are tied up in craft of her type.

And, in a sense, she symbolizes the determination of Canada’s entire east-coast fishing industry, which supports one sixth of the population of the Maritime Provinces, not to slip back to the tragic conditions of the 1930’s.

Troubles of a Traditionalist

TRAWLERS like the LaHave cost about $300,000 each and are owned by well-financed corporations with headquarters in Halifax and Lunenburg. But in dozens of Maritime villages individual fishermen are just as intent on improving boats, gear and methods as the head of the most important fish company.

The first World War brought them tremendous prosperity, but it was followed by grim years of empty pockets and even empty stomachs. Prosperity returned with the second World War--and now the job is to hang on to it. Those in the industry know they can’t succeed unless they pit progress against time.

Most of the fisherman’s trouble has been that he was a traditionalist who shied away from the mass production technique, preferring sail to combustion engine and hand line to trawl net. And he offered the same old products, like salt cod dried in the sun, long after rapid transportation, refrigeration and other developments had changed the eating habits of mankind.

When he realized his mistake, he was hopelessly poor. But now he has money again—has another opportunity. And he’s racing to catch up with his competitors, who include not only fishermen of other countries but Canadians who produce such competitive foods as meat, poultry, eggs.

He’s confident he can get a fatter share of your provision dollar if he gives you better quality and better value. Through co-operatives and the merger of small fishing concerns into large, he is building new processing plants, even flying his product to market in some cases and generally upping efficiency to cut costs. 

Shipbuilding and registration in the Maritimes tell part of the story of the revolution that is taking place. The famous Lunenburg firm of Smith and Rhuland, which has launched 250 windships in the last half century, is now turning its attention to powered trawlers like the LaHave, and a pocket-size trawler called a dragger, which is becoming increasingly popular.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia between them in 1944 had three trawlers, one dragger and 108 schooners.  Today six trawlers are in operation, 19 draggers with a 20th being launched, and the number of schooners has fallen off to 95.  Only the abnormal demand of recent years has kept the old schooner fleets in business, say Maritimers in the industry; a slump in the market would speed their departure for they would be unable to hold their own against the greater efficiency of the trawlers.

Compared with schooner fishing, and all the hardships and hazards of setting forth from the mother craft in open dories not much bigger than ordinary rowboats, trawler fishing resembles “the life of Riley.”

But it’s still tough, hard, extremely dangerous work.

Optimistically, I had pyjamas with me when I left Lunenburg on National Sea Products’ Cape LaHave for a week on the Middle Ground, 160 miles off shore. They remained in my bag. It’s too cold, too uncomfortable, to remove your clothes when you turn in on a trawler—and nobody does.

Poor Skates

I shared a cabin with towering broad-shouldered Tom Pittman, the first mate, and he laughed when I started to undress the first night out. “What do you think this is?” he asked. “A hotel?”

Tom was typical of the men on board —rugged, good-natured, fearless. A Newfoundlander, he has fished all his life. He was on the vessel Good Hope when she collided with an 18,000-ton liner outside of Halifax and sank in 11 minutes. Next day he went to sea on another boat.

Captain Demone, stocky, dark, muscular, is still in his 40’s, but has sailed since 1917 and commanded three schooners before he became master of the LeHave. He has that gift of all real fishing skippers an uncanny ability to find fish wherever they may be feeding.

The LaHave has a crew of 18 and each man is on duty 12 hours in 24, standing two six-hour watches. Usually the ship leaves Lunenburg Monday and returns Saturday. Her holds have a capacity of 300,000 pounds of fish and if she fills them quickly she heads for port sooner.

On the fishing grounds—which include Western Bank, Emerald Bank, Banquero, Sable Island, St. Pierre and the Grand Banks, at an average 180 miles from port — the days are dull and monotonous. The men spend their free hours sleeping, talking, playing interminable cribbage tournaments, and consuming prodigious quantities of food. All of them, from the captain down, eat at a common table in the kitchen galley. The meals are wonderful, thanks to red-haired St. Clair Crousse, who has been cooking on fishing vessels for 24 years. As the men eat, bracelets of brass chain jingle on their wrists. These aren’t jewelry. They are guards to keep the ice on the sleeves of oilskins from cutting the flesh.

