End of the silver harvest


“Nobody eats sardines anymore.” That’s what a retired fish marketer told me a few years ago. Tastes change. But the story about the collapse of the herring fishery deserves a closer look.

A few weeks ago I got a call from my editor telling me that a reader wanted to talk to me. Jim wanted to talk about herring fishery, so we agreed to meet and talk about possibly writing a story. But where to start? He loaned me a couple of books.

The most insightful of the two was ‘Silver Harvest’ a picture book produced by the Fundy Weir Fishermen’s Association in 1986. It shows the state of the herring industry at that time, and documents the history of the fishery on the Bay of Fundy.

The driving engines of the herring industry from the late 1800s to the 1940s were the weirs. By 1932 there were 596 weirs on or near Passamaquoddy Bay—this according to the old map on Jim’s wall. He told me families with a share in a productive weir could afford comfortably raise and educate their kids. A lucky few became wealthy. But the advent of large purse-seiners from the 1960s onward changed all that. The weirs became unproductive and few remain. The rest are skeletons scattered around the Fundy coast.

From the 1980s on, old weir licences were sold to the aquaculture industry, with salmon cages replacing them as the dominant feature on the waterscape. As with the herring industry, the aquaculture industry grew and then consolidated. Today, Connors Brothers and Cooke Aquaculture are the leading fish producers in New Brunswick. Connors, the sardine giant, is now owned by U.S.-based Bumble Bee Foods. Both are global companies serving a global market.

Ironically, salmon farming operations depend on fishmeal, a product that can come from anywhere in the world, and made from any fish similar to herring. In the decades after World War 2 the Atlantic herring industry produced millions of tonnes of fishmeal, most of it used to fertilize farmers’ fields. So in a bold move we’ve redirected our declining wild ocean resources from land back to the sea. Brilliant.

Greg Thompson of Dipper Harbour, NB is just one concerned fisherman. “They [scallops, groundfish, herring] have declined so much you can’t make a living as a ground-fisherman or a herring fisherman. They are no longer stand-alone fisheries. If lobster landings drop abruptly, then the economy of the fishing communities will be ‘decimated,’” Thompson said in a Gulf of Maine Times article last year. That doesn’t bode well for the future.

Much earlier, in the Silver Harvest book of 1986, Thompson made the connection between the growing international presence of purse-seining ships and the decline of the herring fishery. “I presume that one caused the other. There used to be a lot of fish caught along this shore. The seiners came in here all the time catching herring. Sixty-eight [1968] was the last time we caught herring here in the spring.“ The spring catch was an important indicator, as the seiners were only allowed to fish in winter—the winter haul clearly having a dire effect on the spring fishery.

Silver Harvest was sitting on my coffee table when Walter Kozak dropped by. He picked it up, opened it to the Preface section and pointed to his own name on the first page. He’d been one of the people responsible for its publication. His group wanted to document the industry before the oldtimers died. On the cover was a photo of Walter’s own weir, and his men, David Garnett, Harold Earle and Stephen Lord working from Walter’s boats hauling in a heavy load of silver fish from his weir. Walter was proud of the photo and went on to say that, despite his best efforts, he’d managed to lose $150,000 in the herring business.

And it’s a business. Today’s Atlantic Canadian herring catch is about 100,000 tonnes a year. But just how many fish is that? Well, there are about 250 herring in a cubic foot. A cubic foot of fish, a little lighter than the weight of water, weighs about 25 kilograms. So there are 40 cubic feet of fish (1000 kg ÷ 25 kg) in a metric tonne. Doing the math (40 x 250), there are 10,000 herring in a tonne. That’s 1,000,000,000—one billion—individual herrings caught every year in Atlantic Canada. At least legally by Canadians.

International purse-seiners fish nearby, too, especially on Georges Bank to the south, the spawning ground for Bay of Fundy herring.

Of course, Canadians never fished Georges Bank off the U.S. coast—officially. But one source confided that Campobello fishermen in the 1960s were fishing Georges and selling fish “over the side” to Russian and Polish seiners for on-the-spot cash which was then banked in the U.S. to hide any trace of the deals in Canada. The practice was said to continue for years. Truth or rumour, who knows?

But that was then. Today, the Connors Brothers plant in Blacks Harbour is the last sardine cannery in North America. One wonders how long that, too, is gone.


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