Ten Books to Contextualize Canadian Fisheries

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By Andrew Watson, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Sean Kheraj


Blessing of the fishing fleet, Lamèque, 1906. Source: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. Reference number: P18-220. Click image to be brought to the archival site itself!

Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

The fifth episode in the series looked at the state Canada’s freshwater and ocean fisheries. We spoke with Dean Bavington, Stephen Bocking, Douglas Harris, Will Knight, and Liza Piper about the history of Canada’s fisheries. We had a particularly interesting conversation that covered a wide spectrum of fisheries history and included a description of the major transformations of fisheries since Confederation.

Nature’s Past Episode 35: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part V – Fisheries, Regulation, and Science

Here are ten books that contextualize Canadian fishereis:

Bavington, Dean. Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010

Using the context of the North Atlantic cod fishery collapse in 1992 as the basis for raising questions about government regulation and scientific management of resources, Bavington tackles the tension between environmental decline and human control of the natural world. Scientific expertise and authority, along with neoliberalism and special interest policies, replaced local knowledge with market imperatives. Unable to reconcile those imperatives with ecological realities, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans tried repeatedly to devise regulations that would generate maximum sustainable yields. By placing emphasis on rationality, however, attempts at making dynamic ecosystems predictable rested on flawed logic, and did nothing to avert the collapse of the cod fishery.

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

While this book deals exclusively with the Great Lakes, Bogue touches on many of the themes that studies on saltwater fisheries deal with as well, including commodification, science, and policy. Bogue argues that an absence of regulation during the nineteenth century, at the same time as new technologies made it easier to harvest fish, resulted in a pattern of exploitation that ultimately undermined the fisheries economy by destroying the stocks. By taking a transborder approach, this book reveals that efforts to address declining fish stocks were dealt with very differently by the two countries, eight states, and one province that bordered the Great Lakes.

Gough, Joseph. Managing Canada’s Fisheries: From Early Days to the Year 2000. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2008.

Gough examines changes to Canada’s fisheries primarily from the perspective of government and politics. This approach provides insight into the ways successive regulatory regimes and state management have facilitated increasingly intensive exploitation while at the same time appealing to science and best practices. Although social and cultural aspects are given less attention, the organization of the book reveals that government influence of fisheries became more nuanced and bureaucratic over time. Informed mainly by work done by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, this book focuses much more on Atlantic commercial fisheries than it does on the Pacific, freshwater, recreational, or indigenous fisheries.

Harris, Douglas. Fish, Law and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

In this comprehensive study of the legal history of Aboriginal fishing in British Columbia, Douglas Harris explores how colonial laws displaced Aboriginal laws during the early twentieth century. By demonstrating how colonizers (the canning industry, for example) benefitted from restrictive laws and licensing, Harris argues that the management and regulation of fisheries did not allocate access neutrally. Although regulation impeded First Nation fishing, Aboriginal fishermen resisted the state through the market economy, wage labour and politics. Harris makes it clear that colonial laws could be, and were, contested. Colonization was not a straightforward process.

Koenig, Edwin C. Cultures and Ecologies: A Native Fishing Conflict on the Saugeen-Bruce Peninsula. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

This book provides the context for the 1993 Fairgrieve court decision (R. v. Jones and Nadjiwon) to award the Saugeen and Ojibway First Nations priority over all other groups to fisheries off the coast of the Bruce Peninsula, as well as the on-going negotiations regarding rights, jurisdiction and management. Exploring the social, economic and ecological changes wrought by colonization and the imposition of the state, Koenig reveals how white interests in governance, conservation and commercial exploitation combined to reshape the way indigenous peoples related to Great Lakes fisheries. By taking an anthropological approach, Koenig provides the indigenous perspective in addition to archaeological and documentary evidence.

Newell, D. and R. Ommer. Fishing Places, Fishing People: Traditions and Uses in Canadian Small-scale Fisheries. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Unlike many other studies on fisheries in Canada, this collection of papers focuses on changes that have occurred to localized fisheries and the communities of people who depended on them. The role of the state, commercial enterprise and system-wide ecological change provide the broader context within which case studies from across Canada unfold. By acknowledging the ways these larger forces influenced shared histories at the local level, these papers reveal how particular communities experienced those forces differently. Fishing culture is given as much attention in this collection as fishing economy, and particular emphasis is placed on the debate around private versus common rights.

Parsons, L.S. Management of Marine Fisheries in Canada. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada and Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 1993.

Coming on the heels of the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992, this study commissioned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans represents the first scholarly attempt to explain why the fishery went from underdeveloped to overcapacity in twenty-five years. While acknowledging that government attempts to manage and regulate the fishery had failed, Parsons lists a variety of social, economic, political, and environmental variables that combined to frustrate attempts at preventing the collapse. In identifying the failures of both government and industry to prevent the collapse, this report informed much subsequent research on the need to balance commercial enterprise with ecological systems.

Rose, Alex. Who Killed the Grand Banks?: The untold story behind the decimation of one of the world’s greatest natural resources. Mississauga: John Wiley and Sons, 2008.

A fairly standard narrative about the worst effects of humanity’s rapacious appetite for natural resources, Rose takes the long view of the exploitation of the cod fishery of the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. Starting with the earliest fishermen during the sixteenth century, the book proceeds to outline subsequent decisions made by the Canadian government and commercial fishing industry that led to the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992. Rose provides an analysis that characterizes the collapse as the product of a myopic tragedy of the commons, and a catalyst for renewed attention to fisheries management research and activism.

Wadewitz, Lissa K. The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.

By examining the history of fishing in the Salish Sea, Wadewitz brings together an analysis of the effect of colonialism on indigenous people, the politicization of coastal waters, the influence of new technology, and the commodification of nature. By juxtaposing the way indigenous peoples managed their coastal fisheries with the way the U.S. and Canada regulated and managed distinct commercial spheres, this book reveals that nature does not always conform to state-mandated political, economic, and social abstractions of space. The effect was not complete, however, as Wadewitz shows that many examples of fish banditry contested these official jurisdictions.

Young, Nathan and Ralph Matthews. The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada: Activism, Policy, and Contested Science. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Young and Matthews trace the rise to prominence of aquaculture in Canada (shellfish, fresh water, and particularly salmon), and explore the impacts this industry has had on the environment, human health, resource rights, and rural development over the past twenty-five years. Situating the controversy in both a larger global context as well as the local, this book takes a sociological analysis of the role of relatively new science in shaping practice, policy and public opinion, while at the same time revealing the ways citizen activism has been mobilized to counter and defend the dominant narratives provided by experts.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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4 thoughts on “Ten Books to Contextualize Canadian Fisheries

  1. Corey

    A few other books that focus on the Atlantic fishery worth looking at are Richard Apostle and Gene Barrett eds. Emptying their Nets: Small Capital and Rural Industrialization in the Nova Scotia Fishing Industry (U of T 1992) and James Candow and Carol Corbin eds. How Deep is the Ocean? Essays on Canada’s Atlantic Fishery (UCCB Press 1997) and Miriam Wright, A Fishery For Modern Times: The State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934-1968 (OUP 2001).

  2. Stephen Bocking (@BockingStephen)

    This is a great list. Here’s two more suggestions:

    Evenden, Matthew, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Great book for placing a major fishery in its wider environmental (and political and scientific) context.

    Hubbard, Jennifer, A Science on the Scales: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939 (University of Toronto Press, 2006). Good study of the formative period of Canadian fisheries science.

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