The crew show their boredom in the way they welcome such incidents as that of the gull. The half-frozen bird, flying through a snowstorm, bumped against the forecastle and fell to the deck stunned. The hands practically forgot, their fishing in their eagerness to warm it, doctor it, feed it.

Occasionally the net brings up a bottlefish. In the air, this fish swells up until it looks like an inflated football bladder, and it sounds like a drum when it is tapped. This always provides a diversion.

For every couple of pounds of marketable fish like cod and sole, a trawler hauls a pound of “trash”— skate, dogfish and so forth.

These specimens are pitchforked over the rails. The skate, with their gaping mouths, their jellylike bodies, their bat wings and their rattails, are ugly monsters that can snap the heel off a rubber boot with no effort at all.

But fishermen don’t dislike them as much as dogfish, which belong to the shark family and also have sharp teeth and which, in addition, have hides of sandpaper roughness; that tear the net.

One of the trash fish often caught is a bloated nightmare with a mouth of grotesque size. A pink wormlike tentacle dangles from its upper lip— bait to lure smaller fish into its mouth as it lies on the bottom. It’s called a monk fish.

The main failing of the trawler is that it picks up everything that swims. The net, about 100 feet long and 80 to 100 feet wide at the mouth, scoops in the baby cod as well as those that are full-grown and the little fish, which have no commercial value, are crushed and killed. The rapacity of the trawler may, in time, destroy Canada’s Atlantic fisheries, unless wise conservation measures are adopted. Fishermen arc already concerned about this.

They point out that New England’s vast Yankee Banks have been so depleted that the fleets of Gloucester and Boston now range to Canadian and Newfoundland waters for their catches. Portuguese, Spanish and French trawlers ate no strangers to our Bluenose cod grounds.

It is probable that Canada and the U. S. will agree on a protective program for the whole Continental Shelf, on which all their eastern fisheries are located.

The kingpin of Nova Scotia’s fish trade these days is brisk, dynamic Ralph P. Bell of Halifax, who was Canada’s wartime director-general-of aircraft production. Soon after he left Ottawa there were reports that he was rushing about his native province holding mysterious conferences. In September, 1945, it was announced that he had amalgamated 25 of the chief fishing concerns as National Sea Products, with a capitalization of $4.5 millions.

“I’ve had the idea ever since I was first, interested in fishing,” he told me. And that was quite a while ago. Because, as a boy, Ralph Bell disappeared, was found baiting hooks on a fishing schooner and was chased back to school by a Bluenose father who was secretly proud that his son had inherited a love of the sea.

Some vessel owners describe NSP as a “monopoly” and an “octopus.” Bell laughs at this and says his organization is just what the coast needed-—and most Nova Scotians seem to agree.

Formerly, many small companies engaged in cutthroat tactics which drove prices—and wages and profits—down and down. NSP can bargain for reasonable prices has the resources to hold its big stocks in storage when the market slumps temporarily, and can pump capital into processing plants, and up-to-date ships like the LaHave.

Cod Capital

Able, polished Ralph Bell contends he is the best friend the so-called “independents” have, since they benefit from NSP’s policy of preventing price collapses by intelligent marketing.

“We can’t undersell them,” he says, “because a large operator can’t afford to undersell shoestring operators. Nor are we in any sense a monopoly. Lunenburg is the only place where NSP has no competition.”

Lunenburg, “cod capital” of Nova Scotia, is of course a factor to be reckoned with in Atlantic fishing.

A town of 3,000, about 65 miles south of Halifax, it is strung along a hillside overlooking the blue Atlantic. It was founded by 200 German and Swiss families in 1751 and their dependents still speak with an unmistakable but rather pleasant accent.

Even their architecture has an Old-World flavor and their houses, set. among neatly trimmed lawns and shrubbery, are ornately decorated and brightly painted. Ox teams plod through the streets.

Of the 3,000 population, more than 600 go to sea, for Lunenburg is the home port of North America’s greatest deep-sea fishing fleet.

Jubilee Square is well up on the hillside. From it you can look over the rooftops at the huge fish sheds that border the water front. Beyond the sheds, if the fleet is in, you can see the masts of the schooners in the harbor, rising like trees in the forest.

Once, among them, you could single out the masts of the Bluenose, the undefeated North Atlantic champion. But the Bluenose is gone now, sold to American owners who lost her on a reef off Haiti. Angus Walters, her famous captain, has settled down as a dairy proprietor.

Blossoms for the Banks

The Lunenburg district lands 50 million to 70 million pounds of cod and sole annually and pays for it with a heavy toll of human life. Almost every family has made its sacrifice to the Atlantic and, each October, all Lunenburgers gather in Jubilee Square for the Seamen’s Memorial Service at which a preacher reads the Roll of the Dead—a list of the men lost at sea in the last year.

Then, with wreaths woven from the flowers of their own gardens, they follow the clergyman down through the town, down past the business section where every other merchant is a ship chandler, to the wharves. There the blossoms are heaped on the deck of a schooner bound for the fishing banks to scatter the wreaths on the waves that toss over unmarked graves.

The most tragic year was 1926, when five ships and 125 men were lost. That is an appalling number when you remember that Lunenburg is so small. The average toll is 10 or 15 men. In 1943 it was 29

The hazards of a fisherman’s life are lessening gradually, but an odd reminder of the old dangers is the “catchy.” All schooners still list a “catchy” as one of the crew—a fellow whose job is to lean over the rail and give a hand to the men who have rowed their dories back to the ship and are tired, cramped and cold. In the old days so many were drowned when they fell in as they tried to scramble from dory to deck that the catchy was considered necessary. But today the men don’t put in such long hours and the schooner’s engine enables her to circle around picking them up. Only an occasional vessel bothers with a catchy now. But on those which don’t, he continues to be signed on—an imaginary individual whose pay is drawn and divided among the flesh and blood members of the crew.

Trawlers and draggers, safer than schooners, will cut down the casualties. They will also affect Lunenburgers in other ways. In future, fewer men will go fishing but they will bring in more fish. This will mean more shore employment in the processing plants.

The output per man on a trawler is much larger than on a schooner. This is reflected in the crew’s earnings, which rise and fall according to the gross value of a vessel’s catch. In 1946, the last year for which figures are available, the income of trawler crews was from $4,000 to $5,000 a man and that of schooner crews $2,000 to $3,000.

The contrast between the old and the new day in the Eastern fisheries is nowhere better demonstrated than at Caraquet. This is New Brunswick’s chief cod port, just as Lunenburg is Nova Scotia’s, but until comparatively recent times it exemplified all the worst features of the fishing industry.

A bleak, wind-swept town of 6,000 souls with a single street that winds along Bay Chaleur for 22 miles—often so near the water that spray whips across it in a gale—Caraquet was founded by Channel Islanders more than 200 years ago. Once it dominated the cod trade of British North America. Feudal overlords made fortunes—but the ordinary inhabitants were almost as downtrodden as slaves.

The overlords controlled the buying and selling of fish and owned all the retail establishments of the community. They made the fisherman wait so long for his pay that he was forced to purchase his food, clothing and household necessities on credit. Then, when the day of reckoning arrived, he could be allowed just enough to square his bill. The European head office of such a firm once wrote an angry letter to its Caraquet superintendent when it learned he had sold fishermen goods for cash. If this happened again he would be dismissed!

Salt and Sun

For years the Caraquet fisherman acçepted this anachronistic system as his forefathers had. He existed, but his living standands were pitifully low.

The overlords were traditionalists too and went or. curing cod in the age-old manner with salt and sun. But most people stopped eating salt cod. Finally, the last big markets were Italy and Spain — hot countries where humans require salt food to replace the salt which flows through their pores in sweat—but even these dwindled.

At Caraquet the schooners were hauled out on the beaches to bleach in the sun and there was starvation and suffering. Pierre put aside his accordion and sat forlornly on the stoop of his cottage. Life was too grim for music.

I visited Caraquet in the mid-30’s. Paint peeled from the houses. Broken windows were covered with boards or paper because there was no money for glass—and, at last, no credit. To give the overlords their due, they had, most of them, tried their best to keep the fisherfolk clad and fed and had filled their books with debts they had little hope of collecting. But the crisis was too much for them. It broke the hold of feudalism.

And, with the salt-cod traffic dying, quick-freezing entered the picture. The United States concern of Gorton-Pew established at Caraquet a plant which processed frozen fillets and similar products, all of them attractively packaged, easy to cook and welcomed by North American housewives.

Gorton-Pew paid the fishermen weekly, gave them free cold-storage lockers in which to lay away food for the winter, encouraged them to get on their feet. Meanwhile, the priests of Catholic Caraquet organized study groups and credit unions and taught the principles of the co-operative movement which has spread out through the Maritimes from St. Francis Xavier University at Antigonish, N.S.

Fishermen decided they might yet become free citizens who could educate their children and paint their homes and buy bathtubs and radios.

World War II threw the door of opportunity wide open. The Caraquet fisherman who was lucky to have an income of $200 for 1935 was earning 10 or 15 times that much by 1945. The glass was fixed in the windows, the houses shone with paint, and Pierre had to coax the young ones to turn off the radio so he could play the gay folk tunes of Acadia on his accordion.

In 1947 two small draggers were added to the Caraquet fleet. Its crew each earned from $100 to $200 a week through the summer and fall and captains earned up to $500 a week.

Up to a point the story of Caraquet is the story of dozens of coastal centres where salt cod was formerly the main product and the fish dealers owned the retail stores. Quick-freezing, the co-operative movement, the war— these have changed the whole outlook. New processing plants are sprouting like mushrooms all along the Maritime shores.

Deep-sea fishermen, like those of Lunenburg and Caraquet, regard themselves as the aristocrats of the industry. But their humble brothers, the thousands of inshore fishermen who ply their trade from motor launches and seldom venture more than 20 miles from shore, greatly outnumber them.

Worried Prosperity

The inshore fishermen harvest— in addition to ground fish such as cod, sole, haddock, hake—the mackerel, smelt, sardines, herring, shad, salmon and alewives. They tend the weirs and the lobster traps, rake the scallops and the oyster.

They too have done well for themselves in the last few years. From lobsters alone some have earned $4,000 to $5,000 a year. The sardine fishermen of New Brunswick’s Charlotte County shore, who supply the canneries of New Brunswick and neighboring Maine, are generally reputed to have grown rich. Cape Breton’s mackerel fishermen, while not affluent, are certainly not suffering.

Statistics reflect what has happened. The value of Nova Scotia’s yearly catch has jumped from a prewar level of $9 millions to nearly $30 millions; New Brunswick’s from $4 millions to $13 millions; and Prince Edward Island’s from $700,000 to around $3 millions.

Obviously, these are great days on the Atlantic fishing coast. Yet the 35,000 fishermen of the Maritime Provinces are haunted by a feeling of insecurity.

It was this, rather than any grievance about wages or working conditions, that lay behind the strike of Nova Scotia’s trawler and schooner crews in the first three months of 1947. They were led to believe that somehow, by striking and showing their strength, they could achieve security. But, sitting ashore for 90 days while their vessels were idle at the wharves, they realized they were accomplishing nothing and were simply giving fishermen of other countries a chance to grab their markets. In the end, the men bluntly told their union bosses they had had enough— too much, in fact—and turned up on the docks to ask if they could go back to sea, at the owners’ terms.

The whole sorry fiasco of the strike was symptomatic of a state of mind. Fishermen can’t forget that fishing was Canada’s most depressed industry in the two decades between wars. Each time a price slides down a fraction of a cent, they get the jitters.

“Unless there’s a war on,” a trawler hand told me, “there are too many fish in the sea. But if there weren’t lots of fish, we’d still be behind the eight ball. You can’t win.”

Maybe you can’t. But at least you can try. And today the east coast fishing industry is trying harder than it ever did before—striving breathlessly to emerge from the past and overtake the present.

It has accepted trawlers and draggers which, for years, were so bitterly opposed in Parliament that they were put under federal restrictions that almost erased them from the scene.

It has even adopted aircraft and is flying live lobsters to the United States.

And it is hoping that its new attitude, its new vessels, its new processing plants and its new products will prevent any return of the dismal 1920’s and 1930’s. *